SPENCER — 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.'”
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.'
“I said, ‘This will take my mind off me, and I will get a chance to do something for someone else.'”
The perfect person
Her Sunbeam supervisor Georgetta James asked Benford about hobbies and likes.
James told Benford, “I've got the perfect person for you to meet.”
That's when Benford met Ethel Wilcox, who was raised in Muskogee, but has lived in the Oklahoma City metro since 1945.
Ruth has been a senior companion to Wilcox for about five years through Sunbeam. But it's difficult to tell who's helping whom the most in the close-knit friendship.
Wilcox for years had a prayer ministry in which she would use her own ink and stamps to mail prayers to prisons and other countries. With time, it got to where she couldn't do it alone. But now, Wilcox chooses the prayer and Benford enlarges it on a copier. About 50 to 60 prayers are mailed out each month.
This is so important that one day Wilcox asked Benford whether the work would be continued when she is no longer on this earth.
“She has asked me if she was to go to sleep, would I continue this, and I would,” Benford said. “She's a sweetie. I love her.”
With those words, Wilcox shakes her head, begins to cry and says, “The Lord has blessed me. I've had a lovely life.”
Sixty years separated the time between when Benford graduated from a high school in Denver until she earned her bachelor's degree this summer. Coincidentally, when Wilcox was in her 70s she went back to school at Rose State College, Benford said.
Both believe strongly in new purposes.
“What she doesn't know is that she did more for me than I could ever do for her,” Benford said. “When I came to Mrs. Wilcox, I was sinking in quicksand.
“She recycled me.”