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Octogenarian shares grief and joy by volunteering
03 July 2006
by Michael Abernethy

Kinston, North Carolina, USA: Sammy Oliver has found that taking care of others is often the best way to take care of yourself.

The life-long Lenoir County resident, who will be 87 in August, began volunteering at Britthaven of Kinston in December. Since then, he’s seen a drastic change in his mood, the way he feels and how he spends his free time.

“It’s like a 150 percent (difference),” Sammy said Saturday after making his usual rounds at the nursing home. “I’m feeling better all-together. I hardly ever even turn on the TV now.”

After the death of Cora Mildred Oliver, his wife of more than 66 years, Sammy felt lost. Grief left him moody, depressed and withdrawn. His family saw he wasn’t taking care of himself like he should.

Concerned, his daughter Betty Carol Kinny intervened on Dec. 21 with what Sammy called, “one of the toughest pep talks I’ve ever had.” Kinny told him to get out of the house and find something to keep him busy. Volunteering at Britthaven was one of her first suggestions.

The next day, Sammy found a position there helping staff take care of patients.

Sammy now walks at least three miles a day. If he’s not assisting staff there with activities such as recreation, board games and reading, he goes from room to room checking in on some old friends and many new ones.

“In recreation, there are only two people older than me but they all call me, ‘Mr. Sammy’,” he said with a grin. The former Marine served during World War II, and you’ll still catch the glint of youthful determination in his blue eyes.

But there’s tenderness as well.

Sammy considers it a privilege to fellowship with patients there, taking them on trips outside or visits to the hairdresser. He always tells them they look better each day than they did before and gives them a pat on the shoulder or a hug.

He’s also happy to learn the ropes and serve with volunteers who’ve been there for years. Sammy’s quick to point out that he’s the new kid on the block at Britthaven.

“There are just great people here,” Sammy said. “They are just the nicest group of people I have ever met. And everyone works together: You will notice that.”

Sammy made his living as an auto body mechanic. In the 1970s, he taught courses at Lenoir Community College. He finds it difficult to give up the trade. Most afternoons and evenings, one will find him in his backyard repairing lawn mowers and bicycles.

“My whole ceiling is hung with bike tires, wheels and chains,” Sammy said. “You can sell parts of bikes and make more money than you can selling whole bikes. I learned that in the salvage yard.”

When he’s not fixing bicycles, he’s riding them. And he enjoys keeping in touch with his three daughters, Betty Carol Kinny, Cora Mae Davenport and Sandra Kent Wilcox.

“You come and it’s different every day,” Sammy said, after returning a patient. “I was a long time feeling comfortable here. But I consider it a privilege when (patients) will allow me to do things for them.”