A community with heart

Some of the Colonial Manor resident who welcomed a family of strangers during their time of need: Patti Price, Dr. Sharon Leonard, Joe Honeycutt, Troy Winn, Suzanne Honeycutt, Robin Ashourian, Judge Charles Cofer and Matthew Price (front).

Colonial Manor residents show charity begins in the neighborhood

Since Suzanne and Joe Honeycutt moved to their friendly little house with the yellow door that overlooks the Duck Pond in San Marco, they have put an entirely new spin on the old adage ‘charity begins at home.’ In their case, the proverb might be better expressed, ‘charity begins in the neighborhood.’

When they first moved to San Marco, Suzanne noticed the neighborhood was the type of place were “people only waved to each other from the driveway and perhaps knew each other’s names, but they didn’t know each other’s lives.”

Having previously lived on the Main Line in Philadelphia where the houses were large and the neighborhood was not cohesive, Suzanne said it was important to her to get know her neighbors. Upon moving to her home on San Jose Boulevard, she set out to convert the neighborhood into a place where, instead of being polite on the surface, people knew each other “intimately” and treated each other like family. Through this effort, the Honeycutts may have also transformed the area surrounding San Marco’s Colonial Lake into one of the most charitable neighborhoods in Jacksonville.

“In Philadelphia all the lots were so big, no one knew their neighbors and the people were so rich they didn’t care,” Suzanne explained. So when the Honeycutts refurbished their house on San Jose Boulevard it was with the idea of extending hospitality to the residents who lived around them.

The Honeycutts’ Colonial Manor home includes an oversized deck, which easily accommodates 50 to 75 guests, and an attached guest house, complete with kitchen, Murphy bed, and a bathroom with wallpaper reminiscent of an English village and a pedestal sink shaped like a bicycle. Guests are always welcome, for a day, a week or months at a time if need be, said Suzanne.

In order to get to know their neighbors, the couple began hosting monthly potluck suppers sending out invitations to more than 100 who live in close proximity to their home near the Duck Pond. Said to be “the closest thing to a church supper,” the potlucks require no RSVPs. Folks just show up, bring a dish and have a great time.

Soon a residential phone tree was established as well as a Colonial Manor Angie’s List so neighbors could communicate and ask each other for recommendations about household help, tradesmen or babysitting. Also, Joe was instrumental in setting up a neighborhood watch.

“Suzanne is the cheerleader of the neighborhood,” said Angie Cosper, a close friend. “She really is one of a kind, such a special person with a gift for hospitality.”

As they originally intended, the Honeycutts often share their guest house with friends and the friends of friends who need a place to stay while visiting Jacksonville. Methodist missionaries have been welcome there, and on a friend’s recommendation, Suzanne offered the guest house to an Arizona couple she had never met who needed a safe place to stay while adopting a baby.

However, it was in the summer of 2015, when Brookwood Road resident Susan White received an urgent call from her daughter who lives in south Florida, that Suzanne’s extended family of neighbors became more intimately involved with her hospitality.

EmilyMay Serafim rings the bell to commemorate the end of her treatment at the University of Florida Proton Institute.

EmilyMay Serafim rings the bell to commemorate the end of her treatment at the University of Florida Proton Institute.

White’s daughter, Suzanne Martin, wanted to help her childhood friend, Pamela Boone Renz-Serafim, find a place to stay while Renz-Serefim’s daughter, EmilyMay, received treatment at the UF Health Proton Therapy Institute in Jacksonville. The Renz-Serafim family was traveling from North Carolina, and needed a place large enough to accommodate Pamela and her two daughters, then 16-year-old EmilyMay and 14-year-old Carly, both of whom are homeschooled.

EmilyMay, a beautiful teenage girl who had everything going for her until she began to suffer from painful headaches, had been diagnosed with Stage C Pediatric Esthesioneuroblastoma. She is one of only five known cases since 1949 to be stricken with this rare cancer. Caring for her daughter, who is currently fighting for her life in a North Carolina hospital, Renz-Serafim was unable to be reached directly and provided comments for this story through Facebook.

