A language all their own: Karen refugees find a new home at Rhems United Methodist Church

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They’ve traveled here for homecoming, this early September morning, in their used cars, shining white pickups and Sunday best, parents leading by hand their children and elders across the damp grass and up the steps of the small country church.

The latecomers wipe the morning dew off their shoes and walk through the red double doors, passing one by one beneath the sign that reads, “Enter as a stranger, leave as a friend.”

The pews are filled by now, so the members draw in close against the walls, greeting each other in languages foreign and familiar, “God bless you. God bless you.”

They’ve joined together today to enact a uniquely Baptist, and even more uniquely Southern tradition, a celebration of memories past and of new beginnings. For many of those gathered here, those memories stretch back further than the local farmland and rivers, back across decades and oceans to their home country of Burma and the refugee camps where entire generations of their families were born and raised.

Many of them arrived in Craven County by night, 10 years ago or last week, climbing from planes and walking, alone or with loved ones, into the vast strangeness of American life.

And here they made their homes. And here, at Rhems United Methodist Church, they found a family.

***

When the first Karen (pronounced Kah-REN) refugees arrived in North Carolina 13 years ago, it’s unlikely they saw themselves as pioneers of a new community. Most were simply seeking escape from the region’s seemingly endless civil war.

The Karens are among various Burmese ethnic groups that have fought for their own independent states in a series of conflicts that date back to 1948, when the country gained independence from Britain. Most Karen people are subsistence farmers, living in small mountain villages, growing rice and vegetables and raising animals.

Due to the ongoing civil war, approximately 140,000 Karen currently live in refugee camps along the Thailand-Burma border.

Though they traditionally practice Buddhism, approximately 15 percent identify as Christians, likely due to the influence of 19th century British missionaries.

The first Karens to resettle in New Bern, Ye Win and his wife, pregnant at the time with their first child, arrived from their former home in a United Nations refugee camp in 2004. They were seeking a better life for their young family, one that didn’t include killings, torture, landmines and forced labor by Burma’s military regime.

Luckily, they found Helen Dawley, a retired teacher who had recently arrived in New Bern from her home state of Florida. Dawley was a member of Rhems United Methodist and also worked with Interfaith Refugee Ministry, a local nonprofit that helps resettle refugees in the New Bern/Craven County area.

Dawley assisted Ye Win and his wife with transportation and other needs, helping them get on their feet in their adopted homeland.

“I had time and a car, so that’s how I helped” says Dawley, who recently celebrated her 91st birthday.

After another Karen family arrived several months later, Dawley convinced the church’s United Methodist Women’s group to sponsor the refugees.

Though Dawley saw her service to the Karen as an expression of her religious faith, she also recognized, in their commitment to community and family, a way to revitalize her house of worship.

***

Ask any of the senior members of the congregation and they’ll tell you: In the early 2000s, Rhems United Methodist was a dying church.

“We were averaging 30 to 35 worshipers, the average age was probably 75-80. Maybe one or two young people but mostly older people, so we were struggling,” says Rev. Connie Stutts, who came to the church at roughly the same time the first Karen refugees began arriving in New Bern.

In response to the church’s dwindling membership, the congregation began praying for a new generation of worshipers to rejuvenate its weekly services. Most of all, they prayed for children.

Those petitions were partially answered through Ye Win and his wife, whose child was baptized in the church in 2005.

Then, in 2006, the U.S. made a decision to open its doors to Burmese refugees from Thailand, bringing an influx of Karen families to the country.

“We had at that time a large number of Karen that came into our community, and not all Christian. So it kind of shook up New Bern, the schools as you can imagine, and some of the churches. So we became one of those safe haven places,” recalls Stutts.

The answer to their prayers came as “quite a shock” to some church members, Stutts admits.

“This was a church that didn’t have any children and all of a sudden there are lots of children, and they’re active children who are used to active church and vocal church, so it was challenging to some of the older members,” she says. “Some of them just simply embraced it and said ‘We prayed for children; thank God, look what he’s brought us. Yeah, it might be challenging but it’s a good thing.”’

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One of the church members who embraced the change was Melanie Matthews, the youngest of five generations of her family to attend Rhems United Methodist. Matthews grew up in the church and recently found her way back after returning home to North Carolina in 2015.

“I cried, actually. It was pretty magnificent because it’s a church in the middle of nowhere in North Carolina where people are not very accepting of outsiders. So to see my church that I grew up in turn into this was pretty amazing,” she remembers.

Melanie says the Karen refugees have fundamentally changed the Rhems community.

“It’s opened a lot of people’s minds. I’m glad it’s turned into this because I don’t think I would be here if it hadn’t.”

Melanie’s grandmother, Ann Matthews, has deep roots at Rhems United Methodist. When church members walk through its doors each Sunday, wood cut from her family’s farm decades ago creak beneath their feet and helps support the steeple above their heads.

The arrival of the Karen refugees, she says, was received as a blessing by most, but not all, of the church’s congregation.

“It was a change; some liked it and some didn’t. I liked it. Maybe two or three couples left the church, but generally we grew to love them (the refugees),” she says. “It’s hard for me to recognize them all and get all of their names but I know quite a few of them and I’m delighted they’re here.”

Through her work with the Craven Literacy Council Ann tutors several young Karen refugees who are currently working toward their U.S. citizenship.

“I can see it in my grandma,” adds Melanie, “how much it’s changed her.”

The church’s most senior members, 91-year-old John McLean, and his wife Peggy, 85, have been attending Rhems United Methodist for over six decades.

Peggy is blunt when she describes the negative reactions of some church members to the Karen’s arrival.

“Well, I’ll tell it like it is, we had some members to leave. I think they thought the Karen would come in and take over. I’m not sure exactly what they thought, but they were not happy so they didn’t need to be here,” she states flatly.

Despite the initial growing pains, Peggy says the Karen have helped fill a void left after many of Rhems United Methodist’s young members moved away.

“They were very friendly, very open, very nice people,” she says of the first Karen members to come to the church. “They were just very easy to get to know. It was hard for us to communicate but they would still speak, hug us…very friendly people. They’ve been a blessing to our church.”

“The Burmese are very giving people and very much a part of what goes on in our church,” adds John.

Rev. Stutts says the Rhems United Methodist congregation has responded in kind. Unlike other churches that have taken in Karen refugees, Rhems has integrated the newcomers into every aspect of the church experience, from the choir to prayer services. According to Stutts, the Karen have also been named to church leadership roles.

”We’ve been able to do something the other churches have not done on a large scale, which is we don’t have an English speaking service and a Karen speaking service, we have one service of worship together,” says Stutts. “Over the years we have learned to really celebrate the traditions of each culture and really see God in each other and learn from one another.”

***

When Pawsay Paw arrived in New Bern in 2007 with her husband and two children, she spoke no English and had little understanding of American culture. Yet compared to the world she came from — one that would be frighteningly alien to most westerners — her new home was a wonderland.

“We had been in a refugee camp for 17 years; we had no way to go back to our country because we didn’t have freedom,” she says in careful, halting English. “And then we had a chance for the resettlement in the U.S. I wanted a better life for my children, because we had nowhere to go, we just stay in the camp, we cannot go out.”

Paw says church members lent their support when she and her family had little else to live on. Shortly after her arrival, with only a part time job and lacking funds to pay an electric bill, she turned to Rhems United Methodist for assistance.

“I came to the church and they have an emergency fund and asked if I could borrow $25 to pay my bill and they gave me a check for $25. So it is very great for me, I will never forget about that. When I got my money later I paid it back for another family if they need help,” says Paw.

