Wake County

Burgetta Wheeler: Wake sheriff uses phone to ensure people are well

Kitty, 89, puts the phone down after listening to a pre-recorded message from Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison's well-check program. The office calls her every afternoon between 3:00 and 3:20 p.m. to make sure she's OK.
Kitty, 89, puts the phone down after listening to a pre-recorded message from Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison's well-check program. The office calls her every afternoon between 3:00 and 3:20 p.m. to make sure she's OK. srocco@newsobserver.com

Ask Kitty her age, and she’ll tell you she’s working on 90. With aunts who lived to 98 and 100, the Garner woman has every intention of seeing the year 2022.

Hoping to help get her there is Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison.

Every day between 3 and 3:20 p.m., an automatic phone call from the sheriff’s office in downtown Raleigh rings in Kitty’s well-kept doublewide. If Kitty doesn’t pick up, the system tries again. Let a second call go unanswered, and a deputy is on the way to make sure Ms. Kitty (whose last name I am omitting for safety reasons) is OK.

“It’s a wonderful, wonderful program,” Kitty says from her teal recliner, surrounded by her framed, cross-stitched creations. “They check on me every day. You read where people have fallen, and it’s a week later they’re found. That won’t happen to me.”

It was after his mama died and he was calling his daddy back in Martin County two or three times a day that Harrison started wondering how many elderly people had no one to check on them. When he became sheriff in 2002, he looked for ways to be that somebody for Wake’s shut-ins and elderly singles.

The resulting Citizens Well-check Program began in July 2003 with 13 participants. This year, the sheriff’s office is checking in with 74 people from New Hill to Zebulon.

“They have called me in the winter time when they’re saying we’re going to have a blizzard,” Kitty says. “They call to make sure I’m all right and have medicines and I have food.”

But the outreach involves more than phone calls. Every year at this time, volunteers at the sheriff’s office make Easter baskets and deliver them to the folks on the phone list. In the fall, Layton’s Catering donates a picnic. And at Christmas, deputies pick up the participants from their homes and take them to the Raleigh Christmas parade, where they can ride on a trolley.

“Once at Christmas,” Harrison recalls, “this 92-year-old lady walked in the back door, a shuffling thing, and said, ‘I didn’t think I had anything to live for until today.’ That made it all worth it to me.”

Kitty, for one, has plenty to live for.

Every Tuesday, the New Jersey native is at the Garner Senior Center donating her time and talents to “On the Mend,” a group that makes 300 to 400 dolls, quilts, baby hats and the like for hospitals, nursing homes or the domestic violence agency Interact each month.

On Wednesdays, she’s back at the center for her Meals on Wheels lunch.

Whether Kitty ventures out on Thursdays in her 1989 Ford Taurus depends on the availability of a dominoes partner.

On Fridays, she’s running the entertainment show at the senior center, leading 24 card-players in her special “hand and foot” version of canasta.

The petite woman who went from being a solderer at RCA to working in Whitman’s candy factory to helping the war effort at the Campbell’s soup factory during World War II shows no signs of solidifying into that recliner.

About 15 years ago, Kitty moved down to be close to her son, a retired IBMer who lives in North Raleigh. Her daughter, 65, lives in Ohio. Four granddaughters beam from pictures hanging over Kitty’s couch, and her clear blue eyes glow as she enumerates their accomplishments.

Her loved ones contact her, certainly, but the routine of the well-check program makes her feel safe.

“I talk to people who live by themselves, and some people say, ‘I have my sister, I have my son’,” she says. “I say, ‘That’s fine, but do they call you every day?’ I know that phone’s going to ring every single day to see that I’m all right.”

At precisely 3:05 p.m., Kitty’s phone rings.

“This is Sheriff Donnie Harrison. Please press any number to answer this call.”

Kitty pulls the phone away from her ear and pushes a button.

“Thanks for letting us know you’re OK. Have a nice day.”

Or, in Kitty’s case, have at least 3,650 more of them.

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