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Nonagenarian credits volunteer work for her longevity

Thelma E. Burton, 91, has been volunteering for decades. The effort has helped her live a long and fruitful life.
by Ken Raymond Published: June 19, 2012

“He told me he (Burton) had passed,” she said. “That was a real shock to me.”

Finding her way

Thelma was a widow at age 47. She had to look after herself and her children.

Fortunately, she'd already found a way.

Sometime before his death, her husband's union had gone on strike. Worried that her family would go hungry, Thelma contacted an employment service. She was hired by a wealthy woman who wanted Thelma to dust the house and take care of her pampered dog.

The woman's lifestyle was far from Thelma's experience. She was raising her children in the projects. She wanted to get them out, move them into rental property just outside the tenement zone.

When her employer heard about the plan, she asked Thelma why she'd never looked into buying a home. The idea seemed crazy to Thelma. Who would loan her money?

The answer was right in front of her. Her employer gave her $10,000 to put toward homeownership, and for the first time, Thelma's family had a place of their own. The house “wasn't perfect or nothing,” she said, but it was theirs.

Over time, the house's problems became too much. The downstairs area was without heat, and one of Thelma's daughters developed pneumonia. Again, Thelma's employer stepped in to help.

With another $5,000 gift, Thelma was able to buy a better home. She remained a property owner throughout the years, even as she moved to the Oakland area and to Sacramento.

Burton's death benefits and pension put Thelma on sounder financial footing. Long before then, though, she'd begun volunteering.

In the early 1950s, she'd volunteered to head the food service program at the Uptown Church of Christ in San Francisco. She continued in that role for more than 50 years.

Her charitable efforts included donating clothes and giving financial help to those in need. Sometimes she opened her home to total strangers. Once, after a man fell out of a crop-duster and was injured, she allowed him, his wife and their five children to move in with her.

“Thelma also volunteered as head cook for vacation Bible camp for several years, providing free food to community children,” her granddaughter, Charlotte Carey, wrote in a nomination for the Salute to Senior Service award. “Much of the food served was donated from her own pocket.

“Thelma has also been known for holding special classes teaching young women how to keep house, raise children and treat their husbands. ... She has ... provided a ‘safe home' for numerous developmentally disabled adults who would otherwise be homeless, teaching them life skills which later would serve as a trade by which they would become gainfully employed and self sufficient.

“All of her trainees became successful at living independently.”

A Sooner state

Moving to Oklahoma was a test of Thelma's independence.

She is lucid and engaging despite a dementia diagnosis. She only stopped driving when she got lost on a familiar route when she was about 87. She stands up to exercise most days — quite an accomplishment for a woman who has been issued walkers and a wheelchair.

She tries not to use them. In fact, she said, when she flew to Oklahoma to determine if she wanted to move in with her granddaughter, she abandoned her walker in the baggage claim area. Just walked off and left it behind.

Once she'd moved here, Thelma instructed her granddaughter to take her to every senior center in town.

She fell in love with the Metropolitan center because it smells pleasant, offers a variety of activities and has a good mix of white and black residents.

She is active in the Northeast Church of Christ, 4817 N Martin Luther King Ave., where she cooks for Bible school students. She donates money to the church's prison ministry.

In short, she thrives.

“That's the life of a senior citizen,” she said. “The more you can stay active, the longer you'll live.”

by Ken Raymond
Book Editor
Ken Raymond is the book editor. He joined The Oklahoman in 1999. He has won dozens of state, regional and national writing awards. Three times he has been named the state's "overall best" writer by the Society of Professional Journalists. In...
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