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Paw says adjusting to America offered other challenges as well, such as learning how to drive and opening a bank account.

“I have to learn everything from how to use the phone and how to use the electronic stove or microwave, because we didn’t have this kind of stuff. It is totally different, we had to learn everything new, just start from zero,” she says.

The Karen families who arrived prior to Pawsay Paw’s built a support system that helped cushion the landing for future refugees touching down in the New Bern community.

When Naw Beh Bay relocated to New Bern in 2004, she searched for a church where she and her three sons could worship in a way that honored her Baptist upbringing, and that would offer support for newly-arrived refugees.

“The religious worship at Rhems is almost the same as the Karen. When we worship we know we worship God and Jesus Christ,” she says.“This church helped a lot of our refugees; any time we got in trouble they’ve been there to help.”

One of the biggest tests of that support came in 2008, when a van carrying a group of Karen returning from a worship service in Morehead City was struck head on by another vehicle. The driver of the van and another man were killed and a young woman was left in critical condition.

As their pasture, Rev. Stutts visited the families of the deceased and injured to offer what comfort she could.

“I’ll never forget I took my shoes off and walked in and the wife is sitting in the middle of the floor and there’s all these Karen women and there’s this mourning that’s going on and I don’t know what they’re saying, I don’t understand what’s happening,” remembers Stutts. “ But I remember seeing that the women sitting by her were squeezing her arm to comfort her. And so immediately I moved to her and I sat down and squeezed her arm as I’d seen the others do, and I just prayed.”

The accident, said Stutts, was instrumental in knitting the church and the Karen community together.

“We were no longer the white church with refugees, but we were Rhems United Methodist Church,” she states.

For many of the younger Karen refugees, the church has been a constant throughout their lives, a safe haven from an outside world that could often be disorienting or even hostile.

Joshua Htoo, Bay’s son, remembers arriving in New Bern as an eight year old and finding few other refugees to help guide the way.

”Our family was one of the first families to come to New Bern, so getting help was really challenging compared to refugees who arrive right now,” he remembers. “Now there are so many people who have been here and done that already.”

Htoo recalls the “really big” sense of culture shock he experienced at the time.

“The first thing I remember is going to school at Oaks Road Elementary on the bus and I was really afraid. I didn’t know how to speak the language, people are looking at me. It was a big shock.”

Htoo said one of his biggest challenges was navigating the idiosyncrasies of the Southern dialect.

“Just getting used to the culture, the way people dress, the way people talk. Especially, New Bern being in the South, the accent is something that I had to get used to.”

Htoo says he eventually picked up the language and local customs by becoming involved in sports.

“I actually communicated with other students better in PE class, doing something like playing soccer. That’s what I try to tell other kids, play sports, you’ll make friends and have teammates and you’ll pick up the culture so much faster.”

Htoo went on to form CAPAY (Coalition of Asian Pacific American Youth), a New Bern High School club that promotes the importance of a college education. He’s also become a living example of that ethic: he is currently a freshman at the Citadel Military College seeking a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. Htoo is set to graduate in 2020.

Rhems United Methodist, he stressed, has played an outsized role in his academic, and personal, growth.

“This is a great church, they welcomed us with open arms,” he says. “It was like family, like coming to a family that we didn’t even know.”

***

According to Rev. Stutts, the relationship between the Karen community and Rhems United Methodist has been one of mutual rejuvenation.

“Those relationships where there’s give and receive on both sides are really important for the church, because we never want to be like ‘we’re the white people that know everything and let us help you.’ We understand that we needed the Karen community as much, and possibly more, than they needed us.”

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The church members stress that, paramount among the blessings they’ve received from the Karen is their devotion to community.

Ann Matthews recalls a Karen birthday party she attended as “the most moving ceremony I’ve ever been in.”

“It was not a birthday party,” she remembers, “it was a birthday celebration of this child and how precious he was.”

“I love the call to community, the reminder of the importance of community that I get from the Karen,” says Rev. Stutts. “We as Americans think ‘America is the best nation and everyone would be happy to be here.’ But there are things we lose because of things that we incessantly must have.”

“Courage,” says Stutts, when asked what she’s learned from the Karens.

“They really have courageous faith. I would like to be like them without having to go through what they’ve gone through, but I’m pretty sure that kind of faith only comes through the fire.”

***

Like a song, or a river, the Rhems United Methodist homecoming service has a rhythm, a rising tidal flow.

The service begins with the sharing of joys and sorrows. A congregation member says the church’s Karen youth group recently cleaned her gutters “joyfully and happily.”

Stutts mentions an earthquake in Mexico, flooding in Burma, India and Bangladesh.

Another woman says she is thankful the descendants of those who built the church can be here this morning.

Today’s lesson is from Exodus 12, the story of the Passover, read first in Karen, then English.

“The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.”

A group of Karen singers slowly make their way to the front of the church, forming a loose semicircle beside the alter. An acoustic guitar cuts through the congregation’s chatter and Rev. Stutts calls for a song, “Old Church Choir.”

“Can you hear it? Can you hear it? Ain’t nothing gonna steal my joy. That old church choir singing in my soul.”

The entire congregation has joined in now, their voices reverberating off the wood paneled walls and pastel-tinted stained glass windows.

The song rolls and rises, borne along on a swell of Southern English and Southeast Asian tongues, punctuated by the cries and laughter of children.

“I say that our language at Rhems is love, it’s not English, it’s not Karen, it’s love,” says Stutts. “And love knows no bounds, there’s no walls it can’t go through or knock over, and we had a lot of walls to knock down.”

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Vanishing Point: three stories of loss and understanding

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Elizabeth Brinson’s hands tremble slightly as they come to rest on the yellowed newspaper article, the late morning sunlight spilling in through the window behind her falling faintly across the story’s black and white photo. Her fingers touch the image of the still-young man who gazes out uncomfortably behind black frame glasses and linger there gently, as if the past detailed in the faded newsprint was a fragile, living thing, easily damaged and lost to memory.

“He was very, very bright, genius I.Q. That was what was so devastating about this illness, he couldn’t read, he couldn’t write. We’ve got thousands and thousands of books…,” explains Brinson, her voice trailing off into the shadows of the room.

The news article details the life of Brinson’s husband, Ken, a man who served his country in the U.S. Army before devoting himself to education, who stood on the front lines of school integration in the early 1960s and did his best to offer solace and safety to the young black children in his care.

The man featured in the paper’s “Personality in the News” profile is the one Elizabeth Brinson fell in love with and married in 1961, the same man who, in the years just before his death, became a virtual stranger as he slowly succumbed to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.

The story of Elizabeth and Ken Brinson, like the story of the other Alzheimer’s patients and caregivers featured in this article, follows a predictable trajectory of diagnosis, deterioration and loss. And like all such stories, in its remarkable, bittersweet details, it is utterly and uniquely their own.

“I haven’t grieved,” says Brinson. “I’ll tear up, but I haven’t broken down and cried. And I think a lot of it is because I grieved for him so long before he died.”

“For better or worse”

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In 2007, three years before he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and nine years before the disease claimed his life, Elizabeth Brinson began to understand something was wrong with her husband.

“All of a sudden, if we needed a plumber, he wanted me to call the plumber. Or if we were getting ready to take a trip he wanted me to make the arrangements. That was not like him, so I realized he was backing off things,” she recalls.

Three years later, during the couple’s 50th anniversary vacation in Hawaii, Ken contracted meningitis and underwent a battery of tests.

“They could not do an MRI on him because he had a pacemaker. But they did enough CAT scans that they saw things that were not normal. When we came back the report that came from Hawaii to our local doctor said they suspected Alzheimer’s.”

