Dominican Sister of Hope Beth Jaspers entered the Dominican Sisters of the Sick Poor (now Dominican Sisters of Hope) in 1964. Since 1977, she has lived in Norton, Virginia, and has helped to start a number of social services in the community. Among them is Remote Area Medical (RAM), a free clinic for those in need, which will be available in Wise County this July 17-19.
Listen to Sister Beth's full interview, or read an edited version of it below.
Where were you born and when?
I was born in Cincinnati Ohio and I’m the youngest of five. I really grew up in Cincinnati, and then one of my friends knew the sisters. Did you ever hear of Dominicanettes?
Sister Bette Ann Jaster was a Dominicanette!
And I was, too, in Cincinnati. So that’s how I got to know the sisters.
How old were you when you started?
I was a junior Dominican so I think I started when I was twelve or thirteen. Then I stopped for a while but when I came on as a Dominican we did more. As a Dominican you went into their house and mostly cleaned.
Did you know at that point that you wanted to be a nurse?
I kind of figured I did. I worked for a year after I got out of high school and then I decided I didn’t want to be a secretary anymore. Then I went to Good Samaritan Nursing School, and after that I worked at Good Sam for two years. Still wasn’t a sister.
One of my good friends, Sister Francis Joseph, was working at Calvary Hospital in New York, and she asked me to come and work at Calvary Hospital. So I lived for a year in the Bronx and worked at Calvary and then I decided I was going to enter. I entered in 1964; this is my fiftieth year.
When did you know that you had a vocation?
I had two aunts that were Franciscan sisters and they always kept thinking and hoping that some of their nieces would become sisters, but I was the only one that did. It was mostly the people, the work of the Sick Poor. It was mostly their work that intrigued me.
Was it when you came to New York, or was it still when you lived in Cincinnati?
I had to come to New York to enter because that’s where the novitiate was. When I moved to New York, I kind of thought that I would enter, but I wasn’t sure. I thought living in New York for a while would be a good trial.
What did your parents say when you said you were going to become a sister?
My father was disappointed that I wasn’t becoming a Franciscan. But he said, ‘If that’s what you want to do!’ Mom was okay if I wanted to do it. She came to New York with me when I entered, and that was a big thing because that was her first plane ride. She really got excited about that.
So did you join the Dominicans because you wanted to be a nurse?
I joined because I wanted to take care of the poor, and I knew that I would become a nurse eventually if I joined the Sick Poor.
What was surprising about the convent?
There were eighteen of us when we entered and there were friendships among us. Even amidst all the rules and regulations we had some good times. Sister Beth in her early days
And then right away we stated working with the poor. We did home visits and took care of patients and stuff like that.
What was it like to work with the poor?
I’ve always worked with the poor. I always have. I admire their courage; I don't know if I would be able to keep on like so many of them have because there have just been such problems. I don't know if I would have the courage they have.
We’ve always stressed how important it is for education when we work with the people. In Appalachia, where I work and have worked since 1977, a lot of people never finished high school, so they never really saw the need for that. So we always encouraged the parents to really help the kids; we would help with school supplies because we wanted them to feel good about going to school. Our friends told us that it would cost $100 for them to buy all of their school supplies. When you’re on a fixed income, you don’t have that $100. So we would come up and we would buy notebooks, papers, pens, index cards. We would make appeals [for the money]. People have been very generous to us over the years.
What was your first ministry?
After being here [at Mariandale] then I went back to Cincinnati because my parents were older and I wanted to be close to them. We did home nursing in the Cincinnati area. And we had a home health agency so we had all of the rules and regulations; you had to get doctors’ orders and all of that.
That’s why, when Dominican Sister of Hope Margaret Flynn and I went to Appalachia, we decided that we were not going to become a home health agency because there would be too much paperwork. We were a nursing service, but not a home health agency. We had to use our own money and find ways to get our own support.
Why did you go down to Virginia?
It’s part of the Appalachian area. When I worked in Cincinnati, I became very familiar with the Appalachian culture. And Margaret had been in Tennessee and she had worked with the Appalachian people. We wanted to go to Appalachia.
