Tag Archives: kindness

Millie, the Turtle Teacher changes the world one student at a time

When a person works in the same profession for 62 years, there is no doubt they love what they do. Such is the case with Millie Shuford.  Born in Asheville, North Carolina in 1927, during the Coolidge administration, she left in 1944 to attend college at Mars Hill just north of Asheville to study history and English. She went on to receive a Mastor’s degree in English at Wake Forest University. Her education served her well as she spent the next several decades impacting class after class with her knowledge infused with kindness, compassion and encouragement.

Millie Shuford and Muffin
Millie Shuford and Muffin

English was the subject most near and dear to Millie’s heart throughout the years. One of her favorite stories is about the time she was given a class of 8th graders that had caused two other teachers to up and quit. It was in the early years of de-segregation and the kids were an unruly bunch. Millie described her first impression of the class as going to war—the kids were used to getting up and walking around or talking any time they wanted to. Millie’s first task was to get them to share ideas—but speak one at a time. After a couple of weeks, she was able to get them in line and begin to enjoy learning.

About that time, a band was scheduled to come to the school. She mentioned to the principle how excited her class was about the band. He said that since he knew how disruptive her class was they couldn’t go. She tried to assure him they would be fine, but he disagreed. When she told the kids, they were very sad; so she went back to the principle and asked again—promising him they would behave. Again he said no. She was determined that her class would attend the concert. So one morning, at a break; she picked up her pocketbook and went back to the principal’s office to ask one more time. Before he could say no, she told him, “If my class cannot go, then I cannot stay here as a teacher.” He could tell she meant it. He finally relented, but said they better be good. Her class was so happy—they attended the concert and behaved perfectly.

Millie Shuford as a young teacher
Millie Shuford as a young teacher

One of her greatest joys in teaching was to help her students get ready for college. She recognized that the kids needed extra training in order to succeed in life and was able to make significant changes in the way teaching was done. She was also instrumental in helping her kids find scholarships to go on to college.

Millie’s impact on the children and the education system of Myrtle Beach, SC is displayed by the street around the school that was named after her called “Shuford Avenue”.

One day, Millie read a poem to her kids about turtles – how they had such struggles to grow up because of all the obstacles they had to overcome – their legs were short it was hard to walk and they had a heavy pack on their backs, and yet they could do amazing things and live wonderful lives. The students could really identify with that, so they started bringing her turtles. She received so many she had to create a place to display all the turtles – over 400. There were stories about each one. The kids loved to look at and talk about all the turtles, Eventually Millie became known as the Turtle Teacher.

Another animal that she had an impact on, or better said had an impact on her is a darling little rescue dog named Muffin—so named because the doggie’s shaggy fur is the same color of the muffins her mama always baked for breakfast when she was a little girl.  The original owners found they didn’t have the time or inclination to care for the little doggy, and left her out on her own to wander the neighborhood. When they were asked if they would like someone else to care for the dog they immediately agreed. Muffin moved in with Millie and they are living happily ever after.

Other evidence of her impact is the abundance of letters she has received over the years from former students thanking her for the wonderfully positive effect she had on their lives.

Tommy Dodd, a former student wrote in a heart-felt letter, “This note is no praise, but the deepest thanks are owed to you. You have been much more than just a teacher. You have given me encouragement, and an inspiration to express myself. I only hope that every guy like me gets assigned a teacher like you somewhere in his educational life.”

His letter ended with a phrase she wouldn’t have thought he would say when she first met him, “May God bless and keep one of the kindest sweetest, most beautiful people in the world.”

Millie said her desire was always, “To realize that I’m capable of living on my own, and taking care of others, and doing something important.”

I believe she has accomplished that immeasurably.



Has your world been touched by dementia? My recent book, “Finishing Well: Finding Joy in the Journey”, is a collection of stories and  tips finishingwellinlife3Dcoverabout doing life with my Mama. May it encourage and inspire you to find the joy in your own, unique journey.

Find our group on Facebook 

The Messenger

Muriel Aasve Blankenship (Mama)

Over the past decade or so, my Mama’s communication skills progressively deteriorated throughout the entire journey of the disease called dementia (perhaps Alzheimer’s).  The first indicators that something was wrong began to manifest as seemingly normal conversations included statements that were repeated over and over (We referred to those incidents as her loop).