Brinson says her husband accepted the diagnosis with a measure of relief.

“He didn’t rail about ‘why me?; he didn’t do that at all. I think he had known himself for a long time that things weren’t right and now this was an answer. So we joked about it and we talked about; we didn’t hide it.”

Brinson describes her husband as a “gentle man” who, in 1964, played a crucial role in integrating one of the oldest high schools in North Carolina.

“He was a principal in Warrenton and I think they took in seven black students that year. The first day of school Ken had sent me and our son to Raleigh to my mother and daddy’s house, because the Ku Klux Klan came in and was threatening,” she recalls. “The first bus that came had one little black girl on it, and Ken came down the steps and down the walkway to the bus and she was sitting right up front scared to death and shaking. And he went on the bus and talked to her a little bit and said ‘Come on now, we’re going to go to school.’ And they walked into the school and nobody did anything. He did that with each bus that came in. That’s one of the things he was most proud of.”

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Ken would go on to serve as superintendent of school systems throughout the state, including Goldsboro City and Durham County schools.

Unlike many Alzheimer’s patients, Brinson said the disease progressed relatively slowly after her husband was diagnosed.

“The doctor said most people go in a straight line and then they go down steeply. Ken went more in waves. He was higher functioning up until the end than a lot of Alzheimer’s patients. He couldn’t write, but he could still tell a joke and he could do Sudoku up until just a few months before he died. He was just a unique man.”

As the disease progressed, Ken began to hallucinate, a change that would have life threatening implications for Brinson.

“I laid down on the sofa with him because my back was hurting,” she remembers. “He put his arm around my waist and had his hand on my head. I was lying there and I looked up to see if he was asleep and he tightened on me, and I realized he was somewhere else. Whenever I moved he would tighten his grip.”

Luckily, Brinson was able to reach her phone and call 911.

“The police were able to get in and pry him off of me. He had been hallucinating that someone had broken into our house.”

With his mental and physical health in decline, Brinson made the decision to place Ken on hospice care. Just prior to that decision she was told by doctors that her husband’s pacemaker battery needed to be replaced.

‘In talking to the doctors and Ken and my children, I decided not to replace the battery,” says Brinson. “My doctor said ‘If he needed a pacemaker at this stage would you put him through that?’ and I said ‘no,’ so he said ‘You’re justified in not making him go through surgery to replace it.’”

Brinson pauses before continuing.

“Ken and I had promised years and years ago not to let each other be vegetables, and it was going to be that way (for him).”

Brinson was eventually able to transfer her husband to Courtyards memory care center in New Bern. She brought in a bed and stayed with him from early morning until he fell asleep.

Ken’s final days were tranquil, she says. His pacemaker battery stopped on a Saturday morning, three months after he began living at Courtyards.

“I woke up and he was breathing differently,” she remembers. “They came in and I said ‘Is he dying?’ He slept away that week and then…went away.”

“We were married 56 years, he was my life,” she says. “I just know we did the right thing for him. I wouldn’t advise it to anybody, I would just say this is what was right for us.”

“You know your husband’s eyes”

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“I’m the kind of person who thinks they can do anything.”

Sylvia Maisack laughs nervously as she thumbs through the journal she kept as a day -to-day log of her husband’s seven year descent into the depths of Alzheimer’s disease.

“I kept him home with me longer than I should have, probably, past the point where it was safe for me,” she acknowledges.

Turning to a journal entry dated August 21, 2015, she reads: “On the 19th Don hit me hard on the head as I bent over to help put on his underwear. His mood and aggression was present but I was surprised by it, didn’t know he was going to do that. It frightened me to think what if the hit had been harder.”

Luckily, Maisack caught herself on a shower chair after she was struck, but the incident left her right arm in pain for weeks.

“That night I knew, I could have died,” she says matter-of-factly.

In another journal entry from earlier that month, Maisack describes her husband’s accelerating mental and physical debilitation.

“It’s so hard to see Don in his present condition — depressed, irritable, angry, distressed. He seems to have a headache in the morning. He has imbalance, abnormal stance and gait. He’s stooped over.”

Even after the disease robbed him of his ability to read, Maisack says, Don would still struggle to maintain an appearance of normalcy.

“He would sit by the window with a stack of magazines, pouring over them, appearing to try to understand them, and then just end up turning the pages,” she remembers.

It was not the life Maisack and her husband, who grew up together in Hagerstown, Md., envisioned when they moved to New Bern in 1991, following Don’s retirement from NABISCO.

“He worked his entire adult life for the same company, started off in the stockroom,” says Maisack. “In those days people stuck with a company if they treated them right. We got lots of free cookies.”

Maisack credits her experience as a registered nurse working in schools and intensive care clinics with her ability to manage the stress of caring for Don after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2009.

“That helped me probably as much as my faith, which is number one,” she says. “My Bible is always right beside me.”

Maisack says her husband began exhibiting signs of Alzheimer’s as early as six years before his diagnosis. A 2003 note from his cardiologist mentioned that he was exhibiting poor memory retrieval.

“At that time, however, he wouldn’t admit to having any memory problems,” remembers Maisack.

Don’s friends, however, noticed changes even earlier, she recalls.

“I was speaking to one of his golf buddies and he lost his ability to keep his golf score long before I saw changes here at home. I picked it up in other ways, with mistakes in the checkbook, leaving the bridge game at night and he forgets how to get home and it’s only a few blocks from where we live. All of a sudden, that’s what was happening.”

Even after his diagnosis, Don refused to acknowledge his declining mental state, Maisack recalls.

“He was very angry. He still was with it enough that he didn’t want to be told. He was denying it, I was denying it a little bit. I couldn’t even get him to stop driving. He went through a red light… we’re lucky we weren’t killed.”

Shortly after his diagnosis Don was prescribed Aricept, one of the early Alzheimer’s drugs. Like many Alzheimer’s caregivers, Maisack says her husband saw few if any benefits from Aricept or other drugs he was prescribed, such as Namenda.

“Who knows if it did any good,” she says flatly. “I don’t know how you evaluate that when you’re just going on a downward spiral. I can’t say the medications had any effect, because he kept deteriorating.”

Maisack says she made an effort to keep her husband physically active throughout his illness, taking him to Courts Plus three times a week to walk on the treadmill.

“Every patient is different and has their own speed and degeneration. Don lost just about everything except his motor skills.”

Maisack also took Don to the George Street Senior Center in New Bern once a week to provide a degree of socialization for her increasingly isolated husband. She also drew on Don’s love of music and cinema to help keep him calm.

“He was a trumpeter as a young man, he played in dance bands,” she says. “Music very often is a factor Alzheimer’s patients never lose, so I’d put on some of his old records. And the Turner Classic Movies, we’d seen them all but I’d put them on for him. Those were the babysitters, they kept him happy.”

She also began attending the local Alzheimer’s Support Group once a month. “When the members learn something that works for us we share it with each other. That was very important to me,” she remembers.

In the last year of his life, says Maisack, Don’s disease progressed rapidly. Due to tissue degeneration he began having difficulty swallowing food, while weakened muscles in his legs eventually left him unable to walk. On May 15, 2016 Maisack awoke to find her husband sitting on the edge of their bed, unable to stand.

“I tried to get him up but I couldn’t. I burst into tears and told him ‘Well, this is the moment we’ve been dreading.’ Because I had told him from way back, the day you can’t walk is the day I can’t take care of you by myself.

“He looked up at me, with those eyes that understood, and I sat him down in a chair and went and called 911, and they came and took him to the hospital.”