“Pam was doing everything by herself. Because her daughter is so sick, she can’t work and she struggles financially big time,” explained Martin. “She has zero support from her family and is relying on God literally.”

With no rooms available at Ronald McDonald House, which at the time was in the process of building its new $12.5 million addition, Martin booked her friend into a discounted room at the Hampton Inn on the Southbank and then enlisted her mother to help find her more suitable, and hopefully less expensive, lodgings.

“My daughter asked if I knew anybody in Jacksonville that would have a place to stay and hoped it was not all the way out at the beach, which is a long way to downtown Jacksonville hospitals,” said White.

After receiving her daughter’s call, White immediately took to the phone tree contacting several neighbors, including Brian Babcock. When Babcock received word, he phoned Patti Price, who came up with the idea to use the Honeycutt guest house. She quickly called Suzanne for permission.

“We were at a wedding in Cashiers, North Carolina,” recalled Suzanne, noting she did not plan to return for a week. “She called me at 10:30 at night, and when I asked her why she was calling me so late, she said the chances of me saying yes were greater that way. I told her I would think about it and call her back. Then I told Joe about it. I said, ‘I don’t know if my heart can handle this. What if something happens to that little girl while she’s staying with us?’ But Joe said, ‘This is the reason we built the guest house,’ and that was that.”

Suzanne knew the Murphy bed would not be adequate to accommodate three guests, but Price had a ready answer; she and her husband, David, would bring over a spare twin bed and linens, which they had in storage.

“We truly believed it was divine intervention that I had decided to redo my office that summer. The bed was in the closet,” said Price. “There were a lot of moving parts to make this a seamless transition for this little family that had never been to Jacksonville before to come to a place where they knew no one. It was a phenomenal coming together.”

After speaking again with Price, Suzanne called on her favorite neighborhood dog sitters, high school seniors Jesse Evans and Christopher Prattos. Since she would not be home, she directed the boys to go to the guest house to help David Price set up the bed, empty the drawers and ensure everything was in tip-top shape for the new arrivals.

“I called Chris and Jesse and said ‘I want you to carry their luggage and to talk with them.’ I knew the two teenage girls might feel more comfortable if two teenage boys were around to talk to,” Suzanne said. “The boys answered the girls’ questions and told them this is the best neighborhood in Jacksonville,” she said, adding, “It may not be the prettiest, but it is the one with the most heart.”

“I wish I could capture for you the way those boys were when they were there,” said Price. “They were so kind. They told the girls about the neighborhood and asked them to feel free to call them if they needed anything,” she said.

Meanwhile, White and Price headed to the grocery store to stock the refrigerator with food. “I didn’t know Susie was going and she didn’t know I was going so we ended up meeting at the guest house with all these groceries, which was perfect,” said Price.

After Renz-Serafim and her daughters arrived, word spread fast that the family might need additional food during their stay. In the weeks that followed, Kim Alexander and a host of other neighbors kept a cooler on the porch outside the guest house door stocked with homemade dinners, refreshing drinks and other culinary essentials. “They never had to eat out unless they chose to,” said Price.

The neighbors also offered to do laundry, which Renz-Serafim refused. “Some of the neighbors would have done her laundry, but she did not want that to happen,” said Price, adding most likely she used the Honeycutts’ washer and dryer.

Because EmilyMay and her sister don’t watch much television, they were interested in stocking up on library books. Unable to get a library card because they were not Jacksonville residents, White loaned them hers.

Meanwhile, Price, a teacher at San Jose Episcopal Day School, learned that Carly loved to do “busy” work, so she dropped off 14 handcrafted books she needed assembled to hand out to parents during the school’s open house. “I figured I could do this, but since Carly enjoyed this kind of thing I let her do it. I left her a sample, and she made 14 little books for me,” Price said.

When one of the girls had a birthday, the neighbors brought over cake and balloons. Understanding her daughter, Kendall, was close in age to the Serafim girls, Angie Cosper often visited for a few minutes to help give the teens a sense of normalcy.

