When Shelley Oxenham, U.S. Projects Specialist, and I met with our Volunteer Coordinator, Brenda Curry, at Fallsburg Elementary School in August, the first thing Brenda wanted to talk about was a very special family that she had arranged for us to visit with that afternoon. Stewart and Carolyn Sawyer live in a small home in Lawrence County, Kentucky, about a twenty-minute drive away from the school, where their son, Michael*, who is sponsored through Children Incorporated, is in the eighth grade.
Of the nineteen children that are in our program at Fallsburg Elementary, Brenda has the greatest connection with Michael and his parents. They are more than just a family that Brenda has helped to get support when they have needed it over the years - the Sawyers are like family to her. She has known Michael since he was in preschool, and she talked about what a sweet little boy he was, and how he always gave her a hug when he saw her in the hallways.
In the ten years that Brenda has been a coordinator for Children Incorporated, she has grown close to Stewart and Carolyn, too, who live only a few minutes from Brenda and her own family. Brenda described them as amazingly kind, humble, and grateful for everything they have in life, even though they are very poor, and struggle to get by.
Volunteering to show gratitude
Stewart and Carolyn have been together for fourteen years, and Michael, who is thirteen years old, is their only son. Many years ago, Stewart owned a garage where he was the head mechanic; but hard times fell on him, and he lost his shop, and everything he owned. Now he works odd jobs, mostly doing landscaping for local families – and much of that work comes as a result of referrals from Brenda. But the work is inconsistent, and it pays very little.
Carolyn has struggled with health issues for many years, and is unable to work. With only one income to support them, the Sawyers struggle to get by, as do many poor families in Eastern Kentucky.
But Brenda told us that, despite the difficulties they face, both Stewart and Carolyn consider themselves lucky, and do whatever they can to give back to the community. They are grateful for Michael’s sponsor because without that support, there would have been many years without a Christmas, and Michael wouldn’t get new school clothes or supplies when times are tough.
Because they want to show their gratitude to others for helping them when they need it, Stewart and Carolyn regularly volunteer at the school in order to give back. Stewart often helps out with special events, like directing traffic during the Fall Festival, and helping to set up and break down tables and chairs when the school hosts holiday parties. And Carolyn works with the pre-school children at the school, mostly reading to them and helping their teacher out as best she can.
Feeling blessed through it all
After we visited with Brenda at the resource center, she took us to meet Stewart and Carolyn at their home. Their house sat on a hill along a narrow gravel road, far off of the main highway. When we arrived, they greeted us warmly, and invited us inside. We walked up to their tattered porch, old wooden boards creaking under our feet. It was obvious that the house was in need of repair. Inside, the floors were worn, the wallpaper was peeling away, and the furniture was torn and stained. Stewart and Carolyn had done their best to make this house their home, using what little they had.
As we sat down in the living room to talk, I noticed black plastic trash bags scattered about the floor. Stewart told us they were filled with Michael’s toys, which they had bagged up because earlier in the year, the chimney began to fall, damaging the wall between the living room and the back bedroom. Stewart spent months tearing it down and repairing the wall so they could use the bedroom again.
On top of that, Stewart spent the summer ripping up the floor of their small home to replace rotten boards, because the floor had started to cave in. His next project would be to start replacing boards in the walls between the living room and the kitchen, which were now too short because of the repairs he made to the floorboards.
It was overwhelming listening to him talk about his endless repair list - but the whole time he spoke, Stewart had a smile on his face, as though he didn’t have a care in the world. Even when he talked about having recently wrecked his truck upon swerving to avoid hitting a dog that ran out in front of him on the road, he and Carolyn giggled at the story of the small, mangy animal not knowing how much damage it had caused to his vehicle.
As we were listening to their stories, Brenda noticed that their air conditioning unit was no longer working, and offered to find a new one for them. She felt confident that she would find someone in the community willing to donate one. Both Stewart and Carolyn thanked Brenda for having the idea, but declined her offer, because they knew there were other people that could use one more than they could - and they instead talked about how blessed they are each and every day.
After we said goodbye to Stewart and Carolyn, Brenda drove us back to the school. On the way, she told us about how Michael always buys her a Christmas gift - something small from the dollar store, like a necklace or earrings - with money he saves helping his grandfather with odd jobs throughout the year. Just like his parents, Michael, who doesn’t have very much, has found a way to go above and beyond to give back to others - to say thank you for all that he feels that he has to be thankful for in life.