After several weeks in the hospital Don was moved to a hospice facility in Newport.

“He was taken off food and liquids; they kept him comfortable with medication,” explains Maisack. “He was given intravenous fluids, but we didn’t allow any other artificial means (of life support), we had those papers ahead of time from the lawyers.”

On his third day in hospice care, a Friday morning she remembers, Maisack received a call that Don had passed away in the night.

In those final weeks, in the rare moments when the morphine would wear off and he would regain consciousness, Maisack believes whatever was left of the man she married was able to transcend the damage Alzheimer’s had inflicted.

I still think we had a slight connection with that spiritual message that I repeated to him any number of  times, but especially that last week: our bodies pass away but not the spirit, that was the simple message. And he looked at me and…you know your husband’s eyes, and they could speak even though he couldn’t speak, and I think something got through.”

“He could fix anything”

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Debbie Rodriguez’s voice still carries the rich, gritty brogue of the north New Jersey neighborhood where she grew up, a stone’s throw from where she married, in her own estimation, the man who saved her life 25 years ago.

Having divorced from her first husband, and with two young children to raise, Rodriguez remembers the days before she met George, a widow with two children of his own, as a particularly dark time.

“I was probably going to be on welfare, though I never let myself have that happen, had I not met George when I did,” she says. “I probably would have lost the house that I owned. I was making $200 a week and I was paying a $600 a month mortgage.”

Despite an age difference of 13 years, Rodriguez says her husband was an active, self-taught master mechanic who liked nothing better than spending time in their garage, his hands and mind buried deep in one intricate repair job after another.

“He will be 80 in October and I’ll be 67; our birthdays are a day apart,” she confides. “The difference in our ages was never a problem. He used to spend hours and hours in the garage fixing things, piddling with this, piddling with that. He could fix anything, washing machines, driers, anything.”

After the couple moved to New Bern in 2000, George worked as repair contractor across Craven County.

And then, at some point in 2011, says Rodriguez, “that all started to go.”

“He was saying ‘I can’t remember where I put that piece of paper. I can’t remember where I’m supposed to go today, and I didn’t write it down.’ We went through so many different phases.”

The last phase, the one that has left Rodriguez both exhausted and relieved, involved moving her husband to Home Place, an assisted living and memory care facility, 11 days prior to this interview. Much like Maisack, Rodriguez says the choice was taken out of her hands when her husband lost the use of his legs.

“His legs just went right out from under him and he couldn’t get up, and he hasn’t been able to get up since,” she says. “I was literally dragging him around the house. It was inhumane and that’s why I made the decision.”

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Back in the early years of his disease, before he was diagnosed in 2012, Rodriguez says she chalked her husband’s problems up to normal, age-related memory loss.

“So when things started slipping, I’d get up in the morning and our kitchen would have 25 or 30 sticky notes all over the wallpaper. And the handwriting was getting bad; I was having a hard time even understanding what they were saying on the notes. I would notice he would put the wrong month, instead of September 3 he’d put August 3. I’d look at the note and say, ‘George, August 3 was a month ago.’”

Once a stickler about his hygiene, Rodriguez says she noticed George was going days without brushing his teeth or changing his underwear. She recalls that, during a party at their home, he left the house to go sit on a neighbor’s dock.

“This was someone he had worked for. He told them he just didn’t understand what was going on, he was forgetting everything, he couldn’t remember how to do simple things.”

Those early symptoms seem almost quaint compared to the daily trauma that Rodriguez suffered through several years after George’s diagnosis. By 2014 her husband had become a man trapped in his own mind, with little interest in his old passions.

“Everything that he cared about — he used to read for hours, science magazines and Popular Mechanics and Time magazine, he always kept up with what was going on in the world — it all started slipping away,” she remembers. “He’d read on a couple of pages and then you’d just see him sitting there staring into space.”

Two years ago, says Rodriguez, her husband found a new hobby.

“He’ll sit and color in the adult coloring books,” she says. ‘That became his life, coloring and watching television.”

Around this time her husband also become incontinent.

“I was getting up in the middle of the night and changing sheets,” Rodriguez recalls. “You do that and you try to go back to sleep and you can’t. And then you get up in the morning and the sheets are wet again.”

Rodriguez says the stress of caring for her husband took its toll on her physical health.

“I lost 20 pounds due to stress. My clothes were falling off me; that was the only good that came out of the whole thing,” she jokes.

Alzheimer’s also robbed Rodriguez of a clear understanding of her own identity, she says.

“You lose your sense of who you are. What kind of a person am I? Am I a good person, a bad person, a caring person, a non-caring person. What should I do, what shouldn’t I do. Should I get the car washed or should I go to the grocery store? I have to call the insurance agency, I have to call the drug store.”

Since placing her husband in a care facility, Rodriguez says her initial feelings of guilt have given way to a sense that “I can breath again.”

“You do what you think is best but in the meantime you are exhausted beyond understanding,” she admits. “It’s just now, 11 days that he’s in there, and I’m just starting to feel like a person again.

“It’s almost like you’re on a train or roller coaster and you can’t get off, it just goes around in circles and spins and spins and you’re trying to do everything humanly possible.”

Rodriguez credits her family, including her children and step children, with providing crucial support over the last six years.

“Everybody loved George, he didn’t have an enemy. My mother used to joke, I’d ask her if she had to make a choice between me and George who would she take? ‘Well, George of course,’ she’d say. He was just that kind of person.”

Despite her husband’s disease, that essential goodness that drew her to him 25 years ago has remained, says Rodriguez. But the man who once obsessed over wires and motors, who “raised my two children as his own,” is gone she admits.

“He’ll fixate on something on the wall, a speck of dirt or bug. He gets up out of his chair to investigate and falls down; he forgets that he can’t walk. And he’ll sit there like a little child, like ‘I’m sad I can’t get that off the floor.’ He’s very childlike now, very childlike.”

“It’s too much, really”

For each of the women in this story, coming to terms with the loss of their husbands, both physically and mentally, has been a slow, often painful process. What they’ve learned along the way is that love offers little defense against the battering ram of life’s cruelest moments. And that the world, however improbably, goes on.

“It doesn’t have to be the end of your life, it’s just part of the journey,” says Brinson. “If you love someone enough and you believe in your marriage vows then this is just something that you have to accept and deal with.

“You have to learn to go with the flow, and that’s so trite, but that’s the way is. Don’t panic, just take it as it comes.”

Maisack urges caregivers to look after their own health as well.

“There is a safety factor for the caregiver that has to be considered,” she stresses. “The person who has Alzheimer’s is going to die; there’s nothing really that’s going to help them, really. They’re going downhill all the time. The caregiver is very important, but for the average person it’s a lot, it’s too much really.”

Rodriguez says she has struggled with well meaning but misguided friends who simply have no way of understanding what she’s been through.

“Don’t listen to everyone else’s story because there are no two situations alike,” she says. “Just like everybody is different, everybody’s brain is different. When they say ‘My uncle Jack had it and aunt Susie had to do this, that and the other thing,’ it is not comforting, because it is not your situation. In fact it’s irritating. Unless you live it you have no idea.”

For Rodriguez, a measure of peace has come through surrounding herself with others who have lost their loved ones to Alzheimer’s disease.

“Learn as much as you can about the disease,” she offers. “And say a lot of prayers.”

Five decades of big hearts and helping hands

“Good Morning, Gray Ladies.”

As Teddy Hartsell spins around in her swivel chair and pulls the handset of the beige push button phone to her ear, all conversation stops in the cramped third floor office. She turns to a computer on her right and quickly pulls up a list of names and room numbers.