Margaret traveled through a few states in the Appalachian area, and the only stipulation I had was that I wanted an indoor bathroom. We also wanted to be close to an airport to be able to keep in contact with the congregation. There was a hospital there and the Hospital Sisters were very welcoming to us. So that’s how we selected Norton, Wise County, Virginia.
What was it like when you first moved?
We were only there in the house that we were renting for three weeks when the flood of 1977 came. Margaret was in New York at a meeting. And I looked out the back window and thought, “I don’t remember the river being that close to the house.”
I went to a hotel in Kingsport and stayed there for a couple of days. Margaret came back from the meeting, and we went back to the house, and it had been flooded. We had to throw out a lot of things. But the neighbors came and helped us pull out the rugs and empty out the house, and then we had to dry everything out and start over again.
We ended up staying in that house after 3-4 days. After it dried out.
Did you know when you moved that you wanted to start your own organization?
Yes. But we knew we didn’t want to become a home health agency. We wanted to do home nursing.
What was the process of starting it?
This was Dominican Sisters Nursing Service. We went to see the hospital sisters (they are from an English order) but they’re Saint Mary’s hospital and then we went to another hospital and to the health department and explained what we were doing so we got referrals from all of those groups. And then sometimes a neighbor would call because they were concerned about a neighbor who was needing help. So we did a lot of visits for new mothers and visits for people that were older. And we did a lot of teaching of people. You had to explain to the people what to tell the doctor.
I remember one woman I said when you go to the doctor tell him this this and this. And she said, ‘why? He’s a doctor he should know!” She didn’t realize you have to tell him what your symptoms are.
It was just different. It was a whole different culture.
What other problems did you encounter?
A lot of people that didn’t know how to follow through with what the doctor had said. People didn’t have the supplies that they needed when they got discharged from the hospital. A lot of people couldn’t afford to pay for their medicine. A lot of young mothers were caught up in superstitions about their new babies and weren’t sure how to take care of them.
Some of the people went to the doctor, yes. We were trying to help them to understand what they doctor had said and what other kinds of things they could do for their healthcare.
You started Dominican Sisters Nursing Service; what happened next?
We did that for several years and then the government [started helping] with home health agencies. Soon there were a lot of home health agencies that came into existence and we didn’t want to compete with them, so we started just doing home visits –we didn’t get reimbursed—we did home visits for people who weren’t under home agencies to help them learn about healthcare. There were still a lot of people who weren’t going to the doctor and weren’t taking care of themselves.
We also became aware of the needs in the community. There was a lot of domestic violence, so we helped start Hope House, which is a shelter for domestic violence victims. We helped to start the Wise County Food Bank, and that’s still in existence. Southwest Virginia Legal Services is another agency that we helped begin, and that’s still providing services.
We helped with RAM, Remote Area Medical. Stan Brock did the Wild Kingdom years and years ago, and he started that. He would go to other countries and help get medical care. Somehow, we invited him to help with medical care in our area. So, once a year, usually in July, he helps to organize that. We get local dentists, local physicians, and local eye care. The Lions Club helps out; we work with them for eye care. People come from all over, Kentucky, Tennessee, sometimes even college students from Washington State where they don’t have access to healthcare. Patients get a screening, and then they have medical care, and the Lions Club helps with eyeglasses. There’s a hearing test; we work with the hearing group to help provide hearing aids, dentures, medical needs. They usually take care of several hundred people. And that’s still going on.
If you could go back and give yourself advice from the begin, what would you say?
I guess I would say to start working earlier to have changes in healthcare. I think when we [moved in] we were busy providing services. And I think I’ve learned over the years that maybe we should have started earlier to push for changes and more adequate healthcare [systemically].
What was the impetus to go from the on-the-ground or daily help to systemic stuff?
Just getting used to seeing the bigger picture and learning to look more long-range than what’s right in front of you.
How has the community transformed?
It has decreased in population. The jobs are gone, so people move out. We’ve never really established other kinds of employment [beyond mining]. When we first went there, there were a couple of clothing factories. But, if you don’t do mining, there’s nothing else in our area anymore. So we –the whole community- should have diversified more to find other kinds of employment. We say we educate our young for them to leave. We have a couple of colleges, and people go there, but then, when they graduate, there’s nothing to keep them in our area so they go to wherever to find good employment. We’ve never been able to get diversity in employment.
