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building a haven for bereaved parents at quiet water cottage
story and photos by Audrey Poff

Neal and Rhonda Harrington were in the process of relocating their family to Hot Springs when their oldest son was fatally struck by lightning in August 2006. After working through various stages of grief for nearly 11 years, the former Jonesboro couple now wants to provide a respite from grief for other bereaved parents at a lakeside cottage they have transformed into a place of hope and healing.

A native of Hot Springs, Rhonda was student teaching for Neal’s sister, Carol Duncan, when she met Neal.

“He came home for lunch one day and Carol was over there, and she said, ‘I picked out your wife,’” said Rhonda. “I was her student teacher, and he came up and had lunch at West School and that’s how we met.”

“The first time I saw her, it was on the steps of West School,” said Neal.

After graduating from Arkansas State University, the couple married in 1983 and moved to Wisconsin for two years while Neal participated in a management training program. They returned to Jonesboro where they raised two sons, Adam and Ben. Rhonda was a teacher for Jonesboro Public Schools and later taught courses in the early childhood education program at A-State. Neal was a longtime employee of Optus before relocating to Hot Springs.

In 2007, Neal’s dream of owning his own business and the couple’s desire to live on the water led them back to Rhonda’s hometown. The Harringtons purchased an Express Employment Professionals franchise in Hot Springs and were just beginning the business venture when tragedy struck.

The couple’s 19-year-old son, Adam, had traveled with her to Hot Springs and was staying with her parents while she attended an early childhood conference. Neal and son Ben had stayed behind in Jonesboro.

“I was going to Hot Springs for the conference, and I asked Adam if he wanted to come down with me and see his grandparents one more time before he went back to college that fall,” she said, noting that Adam would have been a sophomore at the University of Arkansas, where he was a nursing major and a member of Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity. “My dad said he was going down to the track to walk, and Adam went with him.”

Adam, who was training for a marathon, was jogging around the Hot Springs Middle School track when lightning struck, according to a press release issued by the Hot Springs Police Department shortly after the accident. His grandfather, Don Hardin, was walking back to his car and was knocked to the ground. When he got up, he saw his grandson lying on the track. Bystanders attempted CPR on Adam but were unable to revive him.

The Harringtons refer to Aug. 11, 2006, as the day that Adam went to heaven.

“He would have had one more week at home and then he would have moved back to Fayetteville,” said Rhonda.

“He was just a caring soul. He wanted to make sure everybody was OK. He was well liked,” said Neal, noting that while attending Nettleton High School, Adam had been voted Mr. NHS and Nettleton prom king and had made many friends at UA, especially through his fraternity.

The Harringtons were longtime members of First Baptist Church in Jonesboro, and Adam had also joined the Men’s Fraternity Bible Study during his freshman year at Fayetteville.

“It impacted him so much,” said Rhonda. “We found where he had written that his number one goal was to be with the Lord.”

The couple’s youngest son, Ben, was beginning his senior year at NHS when Adam died, so he and his mother remained in Jonesboro the following year while Neal attempted to move forward with the startup of the new business in Hot Springs.

“At that time, I wasn’t really sure I could do it,” said Neal. “There are so many stages of grief, and there were times when I even felt guilty for not being here when it happened. I was living with Rhonda’s parents while we tried to sell our house in Jonesboro, and for a while, my total focus was to get that business going.”

It would be more than two years later before the Harringtons were able to sell their house in Jonesboro. During that time, they found a home for sale in a peaceful setting near Lake Hamilton. The owners agreed to take the home off the market and rent it to the Harringtons. When they were able to move forward with purchasing the home, the couple said their real estate agent had the foresight to include a clause that gave them first right of refusal on the nearby cottage that the sellers also owned. When the lakeside cottage became available in 2015, the Harringtons decided to purchase it and eventually make it available to other bereaved parents.

After a year of renovation, Quiet Water Cottage opened in January 2017. The spacious two-bedroom cottage has every comfort of home with interior and exterior design elements that are soothing. On the inside, subtle hues of gray and green set the tone, while wood flooring and trim add warmth to the rooms. While the entire space is beautifully furnished, the design is simple but comforting. A metal cross that Adam gave his mom one Mother’s Day hangs near the fireplace. Outside, the Harringtons added a waterfall feature that extends to the lower level of the deck, where a hammock and rocking chairs offer guests a panoramic view of the lake.

Quiet Water Cottage is available for rent, but the Harringtons also accept referrals from pastors and While We’re Waiting, a faith-based nonprofit organization for bereaved parents, to make the cottage available to bereaved parents at no charge.

“When we were back in Jonesboro after Adam died, it was awkward being in public,” said Rhonda. “Being somewhere else is just sort of freeing and it allows you to move forward on that path. God has blessed this effort. It’s a place where we want people to feel welcomed and pampered.”

“It’s just really nice for grieving parents to be able to get away,” said Neal. “There are so many steps in the grieving process. It’s a wild ride. We just want this to be a place where people can recharge.”

The Harringtons were fortunate to have support from relatives, their church family and colleagues, but being able to talk to other bereaved parents was especially helpful.

“People want to talk to someone who has been through it,” said Neal. “I feel like we can be here to help people with their grief and to let them know that you can still have joy even though you’ve had such a big loss.”

“We all have a story,” said Rhonda. “Whatever your story is, everyone has a way to help someone else.”

For more information about Quiet Water Cottage referrals for bereaved parents or for rental information, contact Neal and Rhonda through vrbo.com, listing 985186.