As time went on, her conversation skills melted slowly away as her ability to string sentences together decreased.  At first it was a back and forth thing – there were good days and bad. The good days gave us hope, while the bad days confirmed we were still on the same downhill path.

For a period of time, Mama retained what I called ‘Muscle Memory responses’. For example, if you asked her how she was doing, she would respond, “Fine.” Or, “Would you like something to drink?” her answer might be “No”, but then she would proceed to pick up the glass and drink it right down.

Mama’s ability to sing remained long after her ability to speak went silent. We knew a lot of songs and so the majority of our visits were spent singing. Eventually, her ability to sing left as well, so I sang all the songs for both of us.

In spite of the fact that her voice was silenced, Mama still had the ability to communicate with her eyes. Quite often when I was singing, reading or praying, her eyes would fill and tears would roll down her cheeks. I found a few Psalms, such as Psalm 23 and 71 that seemed to fit her so I read them to her over and over. I knew they would minister to her spirit so it felt as if I could still ‘do’ something for her.

Over the course of this extraordinarily long journey, various folks would comment that it seemed such a shame about her condition. I had more than one conversation with the Lord regarding it as well. Early on, our family was determined that we would do everything possible to help Mama finish well, but there were times that I wondered just what could be the purpose for this lingering a little longer.

Then one day while reading Psalm 71 to her, I noticed something. Verse 18 says, “And even when I am old and gray, O God, do not forsake me, until I declare Thy strength to this generation, Thy power to all who are to come.

I wondered how Mama, who couldn’t even speak, be able to declare anything about God to anyone? I gave it some thought. I pondered it. I wondered.  Revelation came to me over time. I learned that the word ‘declare’ could also mean ‘messenger’.

Mama was a messenger. Her life was a message that didn’t need words. She silently communicated that God did not forsake her.  In spite of the long, downward journey into the valley of the “Shadow of Death” that lasted over a decade, Mama’s sweet quietness steadily declared God’s strength to everyone around her.

This season also gave her family something else. Time. The extra time we were given allowed us the opportunity to show her honor. Honor due a parent and honor to a fellow human being. We had time not only to care for her, but her condition opened doors that we never would have otherwise walked through.  We were able to get to know both residents and caregivers alike, and these visits were full of chats, sharing the love of Jesus, joys and concerns as well as praying and singing. Perhaps even providing hope to someone else on a journey that God will give them strength as well.

The day came and Jesus sent the angels; her work here was done. Mama finished well.

Twiddle de dee

I remember watching my grandma twiddle her thumbs back when I was a little girl. It fascinated me. She did it all the time – usually while she was sitting in her favorite chair and either visiting or watching TV. She told me it was good to have something for your hands to do while you were waiting. That made sense to me and I remember trying to copy her when she wasn’t looking. It doesn’t seem like that big of a deal now, but back when I was very young, teaching my thumbs to twiddle felt like a huge accomplishment.

finishing-well-in-life-twiddle
This one is from AbuelaVicky found at Etsy.comhment.

It turns out that no matter how old you become, it is still good to have something for your hands to do. Last year I wrote a post called For that Fidgety Feeling” about something called Fidgety quilts. I loved the idea.

When my Mama lived with us while she was in the middle stages of dementia, she constantly needed something to do. Prior to the onset of dementia, she both knitted and crocheted. But as the dementia became more and more pronounced,

BizzieLizzieKnits
This one is from BizzieLizzieKnits found on Etsy.com

she found it difficult to maintain any type of ongoing focus.  She would quickly become bored and forget what she was working on.

We kept her busy with short-term activities such as folding warm towels, sorting colored beads into small bowls according to their color, and one of her favorites: picking lint off of sweaters. Before dementia struck, Mama was very detail oriented. It made sense as she was a laboratory scientist and paying attention to details was extremely important.

If I had heard about fidgety quilts back then, I believe that Mama would have loved the idea. The fact that they don’t require any special skills or knowledge to play with the various ribbons, buttons and interesting items attached to the quilts makes them perfect for every ability level.

I recently watched a short news video on BBC titled: “Lancashire knitters ‘twiddle muffs’ dementia tool plea” where there was a plea for area knitters to make and donate “twiddle muffs” to local hospitals. The muffs are a great idea – especially if you are a knitter. If you don’t knit, you can still purchase a Twiddle muff for your loved one. They seem to be a bit less expensive as well as more portable than the ‘Fidgety Quilt’ so would make a marvelous Christmas present for a loved one who tends to get fidgety.

