Submitted: 5 July 2014
Two interview sessions: 28 May 2012, 7 June 2013
Total approximate duration: 3 hours
Interviewer: Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D.
About the Interview Subject:
Mrs. Karen K. Harrison (née Kromer, b. 27 June 1929, Shamrock, Texas) began to volunteer at MD Anderson in 1968. She became a paid employee of the institution in 1980, when she began managing the Children’s Art Project (originally called, The Children’s Christmas Card Project), an increasingly important revenue generator for the institution. In 1990 she was promoted to Assistant Director of Volunteer Services. She retired from that role in 1996 and took a hiatus from service to MD Anderson. In 2005, however, she began hosting patients in her home on an informal basis, a service she continues to provide to the institution.
Major Topics Covered:
Personal background; faith
On volunteering at MD Anderson
Stories of offering care to patients
The Children’s Art Project; origin and evolution of; managing; promoting; projects; financial benefits to institution; commercialization
Memories of Page Lawson and volunteers
Volunteer Services; history, operations; events
The “MD Anderson Annex,” Mrs. Harrison’s privately run residence for patients undergoing treatment
Regarding the Transcript and Audio Files
In accordance with oral history best practices, this transcript was intentionally created to preserve the conversational language of the interview sessions. (Language has not been edited to conform to written prose).
The interview subject was given the opportunity to review the transcript. Any requested editorial changes are indicated in brackets [ ], and the audio file has not correspondingly altered.
Redactions to the transcript and audio files may have been made in response to the interview subject’s request or to eliminate personal health information in compliance with HIPAA.
Interview Session One: 28 May 2012
Resolving to Become a Volunteer
Chapter 01 / Joining MD Anderson/Coming to Texas
The Children’s Christmas Card Project
Chapter 02 / An Institutional Unit
Details about the Children’s Christmas Card Project
Chapter 03 / An Institutional Unit
Expanding the Children’s Christmas Card Project
Chapter 04 / An Institutional Unit
Creating an MD Anderson Annex to House Patients
Chapter 05 / The Volunteer
On the Children’s Christmas Card Project, Volunteers, and Faith
Chapter 06 / The Volunteer
Interview Session Two: 7 June 2013
Memorable Volunteers and Caring for Patients
Chapter 07 / The Volunteer
Recalling Volunteer Events and Volunteers
Chapter 08 / The Administrator
Memorable Volunteers and the “MD Anderson Annex”
Chapter 09 / An Institutional Unit
The “MD Anderson Annex”
Chapter 10 / An Institutional Unit, Program
Chapter 11 / Personal Background
At Eight-Three, Still Providing Service to Patients
Chapter 12 / The Volunteer
Interview Session One: 28 May 2012 (listen/read)
Interview Identifier (listen/read)
Chapter 1 (Joining MD Anderson/Coming to Texas)
Resolving to Become a Volunteer (listen/read)
Mrs. Harrison begins this chapter by noting that she and her husband, Bedford Harrison, moved to Houston in 1947.
She began as a floor hostess in about 1968, working with both adult and pediatric patients. When the new building was constructed, she chose to work with adults and explains that she eventually worked in the protective environment floor: she explains some of the requests that family members made, as she could interact with their loved ones in ways they could not.
Chapter 02 (An Institutional Unit)
The Children’s Christmas Card Project (listen/read)
Mrs. Harrison begins by talking about Page Lawson, “the most innovative person in the world” (who served as Director of Volunteer Services at MD Anderson from 1973 – 1991). As an example, she says that Ms. Lawson arranged for the volunteers to have t’ai chi classes as a relaxation technique. She also speculates that the Children’s Christmas Card Project was really Ms. Lawson’s idea, though Ms. Lawson circulated the story that the idea came from an unnamed volunteer who taught art classes for children at MD Anderson and discovered a particular piece of artwork she thought would make a wonderful Christmas card. Mrs. Harrison then explains how Ms. Lawson offered her a job as manager of the Children’s Christmas Card Project; her first main task was to develop a five-year plan to expand the project. She was fortunate, she notes, because MD Anderson was connected to the UT System: she actively promoted the project at all the UT Divisions. She also explains that an important expansion occurred when Randall’s Supermarket agreed to sell the cards at no profit (and continues to sell them today).
Next, Mrs. Harrison talks about how funds from the Project were useMD Anderson employees submitted requests for funds to a board of volunteers who decided how money should be spent. She notes that the aquariums one can still see around MD Anderson were one of the first projects funded. At the end of this chapter, Mrs. Harrison talks about the importance of spirituality in her life.
