Like a beacon shining brightly, Lisa King’s passion for caring led the way and without hesitation she followed.
Born in Kingsport, Tn., Lisa grew up wanting to be an attorney because she liked to argue her point and, if two of her friends were fighting, she acted as a mediator. Lisa didn’t attend college until her marriage brought her to Chattanooga and she studied nursing at UTC.
She had applied for two jobs - a job with a veterinarian and the other with Open Arms Care. The position at the vet’s office paid more, but Lisa was just trying to get through nursing school and it didn’t matter to her which job she would end up with.
When she walked into Open Arms Care, it immediately made an impact on her choice for a part-time job and for what would be a future career.
“I had no idea a place like Open Arms existed. I saw some of the individuals who they serve (with disabilities) and my heart just... I can’t even describe it,” Lisa says.
The veterinarian called and offered Lisa the job but she felt strongly to turn that offer down before even hearing from Open Arms Care.
“My husband at the time thought I was crazy because they hadn’t even called me, but I just said, ‘I am supposed to work there’ and the next day they hired me as a receptionist. It was 1993 and it started my whole career,” Lisa explains.
“It sort of goes back to my childhood and being a mediator for my friends when people were fighting. When I walked in the door one of the clients there was using a walker and you could tell that he was Down’s syndrome. He started talking so nice to me and I was overcome with emotion. I asked the lady in my interview, ‘What do you DO here?’ and she told me and so I said, ‘Oh …so you spend your whole day …every day doing things for them to make their lives better…’ and when I left, I sat in the car just looking at the building thinking, ‘who would know that this building does that dynamic of a work for people?’ I was beside myself,” Lisa marvels.
Lisa had only been working at OAC for three weeks when the director in the business department left. Lisa was asked to help in some of the responsibilities until someone was hired, but ended up applying for the position herself.
Still in nursing school, Lisa’s intuition told her she was supposed to take the full time position. When the executive director had asked her if she wanted to continue in nursing, Lisa admitted that it was not for her and she ended up obtaining her business degree at Covenant College in 1994. Lisa worked as the business director at Open Arms until 1998 when a position was available for assistant to the executive director. She was promoted as the executive director in 2002. Lisa had worked at only one other job before coming to Open Arms Care and, while tackling school and raising her three children, she has made OAC her life’s ambition.
The staff works with clients on a daily basis for around-the-clock care as they live in group homes consisting of eight people. During the week, clients attend the day program at the facilities in Ooltewah for vocational and pre-vocational training. OAC has four locations – Nashville, Memphis, Ooltewah and Knoxville where Lisa’s current husband Charlie Schnell is the executive director.
Lisa admits that her job can be rather stressful and, to keep a healthy balance, she began mountain biking and has been hooked ever since. Lisa was just good friends with Charlie through their volunteer work, mountain biking and other similar interests. There was no romance in the beginning and the two had remained close friends.
When the close friendship seemed to have a few sparks, Lisa and Charlie started dating, but she had no idea that Charlie was going to ask her to marry him.
“I was going to Europe to see my son who was in the Air Force. Charlie went with me and we were there for about two and a half weeks when he started acting really weird, which frustrated me. He started getting obsessed with these churches all of a sudden and I didn’t understand why,” Lisa laughs.
During the trip, the two toured Switzerland, Italy, France and Germany. Charlie planned to propose on the beach in Italy, but the beach was dirty so he worked on a backup plan to propose and that is when Lisa felt his obsession with visiting churches over the next few days was getting out of hand.
“One day we were in France and we walked into a Catholic church. I am not Catholic, but it was so beautiful I started crying. I told Charlie that was the most amazing feeling and that this church was incredible, so that was when he decided to propose to me at a church,” Lisa says.
“Charlie began researching a lot of churches and in a four-day period we went to about 20 churches, but none of them were good enough,” she chuckles. “The night before we were to leave to come to the states, we were near Germany and there were three churches that he wanted to visit. I had already voiced my frustration of us going to all these churches. I had to go to the bathroom and we had already been to two of the churches. One had been turned into a store and the other one was closed. My son and his wife took off to get something to eat and Charlie and I were going to see the third church. I saw a McDonald's and told him I was going to the bathroom. It was after six o clock and the brochure on that church said that it closed at six,” Lisa says.
Charlie insisted that he and Lisa quickly go see the last church on his list and Lisa said emphatically, “No! I am going to the bathroom!” Lisa was frustrated with Charlie but he kept insisting until she gave in. “I didn’t speak to him the whole way over there. The church was unlocked and when we went in there were over a hundred candles lit,” Lisa says.
“It was an old church and it was so cool with the flickering light and the ceiling painted with all these beautiful designs. There was one person in the middle of the aisle and I assumed he must be praying. It was kind of dark and Charlie and I walked towards the front. I was standing there talking about how beautiful this church was and, when I turned around, he was gone,” Lisa chuckles.
Lisa looked down and Charlie had knelt on one knee. Still clueless, Lisa asked under her breath, “What are you doing… you aren’t even Catholic, get up!”
Charlie stayed on his knee and proposed to Lisa. She knelt down with him and started crying and told him ‘yes’.
“I had no clue. It was incredible. Everybody knew except me. Charlie had contacted my son before our trip and asked him. When we met back up with my son, they saw that I had been crying and they knew he had asked me,” Lisa says.
The couple has been married for four years and Charlie is still the executive director of the Open Arms Care location in Knoxville and commutes from Chattanooga.
Currently, OAC is working on its tenth annual “Ride to Provide” event for Sept. 13. Registration begins at 7 a.m. and the ride begins at 8:30 a.m. The cost is $35 on the day of the event and $30 for advance registration/$25 advance registration for groups of six or more. You can contact Lisa at: firstname.lastname@example.org and register now. Cyclists from all over come to attend the annual event.
After working with the agency for over 20 years, Lisa is still as passionate about it as she was when she first started.
“It’s not something that ever gets old. I have the greatest desire to help the clients, and also the staff. I get so excited to help someone out with their life. It seems kind of selfish in a way because it makes me happy, but that is what has kept me here so long,” Lisa insists.
She has witnessed individuals walking after their physician said they never would and she has witnessed a person who was told they would not live six months still living four years later and with a quality of life.
“We also have had staff who thought they could never go to school and we helped put them through school. Just helping them to have the drive that I have and encouraging them is so rewarding. Telling both the clients and the staff that it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, we will help fulfill that desire that you have,” Lisa says. “It may not be what you originality thought you wanted, but we will help you fulfill that desire.”