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Oklahoma City woman, 78, earns college degree and finds new purpose in life

After Ruth Benford earned her bachelor's degree in July in human services, she found a new purpose in life becoming a companion to Ethel Wilcox, who is 98.
by Bryan Painter Published: September 16, 2012

Ethel Wilcox gazed at the white-laced decorative holder filled with potpourri, sitting in her lap.

Surprisingly, this decoration had been a scuffed up, old low-heel dress shoe, ready to be discarded. That is until the 96-year-old gave it a new look, a new purpose.

As Wilcox, of Spencer, admired it, she placed her frail right hand on the forearm of 78-year-old Ruth Benford of Oklahoma City. Benford graduated in July with a bachelor's degree in human services from the University of Phoenix.

The extremely energetic Benford not so long ago was by her own accounts “bitter, angry, depressed and confused.” That is until she became a senior companion to Wilcox, who gave Benford a new outlook on life and helped her find her purpose.

Through Sunbeam Family Services, Benford spends at least four hours a day, three days a week with Wilcox. They talk, they joke and they laugh. They also mail out prayers and make crafts such as earrings, beaded necklaces and hats to wear to church. And Benford is not finished with her education, she said. She plans to earn a master's degree in psychology through the University of Phoenix.

“The way that Mrs. Wilcox remade me is to restore my faith in Christ,” she said. “Because I had so many unexpected events in my life, I kind of didn't want to go back to church and said I wasn't going to go back. She encouraged me to go back to church. She said, ‘God has a perfect plan for your life.'”

Open doors

Benford has experienced great loss.

Her husband, John, died in February 2006 and then in 2007 her son died. With that, three of her five sons had died.

“I must have cried for maybe a year and half off and on,” she said. “I couldn't understand why all of this was happening.”

Then one day she decided to quit focusing on the doors that had been closed in her life. She began walking through those that were open or turning the knob to reveal the new.

“I was sitting there crying about all the things that I didn't have anymore, and then one day I just decided to focus and be grateful for the things that I did have,” she said. “I decided to utilize what I have, which is my mind, my ambitions, my eagerness to help people. This is how the University of Phoenix helped me find my purpose. Then I saw this advertisement about Sunbeam Family Services and being a senior companion. I said, ‘Hey that's something I can do, volunteer work.'

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by Bryan Painter
Assistant Local Editor
Bryan Painter, assistant local editor, has 31 years’ experience in journalism, including 22 years with the state's largest newspaper, The Oklahoman. In that time he has covered such events as the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah...
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