Chapter 03 (An Institutional Unit)
Details about the Children’s Christmas Card Project (listen/read)
Mrs. Harrison begins this chapter talking about several volunteers who worked on the Children’s Christmas Card Project. She then describes how the cards were selected. Artwork up for consideration was presented at an event where volunteers could vote for the designs to be turned into cards. She describes one of her favorite cards and then notes that the five-year plan included an initiative to offer cards for the Jewish community. She goes on to explain that the Art Department turned selected designs into production-ready images and the Project then took bids for producing the cards. All this work first took place in a single room on the first floor of Volunteer Services, she explains, then moved to a larger room as the Project grew. She notes that there is a Karen Harrison Award given to a volunteer each year at the Volunteer Appreciation Luncheon.
Chapter 04 (An Institutional Unit)
Expanding the Children’s Christmas Card Project (listen/read)
Mrs. Harrison begins this section talking about “some political things that influenced the Project,” citing as an example the invitation extended to Barbara Bush to attend the Project kickoff party. Mrs. Bush’s presence had a very positive effect. She then goes on to explain that after Randall’s Supermarket began selling the cards, she hired a consultant to help the Project break into grocery stores nationwide. The describes attending a supermarket trade fair and the resulting success of selling MD Anderson holiday cards in markets around the country. She also explains that the Project eventually separated from Volunteer Services (coming under the management of Steve Stuyck in Public Affairs) because there was too much to do. She speaks briefly about the art classes offered to children and notes that Page Lawson offered an award to each child who entered a piece to be considered for a card. The children whose designs were selected participated in the holiday parade that circulated through MD Anderson.
Chapter 05 (The Volunteer)
Creating an MD Anderson Annex to House Patients (listen/read)
Mrs. Harrison explains that she purchased a very large home after her husband died and patients coming in from out of town stay with her. One woman gave her two robes to keep in the guest room, embroidered with “MD Harrison.” This is “another step in her love of Anderson.”
Mrs. Harrison then describes the accommodating nature of people who work and volunteer at MD Anderson.
Chapter 06 (The Volunteer)
On the Children’s Christmas Card Project, Volunteers, and Faith (listen/read)
Mrs. Harrison tells of a holiday card that was sent into outer space and talks about the generosity of volunteers that kept the Children’s Christmas Card Project moving forward. She then clarifies the progressive expansion of her role as she worked with the Card Project. Mrs. Harrison next talks about Page Lawson, who was known nationally as an expert in volunteer affairs and sought after as a speaker. Mrs. Harrison shows a picture of Ms. Lawson and goes on to describe her character. She recalls support that Ms. Lawson gave cancer patients. Mrs. Harrison recalls some volunteers she worked with and talks about her plans to continue volunteering with the institution. She talks about qualities that a person needs to volunteer.
Mrs. Harrison says that many people shudder when she mentions volunteering at MD Anderson, but explains that she always leaves feeling better than she did when she arrived because she has helped people.
Mrs. Harrison talks about the importance of her faith in her work as a volunteer: “God gave me the job.”
Interview Session Two: 7 June 2013 (listen/read)
Chapter 07 (The Volunteer)
Memorable Volunteers and Caring for Patients (listen/read)
Mrs. Harrison explains that when she began to volunteer at MD Anderson, she worked with young men with testicular cancer. She describes them as very determined to fight their disease and believes that she was able to give them confidence. Next Mrs. Harrison talks about working with patients on the protected environment floor. She describes the physical setting, in which patients were separated from their families by a glass window. Mrs. Harrison entered the protected environment (she put on scrubs), and she explains her role with patients. Often patients asked her to take personal items, such as a bible, to be sterilized so they might have it in the room with them. She tells a story of one woman who asked her to massage her daughter’s shoulder. Mrs. Harrison also explains that she served as an informal recruiter of other volunteers: she brought in her husband and a former classmate of her husband, Rock Rabinowitz, who worked volunteered many, many hours. Mrs. Harrison notes that people would often react very negatively to the idea of working in a cancer center, and explains how she countered their qualms. She explains that she established strong connections with patients and their families. She invited many of them for the holidays.
In this touching story, Mrs. Harrison describes how she cared for a little girl who came from Hawaii with her family for treatment. After the child’s death, her mother asked Mrs. Harrison to help her choose the dress her daughter would be buried in.