“Well, I guess that’s me,” says Patty Ipock, one of a dozen identically dressed volunteers scattered about the room. She rises from her seat and guides a wheelchair from a back corner out into the brightly lit hallway adjacent a row of elevators.

“I’ll be back,” she calls over her shoulder, as the phone begins ringing again.

“There will be times when that phone is ringing off the hook and there’ll be nobody in here and the orders will be lined up on the table,” says Thomas Barry, as he checks a room number on the computer before heading out the door.

As the room grows quiet again, the conversation picks up, the laughter resumes, and the stories begin, stories of disaster, disease and, occasionally, an Elks Club yard sale.

For the temporary residents housed above and below them, the new day will be filled with fear or boredom, physical pain or the joy of new life. But for the Gray Ladies (and Lads) of CarolinaEast Medical Center, it’s just another Thursday morning.

 

The Gray Ladies

The Gray Ladies began as American Red Cross volunteers who worked in hospitals and private homes during World War II. They provided personal, non-medical services to sick, injured or disabled patients. They also wrote letters, read, tutored and shopped for patients, and served as guides to visitors and as hostesses in hospital recreation rooms and at information desks.

Gray Ladies, who were named for the color of their dresses, later joined forces with other Red Cross workers in caring for disaster victims.

The volunteers were also there at the very beginning of what is now CarolinaEast Medical Center. In 1963, when the facility opened, it was a Gray Lady who wheeled the first patient into the brand new county hospital. Male volunteers, known as Gray Lads, began serving the hospital in the mid-1990s.

Today, the Gray Ladies and Lads play a critical role in making sure patients arrive where they need to be to receive care. In addition to transporting patients, the volunteers are also responsible for mail and flower delivery, equipment transportation and running errands for staff.

The CarolinaEast Health System Gray Ladies and Lads are the last civilian hospital-based group of Red Cross volunteers in North Carolina.

“When I first got here the nurse supervisor told us to do anything we felt comfortable doing that we’d been trained to do that the nurses asked of us,” explains Lummie Faulkenberry, who at age 90 is the longest serving volunteer at the hospital.

Faulkenberry began volunteering as a Gray Lady in 1967.

“I was in my 40s when I started. The reason I got interested in the Gray Ladies is I needed something to do when my kids were in school,” she recalls.

Faulkenberry can remember a time when she and her fellow volunteers were expected to provide a far wider range of services than they do today.

“There’s was a time when we carried the bodies down to the morgue,” she says, a smile playing across her still youthful features.

Faulkenberry, Ipock, and Hartsell, the three most senior volunteers on the Thursday morning shift, have a combined 125 years of service at the hospital.

“The good thing is I’ve been here so long that as the hospital changed I was able to learn as it went along,” notes Faulkenberry. “I know every square inch of this place.”

Hartsell began volunteering at the hospital in 1976.

“I can remember when we had to scour the hospital looking for wheelchairs,” she remembers. “Back then they would page us, they would come on the intercom and say ‘Gray Lady to room so and so.’”

Ipock says her volunteer years date back to a time well before the hyper-organized computer age.

“I worked on Sunday for years before they ever started keeping records,” she comments. “Let’s just say things were a little looser back then.”

In addition to their other duties, the Gray Ladies and Lads also occasionally witness wills for patients.

“We’re not allowed to take patients on stretchers anymore,” says Hartsell, with a hint of disappointment. “But we get a turkey and a ham every year for volunteering and we get a free lunch on our birthdays. How can you beat that?”

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Waiting for the call

The volunteers on the Thursday morning shift begin filing into the hospital around 7:30 in the morning. Dressed in their official uniform of white shirts, blue vests, khaki pants and, most importantly, comfortable shoes they sign in at the volunteer desk and make their way to the Gray Ladies and Lads office two floors up.

And then the waiting begins.

The first call of the morning, a patient discharge, is handled by Ipock.

With her white streaked hair, glasses and hoop earrings, she rushes down the hospital’s hallways with a speed and finesse that belies her years.

“I like a busy day,” she says. “I’m just someone who likes to keep going.”

Backing an oversized wheelchair into an elevator (you always back the patients in so they don’t become nauseous, she explains), Ipock dispenses a bit of wisdom she’s learned over her years at the hospital.

“When I go to transport a patient I take the bigger wheelchair so I can avoid the embarrassment of someone not fitting in the chair,” she explains. “I learned that the hard way.”

After she sees her patient safely off from the pickup area at the hospital’s entrance, she places a slip into the discharge box in the lobby and takes the wheelchair back to the office, where it’s wiped down and sanitized.

She arrives back on the third floor just as Roland Hoekman, an Ohio native who moved to New Bern two years ago, is headed out on a call.

“I did hospice for quite a while, but I wanted to travel, and with hospice you could be tied down for up to six months,” says Hoekman, explaining his decision to join the Gray Lad volunteers.

Hoekman, the class clown of the Thursday morning shift, specializes in putting a smile on the faces of patients who may have little reason for mirth.

“You’re chariot has arrived,” he calls out, as he helps a glum-faced middle aged man dressed only in a green hospital gown out of bed.

As he pushes the patient to the Nuclear Medicine ward for a CAT scan Hoekman quips, “We need to cover you up so the nurses don’t get too excited.”

“Yeah,” says the man, his mood noticeably brighter, “modesty is my biggest concern.”

The patients he sees each week are often in pain, says Hoekman, a reality that he and his fellow volunteers have to be cognizant of during their rounds.

“A lot of the time, even if you have a bad experience with a patient, it’s not a bad experience for you because the people don’t mean it towards you, they’re hurting and I know when I’m hurting I get really tired and crabby,” he says. “They’re laying in a room where people are poking and prodding and waking them up in the middle of the night. I don’t think any of us take that as a personal affront, because we know these people wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t something wrong.”

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Down time

“What we say in here stays in here,” says Ipock, relaxing in the office after returning from another discharge call.

It’s a rare moment when no volunteers are out on calls, and, while the phone sits silent, they fall into storytelling mode, recounting some of their most memorable exploits.

Hoekman speaks about his days as an Angel Flights volunteer, when he provided free air transportation for patients in need of medical treatment far from home.

“One kid I remember, his brain had formed outside of his skull. But he was just this great little guy, the happiest kid in the world,” recalls Hoekman.

He also speaks about a patient who had been severely burned in a trailer fire.

“His skin looked like melted plastic but he didn’t let it hinder him at all, he had all kinds of friends at school,” he explains.

The story reminds Hartsell of a painful episode from her childhood.

“I was burnt on my feet; a pot of scalding water exploded. When my daddy took my shoes off the skin came right off with ‘em. The doctor put peanut butter on my feet, which is probably one of the worst things he could have done.”

Joining the regular volunteers are three high school students, Marissa Smith, Gracie Lawrence and Mandy Zheng, who have been shadowing the Gray Ladies and Lads.

“These girls have been getting educated in a lot of things, life experiences,” jokes Hartsell.

“It’s been a very, very good experience,” offers Zheng. “Just the satisfaction you get from helping others.”

“It’s nice hearing their stories,” says Smith, “and seeing the patient’s smile.”

While they wait for the next call, Julia McGriff, a Gray Lady volunteer who has been sidelined recently due to health problems, stops by to chat.

“They want me to get a pacemaker,” she says, “But I just don’t know.”

After McGriff leaves, her fellow volunteers discuss whether she’ll eventually return to their fold.

“She’s also caring for a special needs son and a mother with dementia,” says Barry, who volunteers alongside his wife, Frances. “That’s a very dedicated lady.”

