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Giving Till it Hurts: Brenda and Robert Harrold

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MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (WMOT)  --  It’s a pleasure to have family and friends come for a stay, but it’s also true that it can be uncomfortable having someone living in your private space. The longer they stay, the more uncomfortable it gets.

Brenda and Robert Harrold have opened their Murfreesboro home to, not one, not two, but three adult men with special needs.

As a result, meal time is complicated in the Harrold household. Before Brenda and Robert can sit down to eat, they’ve got to meet the special meal-time needs of the men in their care: Archie, “Big” Mike, and Bryan.

“Archie’s a big eater,” Brenda explained. “He loves to eat, but he doesn’t know when to stop. He will keep eating if I keep giving it to him.”

Wheel-chair bound "Big Mike" is the newest member of the Harrold household. Brenda says he has health issues made worse by poor eating habits. She says he’d live on peanut butter and cold cereal if they’d let him.

“I’m just helping him make healthy choices,” Brenda said. “I took him to the grocery shopping yesterday just to show him different things that he can eat that can still be decent.”

Bryan, is the most difficult. He can’t feed himself and reflux problems make it hard for him to swallow. All of his meals have to be puréed in a blender. Even the liquids Bryan drinks have to be thickened to prevent choking.

“(It's) because he has GERDS, and GERDS is when he can’t swallow regular food. He can choke on it.,” she said.

Beyond meals there’s toileting, bathing, doctor’s visits, shopping, cleaning and a bottomless pile of dirty laundry. The Harrolds are also required to keep their charges active, both physically and mentally. A special treat for Big Mike is playing video games with Robert on the living room TV.

Caring for adults with special needs like Big Mike is made easier by the fact that the Harrold’s have backgrounds in medicine. Brenda has a nursing degree and worked for years in nursing homes. Robert is a Certified Nurse Assistant who’s worked in nursing homes and mental health facilities. Both were less than pleased with the level of care provided in those institutional settings.

“You know, experiencing staff that say ‘Well, I’m only getting paid $9 an hour…and I’m gone.’ You know what I’m sayin’?  They’re just showin’ up. They’re there, but they’re not there. So you just be like ‘Why am I even here,’” Robert asked.

When the Harrolds were offered a chance to use their own home to provide care for special needs adults, they jumped at the opportunity. The couple contracts with MillarRich LLC, a company that provides services to the special needs community using state and federal funds.

“When we brought them in our home, we can care for them in a way that they needed., it’s personal. We can pay attention to them,” he said.

The Murfreesoboro couple is paid to provide that care, but no amount of money can compensate for a job that’s 24/7/365. Sometimes, the men in their care even go on vacation with them.

The Harrolds say there’s never enough hours in the day and confess it’s difficult to find time for themselves. But they both insist what they do is worth the price paid.

“Feels good to take care of someone else other than myself. I give them a good life. It’s just rewarding to take care of someone else who needs someone to care for them,” Robert said.

“I always think about ‘What if that was my mother, or what if that was my sister or brother?’ It’s always…that’s just how I think,” Brenda continued.

The Harrold’s both say they learned to care for others at their parent’s feet. Robert was a pastor’s son and one of 17 children.

“She (Robert's mother) always taught us to love each other; take care of each other. It just started growing up; learning how to love right,” he said.

“My father and my mother always taught us ‘You gotta’ serve somewhere.' Everybody has a gift. Between you and God, He will reveal it to you one day if you will really ask,” Brenda said.

Perhaps most surprising of all, the Harrold’s willingness to go above and beyond by opening up their home really isn’t all that unique. The Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities says that, statewide, it now has 339 families caring for 436 individuals with special needs in their homes.

To hear more stories in this series, search WMOT.org on the phrase Giving Till it Hurts.

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