Mrs. Harrison says that she believes that her ability to connect with people is “God given.” She describes her relationship with a patient who now has an externship with MD Anderson. She then recalls Sister Alice, an energetic volunteer who was a “cheerleader” at one of the Children’s Art Project kick off parades. Finally she talks about Tom Jean Moore, the volunteer who took care of the rose garden and brought roses to be delivered to any patient who did not have flowers that day.
Chapter 08 (The Administrator)
Recalling Volunteer Events and Volunteers (listen/read)
Mrs. Harrison first recalls the Children’s Christmas Card Project kick off parade, which took place in early fall. She describes the parade, recalling the young men pushing their IV poles, the St. Thomas bagpipers, and the fire truck that drove patients along the route. She describes the route and notes that the barbecue restaurant, Goode Company, served sandwiches for lunch. Next Mrs. Harrison recalls valued volunteers. She notes that when she was promoted from Manager of the Children’s to Assistant Director of Volunteer Services, her role did not change, though her income increased. Next Mrs. Harrison talks about Page Lawson, “volunteer extraordinaire,” who had good business sense, enthusiasm, and a gift for matching people to the right job. She recalls that Ms. Lawson told her she’d been watching her in the cafeteria and decided that she “had what we needed.” [redacted]
Interview Identifier (listen/read)
Chapter 09 (An Institutional Unit)
Memorable Volunteers and the “MD Anderson Annex” (listen/read)
Mrs. Harrison explains that her husband, a chemical engineer, volunteered in the radiology department and could be comforting to patients, in part, because of his technical understanding of radiology. Mrs. Harrison then recalls a woman who became a volunteer after undergoing an hemi-hipectomy and who continued to volunteer, even after her husband died.
Chapter 10 (An Institutional Unit, Program)
The “MD Anderson Annex” (listen/read)
In this chapter, Mrs. Harrison describes the “annex” she has been running for the past 8 years. She explains that she purchased a very large home after her husband died, acting on her son’s comment that she could turn it into an annex for MD Anderson. She explains how she invited her first MD Anderson patient to stay with her, then recalls some of the other patients and families who have stayed with her over the years when they came into town for treatment.
Chapter 11 (Personal Background)
Family Background (listen/read)
When asked whether she came from a large family (which might explain her gregariousness), Mrs. Harrison says that she had many, many cousins. She also explains that she was married before she graduated from college, though eventually she finished her degree, earning a degree in Political Science from the University of Houston in 1951. He notes that her husband did not want her to work, but she did, teaching third grade. She explains some of the challenges of teaching and recalls an autistic child in her class. She speaks briefly about the television and radio appearances that she made while working with the Children’s Christmas Card Project. She tells an anecdote to demonstrate that she inherited her public speaking skills from her “daddy.”
Chapter 12 (The Volunteer)
At Eight-Three, Still Providing Service to Patients (listen/read)
Mrs. Harrison tells of her plan to accrue another 2,000 hours of volunteer time so she will be “neck in neck” with her late husband’s 10,000 hours. She notes that she has introduced people to MD Anderson. She ends by talking about what she has received from her years of service to the institution.
This two-session interview with Mrs. Karen K. Harrison (née Kromer, b. 27 June 1929, Shamrock, Texas) takes place in May/June of 2013 (approximately 3 hours). Mrs. Harrison has lived in Houston since 1947 and began to volunteer at MD Anderson in 1968. She became a paid employee of the institution in 1980, when she began to serve as manager of the Children’s Art Project (originally called, The Children’s Christmas Card Project), an increasingly important revenue generator for the institution. In 1990 she was promoted to Assistant Director of Volunteer Services. She retired from that role in 1996 and took a hiatus from service to MD Anderson. In 2005, however, she began hosting patients in her home on an informal basis, a service she continues to provide to the institution. This interview takes place in Mrs. Harrison’s home in Houston, Texas. Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D. is the interviewer.
During this interview, Mrs. Harrison explains the roles she served as a volunteer and also tells many anecdotes about the patients she was able to help and with whom she frequently struck up long-lasting friendships. Mrs. Harrison discusses her work with the Children’s Christmas Card Project, which she was responsible for expanding and describes Page Lawson, the Director of Volunteer Services under whom she served. Mrs. Harrison also describes how she began hosting out-of-town MD Anderson patients in her home over the course of their treatment; she has been extending these invitations for the past eight years. This interview provides a snapshot of a dedicated, caring spirit with an infectious enthusiasm for the institution.