“The secret of the volunteers,” offers Faulkenberry, “is we stand by each other through sickness or whatever. It’s like a family.”

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Delivery

Terry Jessip, a volunteer for the hospital’s emergency department, knows what truly keeps the Gray Ladies and Lads coming back week after week.

“I’ve watched the team here wheelchair that mama with that brand new baby when they are being discharged, and these are great grandmas and grandpas here, and you watch them take that mom and the cart with the flowers and the luggage and the smile on their faces, and it’s just priceless.”

As he wheels an 8 pound 13 ounce newborn and his mother down to Labor and Delivery, Barry smiles and offers congratulations to the parents. Following behind with the luggage cart, his wife dodges “It’s a Boy!” balloons and tries to keep a set of flower vases upright.

“Yeah, this is always the best part of the day,” says Barry. “Seeing a new life going out into the world and then years later they come back as a young adult, and healthy.”

“I think the main reason people do this is for the satisfaction,” he continues. “Part of the job is not just pushing that wheelchair, it’s talking to the people and asking them how they’re doing.”

Jessip says the Gray Ladies and Lads have been sources of inspiration for his own work.

“This group is where I come to seek wisdom at. You get to see who’s been here the longest, how many people they’ve touched in their lives, which is astronomical. This is a unique family of volunteers at CarolinaEast Medical Center.”

As a  reminder of that “unique family” the volunteers keep a photo of the the first class of Gray Ladies to work at the hospital pinned to the bulletin board in their office. The photo shows a group of women dressed in matching gray uniforms gathered outside of the hospital. Standing in the front row, smiling, is Lummie Faulkenberry.

“The best part is seeing a smile on people’s faces,” she says, the vibrant eyes and wry smile still recognizable from the photo taken five decades ago. “It just brings a lot of satisfaction.”

“You know, a lot us  volunteers talk about retirement,” she adds, “but then what would we do on Thursdays.”

 

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Easterseals program serves New Bern’s special needs community

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Patte Whitfield and her son, Oliver, share a moment together on the patio of E.M.P.O.W.E.R. after school program in New Bern. Oliver, 6, has significant hearing and visual impairment and severe cerebral palsy, among other special needs.

The sights and sounds are familiar to parents everywhere: a gaggle of children racing each other from one fence post to the next; two friends maneuvering an armful of miniature cars and dump trucks across a plastic picnic table; a small girl armed with a red plastic ball chasing down playmates twice her size.

Standing in the middle of the daily whirlwind of activity at E.M.P.O.W.E.R. after school program, a visitor would have to squint hard to differentiate it from several dozen other local daycares. But despite appearances, the New Bern program is addressing an often hidden need, one that all too often goes underserved in small communities throughout the nation.

Located on Trent Boulevard, E.M.P.O.W.E.R. (Engaging and Motivating People through Opportunities, Wellness, Education and Recreation) is a nonprofit Easterseals UCP program that serves individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities as well as their typically developing siblings.

“We definitely consider ourselves helping the whole family,” explained Site Director Katrina Taylor, during an interview at her office. “The biggest benefit of our program to the community is that it really meets a large need that has gone unmet for years, which is just having an array of services for individuals with disabilities to take advantage of, which children that are considered normal just take for granted.”

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Jared Purser, right, and his twin brother, John, take part in a yoga relaxation class at New Bern’s Easterseals UCP E.M.P.O.W.E.R. after school program. The class is just one of the activities the program offers for area special needs children and their families.

The program, which opened in December 2016, was initially funded by a grant provided by Trillium Health Resources, a local governmental agency that manages mental health, substance use and intellectual and developmental disability services in eastern North Carolina. It serves individuals from ages five to 22.

“There were two administrators from Easterseals who wrote a research funded proposal to Trillium,” said Taylor. “Trillium loved the idea because it helped to meet the needs of a long list of individuals who are waiting to receive services.”

E.M.P.O.W.E.R. works with individuals with an array of needs, including autism, cerebral palsy, and mild to severe attention deficit disorder.

One of the keys to meeting those needs was choosing the right staff for the program. According to Taylor, Easterseals provides employees with extensive training, both face-to-face and online. All staff members are required to undergo nonviolent crisis intervention training and are given guidance in dealing with individuals with specific disabilities.

But the most important factor when hiring staff may be one that’s hard to quantify, said Taylor.

“We look at the staff that we bring on, how they might fit and their ability to handle children with disabilities and any unexpected behaviors. A lot of it comes down to personality.”

For staff member Jamie Heath, who has been with the program since it opened, the decision to work with children with disabilities was as much personal as professional.

”I have a lot of family members that have special needs. My son has different types of disabilities and I have two sets of twins in my family that both have autism,” she explained.

Mackenzie Carmon, who was in his third week at E.M.P.O.W.E.R., said the job allowed him to utilize skills not usually accessed in the “normal” workplace.

”I like helping people, helping kids. It’s a challenge to learn something new about different people. It takes a positive person, a person who acts like they have a little bit of kid in them,” he noted.

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Staff member Lauren LaPonza lends a hand to student Lainey Ehlers as they inspect the playground.

E.M.P.O.W.E.R. provides after school pick up for students at area elementary, middle and high schools. Arriving at the site at approximately 3:30 p.m. each day, the students are led through a series of activities that include arts and crafts, sports, and the occasional visit from a yoga instructor.

“I think this week they’re learning about animals and insects. A big focus for us is them getting their homework done, because a lot of kids fight their parents on that,” explained Glenda Lenk, assistant site director.

“Mainly you’re trying to come up with an easy way for them to learn,” added Carmon. “Sometimes they learn better if you can make it into a story. Not so much like school learning, but fun learning.”

Taylor said the students also influence the curriculum.

“They have been very vocal about what their interests are and the staff kind of move accordingly.”

In addition to the after school services, E.M.P.O.W.E.R. also offers respite care and, beginning in June, a summer camp.

Taylor said E.M.P.O.W.E.R. also hopes to initiate a health and wellness program for adults with disabilities beginning this summer. The program would serve young men and women who have aged out of the after school program.

Taylor said the service is tentatively set to begin in August, and would run Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to noon.

“Some of the feedback we’ve gotten from parents is that once they’re out of the school system there’s really not a lot for them to do, with the exception of some different programs that are at the community college that they can transition into,” said Taylor.

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Students Mackenzie Richardson, left, and Lainey Ehlers enjoy a laugh with staff member Shea Barnes.

With the threat of possible funding cuts to after school and summer programs proposed in President Donald Trump’s budget, Taylor said she is keenly aware of how fragile programs like E.M.P.O.W.E.R., which rely on federal funds, have become.

“One of the biggest things is just making sure our program will be sustainable. Fundraising for us is a huge thing. Donations are huge for us. And just having parents involved as well as the community to promote the awareness of the true benefit of our program is important for us as well.”

Patte Whitfield understands those benefits all too well. The mother of five special needs children, Whitfield has long been an outspoken advocate for a program such as E.M.P.O.W.E.R. in the New Bern area.

“I don’t think most people have a good idea of the need in the community for a program like this. I think the common thought is that for kids with special needs and disabilities there’s a daycare just up the street,” she commented.

With three children, Kaden, 14, and 6-year-old twins Lainey and Oliver attending E.M.P.O.W.E.R, Whitfiled has taken over the role of president of the program’s parent advisory committee.

“Kaden has autism and dwarfism; he’s very small for his age. Oliver has significant visual and hearing impairment and severe cerebral palsy, among other things. And Lainey, while she shares some issues with Oliver, is for all intents and purposes a typical six year old,” explained Whitfield.