It sounds like this community is fading a little bit. Is that right?
I think. I don't know what’s going to happen in the future. They say they’re trying to bring other kinds of employment to the area, but I don't know.
So what keeps you there now?
The people. And still supporting the programs that we helped to start. And just being present to people. They can call us.
Will you tell me about Advocate Center?
We opened up The Advocate Center in 1990 because we would come home at night and the phone would be off the hook with people calling to say, “Do you know where I can find this kind of help?” or “I need this” or “Do you know where I can get this?” Sister Pat Horan was a Blauvelt Dominican, and she was with us for five years, and she came up with the name Advocate Center. We had a storefront that we rented (we heated the outside more than the inside because it was an airy, airy store). So we were there for about maybe 2-3 years and then we asked Bishop Sullivan if he would help us to buy a house --he agreed—and we were there for several years. While we were there, we knew there was a real need for counseling services. So we asked catholic charities from the Richmond area if they would open up some counseling services.
Catholic Charities is still there now; they mainly help with foster care and they have adoption and they do have some counseling for the families. But the Advocate Center, when we transferred that to Family Support Services, the Advocate Center Board of Directors is going to pay Family Crisis Support Services to continue the work of the Advocate Center. So the work and the needs of the people will still be considered. Even though I’ve retired, the work will go on.
Where is the joy in all of this?
I think it was the people. Like I said, we admired them and we were amazed at their ability, their courage. One woman was in her eighties, Helen, and she had come here from Austria, and she loved to garden so much that she would be on her walker out in the garden with her hoe fixing her garden. I mean, how can you not admire people like that?
Another man was in a wheelchair and he told me that he had arthritis (I think he had polio as a child) and he said his arthritis kept him in the wheelchair. But he loved to go fishing. And his friends would carry him from his wheelchair into this boat, and he would go fishing. He loved to go fishing! And it was such a chore for them to get him into the boat, that he would sleep in the boat all night rather than them carry him in and out. I mean, just the people that had children that they were Sister Beth celebrating her 50th jubilee
just so proud of doing everything they possibly could. It was the people that brought you such satisfaction and such admiration.
When did you especially feel affirmed in your work?
There have been many times. Doctor Joe Smiddy: I went down to New Orleans after Katrina with him, and he was just so supportive of what we were doing and so impressed with how we had maintained our relationships with the people in the community. His father was the Chancellor of Education at Wise Community College, and he’s been very supportive of us. Doctor Sue Cattrell has been very supportive of us. So I think it’s’ like a mutual support system that we all are trying to help struggling people, and there’s just some kind of a reinforcement with all of us, I think.
I’ve met a lot of nice people.
What has been surprising for you?
The privilege of being there for that long. Because when we went the congregation said they could help support us for three years, but then we’d have to find other ways. Sister Evelyn was one of the Marymount sisters, and she told us to ask the diocese. So I think the surprising thing was how open Bishop Sullivan was, and how supportive he was to us because he let us make those appeals to the parishes. He bought the Advocate Center house, he bought Hope House because he knew there was a need. That’s what’s been such a surprise: the great support he had. And then the other people that we’ve met that have been so involved in ministry. We just click.
Did you know you would click?
No. You had no idea what to expect.
I had worked with the people in Cincinnati from Appalachia, and Margaret had been working in Tennessee with the people of Appalachia, and we wanted to go back to work with the people of Appalachia. They’re special people. They’re just down to earth. They really are very family-oriented. They’re very generous with the little they have, and they’re very aware of nature. They love the mountains. Even when I leave and go back, I feel like I’m coming home when I drive and I see the mountains, “Aha! I’m getting there.”
So Sister Margaret left.
But you stayed.
I’m staying. I’m retired, and I’ll see what happens in the future. But for now I’m going to stay there.
Why are you staying?
I need to be there yet to see what other things I can help with. And I just need to be there for a while. I don’t want to leave yet.