An Unexpected Gift

Published: Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Susan Archer didn’t look or act like the kind of person who might leave behind a sizeable estate when she died.

By nearly all accounts, Archer was an unassuming woman who lived comfortably, but modestly, in Habersham County, where she taught high school English before she retired in 2000.

She devoted much of her life to helping others, often putting their needs above her own.

“That’s just the way she was, always lending a hand, from the time I knew her,” said Lil Reed, a friend who had known Archer since they met as little girls in Cornelia.

After her mother’s death, Archer became a volunteer for Hospice of Northeast Georgia Medical Center (NGMC), where she often comforted two or three patients at a time until her own illness forced her to slow down.

“She was always there to serve,” said Teresa Warren, director of Hospice of NGMC. “She was always available if we needed her. It was not easy for her to slow down.”

What Reed and other friends didn’t realize was that Archer was managing her teacher’s salary and retirement very wisely. When she died in 2009 at the age of 69, she left a special gift to Hospice in her will – a bequest of more than $237,000. The bequest is the largest single gift in the history of Hospice.

“It was a pretty astounding gift,” said Carol Jewell, volunteer coordinator for Hospice of NGMC. “We’re just touched by her generosity. Susan had a big heart and a generous spirit.”

Reed said she was surprised at the size of the gift Archer left to Hospice because she never realized her friend had that kind of money. But she wasn’t surprised Hospice was in Archer’s will.

“She didn’t participate in a lot of the charities that you hear a lot about,” Reed said. “She was always looking to help those groups that weren’t the obvious ones to help. And Hospice became her favorite.”

Reed said Archer’s mother may have set the example for her daughter. The two used to volunteer for a group that helped mentally challenged children. But when Archer’s mother became ill, Archer became her full-time caregiver.

“It was during that time that she learned about Hospice,” Reed said. “It was obvious once she started talking about it that she was going to start volunteering. And she did.”

Warren said Hospice of NGMC will use the gift to continue to provide the type of services that drew Archer to the organization in the first place. She hopes to add more massage therapy sessions, which are important for patients who aren’t able to get out of bed. She also wants to add more music therapy, which has proven therapeutic for patients with serious illnesses.

Warren also added the money will help patients who need help with basic essentials, like keeping the heat and lights on.

“Even people who have saved wisely can find they quickly deplete a lot of their resources when they have a serious illness,” Warren said.

Archer began volunteering with Hospice of NGMC in 2001. She continued in that role for nearly nine years, until she became ill. At her most active, Archer would be assigned as many as three patients, and she’d spend up to four hours a week with each one.

“Our volunteers play a lot of roles,” Jewell said. “They go into a patient’s home to provide company for the family and give the caretakers a break so they can run errands or just talk to their neighbors. Susan was outstanding at providing that type of support.”

Reed said her friend’s desire to help others wasn’t something that just came along later in life. It had always been what motivated her.

“She loved her students, and I think they really loved her,” Reed said of the students at Habersham Central High School, where Archer taught English. “She had a unique sense of humor and I think the students really reacted to that.”

Once, Archer helped pay for one of her students to attend college. Reed said Archer had described the student as extremely bright, but the family was unable to afford the tuition.

“So she handled it, without any fanfare at all. That’s just the way she did things,” Reed said.

Warren is grateful for Archer’s generosity in death, saying gifts of any size are important for Hospice to continue its work.

“Our success depends on gifts from our community,” she said. “It would be hard to continue without them. Gifts to Hospice really help make the quality of life so much better for someone at the end of their life, and it means so much to the families as well.”