E.M.P.O.W.E.R. offers a far more congenial atmosphere for special needs children than typical daycares, said Whitfield. Despite the push in some quarters to “mainstream” children with mental and physical disabilities, she believes providing a sense of equality may ultimately be more important.

“I believe there’s a really strong body of evidence for kids to be with other kids that are the same as them. Inclusion is great, but there are also kids who come to a time in their life when inclusion isn’t necessarily the best thing. It’s hard to be the one kid who has a disability with 16 other kids who don’t.”

Like Taylor, Whitfield said she has concerns about the financial sustainability of programs like E.M.P.O.W.E.R.

“With all of the funding cuts that are coming down, it worries me,” she admitted. “This program being able to run itself is important to me, not just for my kids but for everybody that’s coming behind them. We’ve got to fund raise; we’ve got to get the community aware. This is an awesome program but we need the community’s help.”

Whitfield said the after school program has given her children a sense of belonging they’ve never before experienced, a reality that came into focus after Kaden was recently hospitalized for two days.

“When we got home there was a stack of get well cards, and he knew that everybody had wondered where he was and missed him,” remembered Whitfield. “I’m his mom, I can tell him all day long that I love him and miss him, but it’s a different thing knowing everybody here missed him and wanted him to come back. That adage of ‘Where everybody knows your name’ — it’s a powerful thing.”

That camaraderie is evident on any given afternoon at E.M.P.O.W.E.R., as the children file off the buses and excitedly head to their assigned activities.

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Jerry Lotts, Jr. takes a break before tackling another round of arm wrestling with Lindsey Purser.

“Basically, everyone you see here is my friend,” said Jerry Lotts, 14, catching his breath after a game of dodgeball. “I just think of them as being friends, I don’t think of them as weird at all.”

Lotts, who was diagnosed with autism at age 10, said the program had an immediate impact on his life.

“It’s different now because I get to play with kids like me instead of just going home and getting fussed at for not doing my chores. Now I come home and do my chores.”

Lotts said he was looking forward to taking part in the program’s summer camp activities, which will include trips to Creekside and Fort Totten parks.

“If I didn’t get to come here it would be sad,” he offered.

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Kaden Ehlers, left, and Konner Kunigonis bond over their shared love of model cars and trucks.

Nearby, Kaden Ehlers and Konner Kunigonis revved up a line of toy cars before sending them crashing across a tabletop.

“My favorite part is playing with the cars and hanging with my bro, Kaden,” said Kunigonis, adjusting his rakishly-cocked white fedora.

According to Lenk, the children aren’t the only ones who have found a connection through the program.

“It’s nice to see the parents come together and help each other out in different ways and the networking they bring into it,” she noted. “Because sometimes the family will have a need and another family is willing to come in and help them. It is kind of a close knit community that we’re building.”

Taylor said there are numerous ways community members can help support E.M.P.O.W.E.R.

“We need donations. And that’s not necessarily just financial; we’re always in need of different resources that aren’t always covered by our budget. So any way that the community sees fit to get involved with our program, whether it’s volunteering their hours or promoting our program to family members and church members, that’s what we need.”

Lowering her head and touching her cheek to Oliver’s, Whitfield said goodbye to her son and prepared to leave him on a day that would mark his second full week at E.M.P.O.W.E.R. Confined to his metal pediatric chair, Oliver raised his head and smiled crookedly. His friends would be arriving soon.

“My kids are just kids, they love the same things that every kid loves,” said Whitfield. “And the things that are important for my kids are the same as what’s important for every other kid. We just do it a different way.”

For more information about the E.M.P.O.W.E.R. after school program, visit their website at http://www.easterseals.com/NCVA/our-programs/childrens-services/after-school-program-new.html, call 252-670-1955, or visit their site at 1722 Trent Boulevard.

 

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Painting with light: Former Duplin County teacher captured life one frame at a time

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The photos are faded now, their images grown ghostlike and wan beneath years of haphazard care and the slow chemical breakdown of materials that once fixed them in time and space.
Yet, despite their obvious wear, a sense of place lingers in the images, amongst their captured light and shadow, as palpable as the smell of hickory-scented chimney smoke or the feel of rough-hewn lumber on a country church.
The photos serve as a visual last will and testament for Edgar James Wells, Jr., a Rose Hill-born WWII Army medic who returned home to teach English at both B.F. Grady and East Duplin high schools. During his teaching years, Wells was recognized with high school yearbook dedications, teacher-of-the-year nominations and other honors.
But Wells’s influence on the Duplin County community went far beyond his career in the classroom. A talented pianist, he played at numerous local weddings, funerals and church services.
And after retiring from teaching, he became something of a gentleman gypsy, a man who appeared to be everywhere and nowhere at once.
James Boney, a Teachey native who grew up with Wells, can still remember his friend knocking on his door at night, stories on his tongue and a camera in his hand.
“It was absolutely nothing, 11 or 12:00 at night to meet him on the road going or coming,” Boney remembers. “Or he would show up at our door at 9:30 or 10:00 at night and just come in and sit down and visit until whenever. But before you started talking about anything, he’d have to take your picture.”
After Wells passed away on July 28, 2015, Boney, who served as the administrator of his estate, got a first hand look at the thousands of photos Wells had taken and collected over the years.
“There were six of us in his will and what we did was we spent, I don’t know, like four weeks, three days a week, of nothing but going through his pictures. There’s a room at his home in Teachey and the whole wall was stacked up with packs of pictures,” says Boney.
The packs were distributed among Boney and the others named in the will according to the contents of the photos. Whoever could identify a family member or old home place took home a packet.
Boney guesses many of the photos date back to the 1960s.
“We didn’t find any old, old pictures,” he says. “Edgar moved like five or six times and I’m sure he took pictures back in his younger days as much as he did in his later days. But we didn’t find any from the ’30s or ’40s; that’s what I would have wanted to have found.”
Though the pictures that Boney and his wife, Norita, brought home represent only a handful of Wells’s photographic output, they show a man nearly obsessed with capturing the details of daily life: church dinners; artfully decayed buildings; blonde-haired children laughing on a newly-cut summer lawn;  a gas station attendant casually leaning on a gas pump.

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And according to Boney, hundreds and hundreds of flower photos.
“Every time he was at our house he had to go in the backyard and snap away at the flowers,” he remembers.
There’s nothing polished about the photos Boney brought home. But their power will be familiar to anyone who’s ever discovered a  box of yellowed snapshots in a thrift store or family attic. It’s the power of memory, of faces and landscapes that linger on the edge of dreams, of a time when the world seemed lit with a different, gentler sun.
They aren’t the work of a photographer schooled in composition or overly concerned with the fine details of exposure. No, it’s clear that Edgar Wells picked up his camera, aimed it and fired the shutter for the  simplest, and most profound, reason imaginable — for the pure pleasure of the thing.
“He mostly used the little throwaway cameras in his later days,” Boney remembers. “We found some older 35mm cameras also and a Polaroid, probably a dozen cameras or so in his belongings. And tube after tube of film cartridges; he didn’t throw anything away.”
In his final years, Wells moved back and forth between the Murray House in Kenansville and the Country Squire Inn in Warsaw. But he also kept a house in Teachey to store his belongings, including the photos.
“There were several houses, nice houses, that he just stored stuff in,” explains Boney. “He went in and they were… his friends.”
According to Boney, Wells took great pains to have his photos cropped and printed to the standards of his own eccentric eye.
“He would get the pictures printed and he would outline them with Post-it Notes, and he would highlight the portion that he wanted to see better and he would take those back and have them re-printed to that portion. He might have 10 made, and once he looked at them and got them like he wanted them, that was pretty much it, they went over in his box.”
Though the Boneys were able to identify many of the people and places captured in the photos  they brought home, some remain a mystery.
“This one was taken in the Teachey Presbyterian churchyard in the 1930s,” Boney says, holding up a faded black and white image of children crouched in a circle. “We don’t know who anyone is in there.”

