wasn't expecting a
family reunion when
she volunteered with
Sharp Lends a Hand.
Last Christmas, Elizabeth Ellison, a volunteer at Sharp McDonald Center (formerly Sharp Vista Pacifica), held an impromptu conference call with some of her eight siblings — all of whom “grew up with Sharp hospitals.” Over the phone and from all parts of the country, the family agreed that it was time to accept the worst; the holiday season marked another year, the fourth in a row, without any news from their oldest brother Paul.
After serving in the Army, Paul became a wanderer, but he always stayed in touch with his family. Sometimes several months might pass, but Paul was conscientious and good-hearted. He didn’t want anyone to worry. Elizabeth said that if she hadn’t heard from him in awhile, she knew he would check in at some point. “He would always call on his birthday,” she said. But then four long years went by without a word from Paul.
“The last time I saw him he was walking away from me in the library,” Elizabeth said. Working on a now-completed bachelor’s degree in psychology and pre-law, Elizabeth studied at the downtown San Diego Public Library. The library was a convenient location for Paul to visit his sister. He was staying at the St. Vincent de Paul shelter where he was enrolled in a work program designed to help him find employment that suited his skills and interests.
Intelligent, soft-spoken and with 5 years, 9 months and 20 days of military service under his belt, Paul seemed like a potentially ideal employee. But he couldn’t keep a job.
“I thought he was having a hard time getting a job, but he was having a hard time keeping a job,” Elizabeth said. And nobody understood why.
Looking back, Elizabeth believes she was asking the wrong questions. When Paul lost a job or maybe needed a little money, Elizabeth and the other siblings were happy to help, but they wanted to know why Paul didn’t stick with his work. Paul couldn’t explain and he felt embarrassed about needing help.
Coping with his growing embarrassment, Paul said good-bye to his sister and left the library to get back to his program. Elizabeth went back to studying. That’s when the years of unknowing began. Every three months or so, Elizabeth and one of her sisters, a private investigator, made the rounds. They called police stations, ran Paul’s social security number, cruised the streets and asked around.
Elizabeth is an active community volunteer and she hoped that some of her work with various outreach programs or her job with San Diego Head Start would put her in touch with someone who knew Paul. Not one of Elizabeth’s many community-resource contacts knew anything about Paul. Like the rest of the family, Elizabeth began to believe that when Paul walked out of the library that day four years ago, he disappeared for good.
Then, Elizabeth heard about Sharp Lends a Hand from her friend and volunteerism colleague, Robert Young, an employee at Sharp McDonald Center. Two years ago, Sharp HealthCare launched Sharp Lends a Hand, a community service initiative that mobilizes Sharp’s workforce — putting its 14,000 employees into the help-starved areas of the community where they are needed most.
Lends a Hand, as Sharp employees call the program, is not unlike a mass deployment of resource-rich and work-ready troops. Perhaps that’s why Operation Stand Down, a three-day retreat for homeless veterans, is an easy favorite when employees vote at the beginning of the year on the three projects they’d like to participate in.
In July, Robert invited Elizabeth to volunteer as one of the Sharp Lends a Hand “blue angels,” a name given by the homeless veterans who attended Operation Stand Down in the past to the more than 500 blue-shirted Sharp volunteers who helped with everything from security detail to personal shopping in the clothing tent to providing much needed medical and legal services.
At Operation Stand Down, Elizabeth and Robert were put on security detail, but there weren’t enough radios on hand. They were told they could walk around until two radios became available.
Elizabeth followed Robert through the maze of wide khaki and green canvas tents where vets talked, slept or simply enjoyed the shade, but she felt useless. She came to volunteer and she wanted to be put to work.
She looked at the faces of the men and women in the tents and she could see their need. A wiry man sat in a chair contemplating the ground. He looked up and caught Elizabeth’s eye, and in that second everything changed. Outside a canvas tent on a hot July day, the four years of not knowing came to an unhoped-for and happy end.
“Oh my god, Paul, it’s you,” Elizabeth said. She began to scream “It’s my brother! It’s my brother!” And then she started to cry.
Read Part II of Elizabeth Ellison’s miraculous reunion.