Atlanta, GA,
15:22 PM

More than a Meal

Dinners and brunches allow patients and families to make connections and build community.

Most Tuesday evenings at Shepherd Center, just in time for dinner, the spinal cord injury therapy gym on the fourth floor transforms. Therapy tables are covered with fresh sheets that double as tablecloths. Environmental services staff set up a long row of tables and chairs. Volunteers place flowers on some tables and fill others with the food they brought – one night, it might be barbecue; another, tacos; and still another, lasagna. Patients and families gather in the buffet line, and everyone enjoys a meal together.

The dinners were born in 2016 from the hope of Anna Elmers, M.D., to help patients connect and build community.

“When people are going through this catastrophic event, they need to know they're not alone, and not just the patients, but the families need to know they're not alone,” Dr. Elmers explains. “It's all about community and giving people more support.”

Dr. Elmers pitched her idea to Renee Houle, who participated in outpatient physical therapy at Shepherd and was eager to give back after discharge. Renee accepted the challenge — and in August 2016, she and a friend, Joan Marie Hyland, worked with Dr. Elmers to hold the first family dinner and followed the first with many more.

It was pretty simple. We didn’t think twice about it. We would cook the meals, lay them out, and put out tables and chairs. Then we’d let everybody know dinner was ready. It was great to see how much it helped the patients and families to have each other, to talk about what they were going through and how to solve problems they were facing. And it gave us a chance to sit down with them and learn their stories — all the heartbreak and all the good stuff that happened through them being there,” Renee recalls.

COVID safety precautions stopped family dinners for a time, but recently, Jennifer Heffron, engagement coordinator for Shepherd Center Foundation, revived the tradition, with groups volunteering to make or order meals, set up, and serve. After everyone’s plate is full, volunteers or staff lead the dinner guests in introductions and an icebreaker question — asking guests to share things like a favorite movie, hidden talent, or someone who inspires them. Introductions are sometimes followed by friendly — or heated — competition in a game of Bingo — with a bag of much sought-after prizes.

“The dinners are super fun,” Jennifer says. “I’m so charged up after each one of them. People are so kind to each other. It really makes a difference in people’s day.”

Courtney Alderman, a Shepherd patient, says the dinners and games give patients something to look forward to. And even though he technically hasn’t won at Bingo yet, “I smiled very hard one night, and the person who won gave me her gift card,” he laughs.

The dinners make for a fulfilling experience for volunteers as well.

Ben Bunyard, a project executive for Choate Construction, has hosted several family dinners with teams from Choate and groups affiliated with designing and constructing the new Marcus Center for Advanced Rehabilitation on Shepherd’s main campus.

“One of the best parts is getting to experience the interaction of the patients and the families.

Everybody there is so genuine, and they open their hearts. It seems like everything is left at the door, and everybody comes together as one family, and I've never experienced that before. It’s heartwarming,” Ben says.

Alana Shepherd, Shepherd Center co-founder and chairman, often joins the group for conversation and fellowship.

“It's an important way for our volunteers to have direct contact with our patients.

And I think it's very rewarding for them. Sometimes, their children come, or a scout troop or sports team will volunteer. The kids love scrambling around, serving drinks, or helping carry patients' plates to the table. They run Bingo and give out the prizes — even the very young kids help out.

“For the patients themselves, it's exciting to see them go from their first dinner, where they're a little bit shy, to the other dinners, when they’ve gotten to know people, they open up and realize it's a social occasion for them. They get to know people and have a real bond that is beyond their therapy expectations,” she says. “Their children attend and see that they are not alone in the family journey,” Alana adds.

Family brunches for caregivers of patients with an acquired brain injury (ABI) are a recent off-shoot of family dinners. Shepherd staff chose a Saturday brunch to give patients and families something to look forward to on what is often a quiet day.

After the first brunch, a former brain injury patient and his wife, eager to provide much-needed support to caregivers, volunteered to host more.

The quarterly brunches are open to caregivers and dietarily approved patients. And the response, especially from caregivers, has been one of gratitude.

“Caregivers come with their loved ones or on their own, but across the board, the reaction we're getting is, ‘Thank you for thinking of us,’” says Lauren Tucker, grateful patient and grants senior manager.

For more information about hosting a family dinner, contact Jennifer Heffron, at 

Written by Ruth Underwood



About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.