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Another mystery photo shows a group of somberly dressed men flanked by horse-drawn carriages outside what appears to be a country store.
“Edgar’s mother was from Monroe, and this may be from there,” Boney surmises. “It may just be something he saw that he liked and had a picture made of a picture. We just don’t know.”

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Wells’s photos have inspired Boney’s own creative pursuits. Though many of the houses seen in his friend’s photos no longer exist, Boney has made miniature replicas of a handful that he remembers from childhood.
“That’s my little hobby. This was my dad’s grocery store back in the ’50s and it was right where the Teachey Post Office is today,” he says, pointing to a model perched in the shed behind his home. “I’m trying to build the houses that are no longer here.”
Even in the final days of his life, Wells kept a camera at his side, the Boneys remember.
“When he was in the nursing home and people came in he wanted a picture. He got to the point where he couldn’t press the button on the camera,” says Norita.
“Then I would have to go get them developed for him,” her husband laughs..
Until the very end, Wells remained involved with the lives of his former students, says Norita.
“He would go to their homes and meet their parents. He’d come and talk about somebody he knew and then he’d talk about their grandma or their aunts and uncles, their whole family. His memory was sharp.”
And along with his photos, Wells left James and Norita one final, appropriately unique gift — a new addition to the backyard  flowers he once loved to preserve on film.
“When he went in the nursing home I had to help move his stuff out of the Country Squire,” recalls James.
“There were two bags of daffodil bulbs that he had bought that were still in a shopping bag. And here they are. So that’s Edgar’s daffodil corner.”

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Boney

 

Voice of experience

LLFObasohan

Austin Obasohan’s voice still carries the rich, singing accent of the small Nigerian village where he grew up, an accent that can, at times, deceive American ears. But when the Superintendent of Duplin County Schools speaks about education, there’s no mistaking his very clear determination to make a difference in the lives of children, a determination born of both struggle and faith.
“The best way to open up the minds of our children is education. If you have knowledge, you can impact the world, you can have conversations that will bring people together,” says Obasohan, relaxing in his office on an unusually warm winter’s day last week.
Born in 1959 in southern Nigeria in the village of Nifor, a farm community not unlike Duplin County, Obasohan’s family struggled to make ends meet. As the oldest son of seven children, much of the burden fell on his shoulders.
“It was a very, very poor community,” he remembers. “I had a lot on me. Not everybody could go to school in my village; it’s not like here where we have free education, you have to pay some fees, and we struggled with that.”
At age nine Obasohan’s parents sent him to work for his father’s uncle, a man of means who offered to pay  their son’s school tuition in exchange for his labor.
“I was like a houseboy or something. The deal was I serve them for four years and then they pay my tuition for four years,” he says.
Though he’s loath to label it as such, Obasohan’s years of indentured servitude sound little different from outright slavery.
“I never got to really eat the food that I cooked, I barely had what was left. So one day I start frying these eggs for them, and it smelled good in the kitchen,” he recalls. “Because of fear and my respect for authority, I knew I better not take anything to eat, even though nobody’s watching me while I’m cooking.
“So one day I got mad and I fried an egg for me and I ate it.  Man, they came and they saw me and they whipped my tail.”
The arrangement with his uncle ultimately ended in acrimony.
“Man, it still gets to me, even today, to think about it,” Obasohan says. “When it was time for me to go to high school he disappointed us and told us he doesn’t have any money, that the money he planned to spend on me he was going to spend expanding his wife’s business.”
After returning to Nifor, the teenager was forced to stay back a grade to give his parents time to raise money for his sister’s education. And like one of the tall tales told by grandparents all over the world, Obasohan actually did walk four miles, one way, to school each day, rain or shine.
“I walked those miles everyday because education was so important and I didn’t want to let my father down, and I knew the only way I could handle the load behind me was to get my education,” he says emphatically. “I know the only way I can get out of there and restore a sense of pride to my family was make that sacrifice.”
For years, Obasohan walked those miles in his bare feet — he wouldn’t receive a pair of tennis shoes until the 12th grade.
“We would walk and do our homework on each others backs,” he says, mimicking the maneuver. “At night there was no electricity, so we had to be creative.”
Like a lot of children small of stature and limited in resources, Obasohan also suffered at the hands of bullies.
“When I was little I was so short, so small. I thought I was going to be 5’2” max. I got whipped so bad in school by these big guys, they beat me up good. I had no economic class, I had no voice.”
Obasohan used the abuse as motivation to defeat his tormentors the only way he knew how — academically.
“So after I got beat a lot I said ‘Man, what am I going to do.’ So I turned that anger into getting more serious at academics. Now those guys wanted me to help them with their schoolwork, so they became my bodyguards.”
That drive would eventually propel the young man from his home country in search of opportunity. He would land first in the United Kingdom, where he earned his bachelor’s degree from Sussex College of Technology. Touching down in the U.S. in 1981, he received his doctorate from Appalachian State University, and his specialist and master’s degrees from Virginia State University.

LLFObasohan
Obasohan would go on to work as a teacher and assistant principal in New York,  Virginia and North Carolina.
“That first year of teaching in 1981 (at the New York Career Institute) I said ‘Man, this is it.’ And I’ve been married to it ever since,” he says.
Coming from a deeply religious family, Obasohan said he drew comfort from his faith during those early days in the States.
My mother always told me ‘If you just find the Christians, the people who have the same faith as you, then adjusting to the culture will not be difficult. It’s the same way all over world, whatever faith you chose, it’s the same way of worshiping the same way of doing things.”
In 2008 Obasohan took over the superintendent’s job at Selma City Schools in Alabama. Two years later, he was hired by the Duplin County Board of Education to head up the county’s school system.
Obasohan said his goal was always to serve as an administrator, a role he knew would allow him to implement policies benefiting students and educators alike.
”I was seeing the professional practices that were occurring, the policy implementation that was occurring in the schools where I was working, and I knew I wanted to treat these kids better than that,” he explains.
As the father of three children with his wife, Uyiosa (daughter Modesty, and sons Justice and Trust) Obasohan has seen the sacrifices he made during his own childhood pay off in front of his eyes.
“I tell them the stories of what I went through. They don’t have to walk to school, and I’m just so happy we were able to give them a better life,” he says.
The young boy who once bore the brunt of cruel classmates has grown into a passionate defender of bullying victims.
“People don’t understand what bullying does,” he states. “Bullying is a way of oppressing others, taking other people’s rights away, and it’s just wrong. It really destroyed me when I was growing up.”
Now in his seventh year at Duplin County Schools, Obasohan said he remains as committed as ever to providing the best educational opportunities for each and every student.
“Myself, and my community had no resources at all,” he says of his early life in Nigeria. “I want every child to know that circumstances do not define your destiny. It is how you respond to your circumstances. Every challenge I went through I saw as an assignment to make a difference.
Obasohan said he still lives by the words of his 90-year-old mother, who he talks to by phone every day.
“My mother always told me: ‘It’s better to say this is the spot where a man was killed for standing for what is right, than to say this is the last spot where we saw the man before he ran away.’”
“You can’t choose an assignment you’re not willing to die for; education is what I’m willing to die for.”

LLFObasohan