“We wanted them to feel like they were part of the neighborhood. When you are going through something like this it is so isolating,” she said. The Cospers brought over little treats and dropped off puzzles and books, but still wanted to do more. Angie had special sweatshirts made for both girls with their monograms on them, which, she said was the height of fashion for girls in that age group at the time.

“That treatment is a real roller coaster. We wanted to do something for them that was a real gift. When we brought (the sweatshirts) over it was one of those moments. The mom immediately let me know they liked them. I think God shows up in those little moments. They were the kind of people who appreciate everything,” Angie said.

Meanwhile, when White learned Renz-Serafim had no handicapped parking pass and was parking in the far reaches of the Proton Therapy Institute’s lot while EmilyMay went for treatment, she enlisted her neighbor, Judge Charlie Cofer, to help secure the needed credential.

It is humbling and giving. It makes you want to help out, too, because they are such selfless people. It reminds you of what a true neighborhood and community are supposed to be about.

— Dr. Sharon Leonard

“While judges are restricted from giving legal advice, they can all often provide guidance to people within the community on where to turn to find solutions for their problems, particularly when it comes to dealing with governmental agencies,” said Cofer. “If everyone in the community were active in helping others in need, it would be a much better world.”

Also helping out was Dr. Sharon Leonard, a physician at Nemours Children’s Specialty Care, who lives down the street from the Honeycutts. She often visited the guest house to take EmilyMay’s vital signs and even headed over in her pajamas after being summoned by an anxious Renz-Serafim in the middle of the night.

“I was really happy to help out, and if I brought them some comfort and peace by going over there, that was great. It was very rewarding to feel needed,” Leonard said. “Even though I am not the kind of physician who usually treats cases like hers, I went over to do an overall evaluation and assessment. It was good to give the mother some comfort. Truly the people who went overboard were the Honeycutts, but I did a little bit,” she said.

In a Facebook post listed July 13, 2016, a year after she began her stay in Jacksonville, Renz-Serafim expressed gratitude for the folks she lovingly refers to as “San Marco Angels.”

“We were so blessed by the greatness of strangers who loved on us unconditionally providing a place of sweet refuge for the girls and I,” she wrote. “The folks from the Duck Pond will always hold such a special place in our hearts, especially those crazy Honeycutts for opening their beautiful and serene cottage to the likes of us! There was such a peace sitting out on the deck each morning, feeding the turtles and ducks! The entire community was incredible, seeing every need was met!”

“I have never seen such generosity as the Honeycutts have displayed toward our little community,” Leonard continued. “It is humbling and giving. It makes you want to help out, too, because they are such selfless people. It reminds you of what a true neighborhood and community are supposed to be about.”

In fact, although her neighbors downplayed their role in assisting the family, Suzanne begged to differ. “That house has a life of its own,” she said. “All I had to do was send out a quick email and it was done. Joe and I never felt like we were hung out to dry. All we did was provide the space.”

Expected to stay only three weeks, Renz-Serafim and her daughters remained at the Honeycutt house nearly three months.

“It was the perfect place for them to stay. It would have been hard if they had to be in a hotel room because they wouldn’t have been able to leave if EmilyMay was sleeping,” said Price. “This was such a nice time of peace and comfort for them. It’s such a safe neighborhood. We tried to embrace them and make them part of the community while they were here to give them a sense of normalcy,” she said.

White agreed, noting the Honeycutts’ expansive deck overlooking the duck pond provided a serene atmosphere for the family to spend its down time. “It couldn’t have been more perfect for what they have gone through,” she said, adding that, with her immune system compromised, EmilyMay could not tolerate a lot of visitors. “The other daughter had no quality of life. She couldn’t do things with people because if she got sick, she might give it to her sister.”

Keith Hutchinson, who along with his wife, Troy Winn, also assisted the family, summed it up the situation this way. “The daughter needed treatment. If it wasn’t for Joe and Suzanne doing this, they would not have been okay. That’s what this neighborhood does. We love each other and we do things for each other. Enough said.”