Twiddle Kitty
Twiddle Kitty

Once you begin to look, you will discover a whole world of items designed to help give loved ones’ fingers something to do and perhaps reduce periods of agitation.

If you happen to be a knitter perhaps you might consider creating a few extra twiddle muffs to bless someone who could use a thoughtful and helpful gift this Christmas season.

Finally finished

Have you ever noticed that the longer something takes to complete, the less likely it gets accomplished? I am a project person. Perhaps I get bored easily, but it seems to me that I always have something I’m working on. I can usually finish my short-term projects before I run out of steam or interest, but those that take longer….well, all kinds of things can crop up to interfere with my best intentions.

There are a host of reasons for not completing a task. Plans get canceled, seasons change and people pass away. I’ve begun some things (usually a craft project) only to  discover that I don’t have quite enough talent or ability.

So it came as a nice surprise, that I happen to come across a notebook– my ‘Grateful Journal’ that I had begun keeping back in 2012. It was in response to a book I had just finished reading titled: “One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are” By Ann Voskampfinishing_well-in-life-1000

According to her website, Ann Voskamp’s story is not happily ever after. As a child, her sister was crushed under a truck in front of her and her mother. Consequently, her mother checked herself into a psychiatric hospital and her father couldn’t find God. As an adult, she stood beside her brother-in-law as he buried his first two sons. Voskamp is a wife and mother who does not grin through the pain but battles to believe that in God is joy, and that there are as many gifts amid the grittiness of life as in the moments of celebration.

It’s a compelling narrative that challenged me to develop a more grateful heart in my everyday life. I began keeping a journal to create a list of 1000 things on my own journey towards a more grateful heart. Somewhere along the way life got busy, the journal got misplaced, and I didn’t even notice.

So as mentioned, I came across my journal. I sat down and began a trip back through time by way of short numbered entries:

  1. A warm shower
  2. Putting Aria’s letter in the mailbox
  3. Playing chess with Bambi

….there were also entries that had a star scribbled on the line, those were the ones where I chose to be grateful:

  1. Brian’s funeral *
  2. Didn’t get to Skype with Lillie & Zuri*
  3. Found lots of tomato worms*

As I read through the entries and scribbles, my heart began to melt. I remembered the various moments of joy, gratefulness and sorrow. Reading on, I realized that through it all, a picture was emerging from these pages – a picture of God’s faithfulness. It struck me that I needed to pick it back up and finish – all the way to 1000 entries.

Many, many months later, I’m happy to report that I have finally arrived at number 1000! Interesting thing though – now that I’m there, I can’t stop. I have discovered that life will move on with or without our noting, but the simple act of recording moments of gratefulness does something to our hearts as we move on with life.

Give it a try. Either read the book first to get a better idea, or grab a notebook and begin your own journey of gratefulness.

How Grace remembers

While visiting with a friend the other day, she shared with me about how hard it was taking care of her Mother. It seems that she and her Mom were never close, but due to circumstances of life, it fell to her to be the caregiver as her Mother developed dementia and grew increasingly less able to care for herself.  At first she kept contact by phone, and then one day when there was no answer, she frantically raced over to her house to discover that her Mother had fallen and hurt herself.

After a knee-replacement surgery, my friend brought her Mom home to live with her. My friend confided in me how distressing it was for her to see her Mother in such a helpless state. She said that looking back, she realized there was more she could have done to ensure her mother’s well-being – but she didn’t realize the severity of her condition. Her Mother passed away not too long afterwards.  She carried a quite a few regrets and was consumed with guilt. My heart broke for my friend as I assured her that I too am no stranger to guilt and regrets.Jumping Bright People 2

The next day, as I was spending some quiet time with the Lord and reading the bible, I came across a passage in Psalm 105 where God seems to be reminiscing a bit about Israel. There is one particular part describing how He delivered them from Egypt and cared for them in the dessert. Verse 40 tells us, “They asked and He brought quail, and satisfied them with the bread of heaven.” As I was reading I thought, wow, what a picture of grace! See, the account back in Exodus 16 shows us a fuller picture of what a bunch of whiny grumblers they were. It is interesting that Psalm 105 doesn’t mention anything about their grumbling, just that He provided quail and bread. It’s clear that God remembered their actions, but He chose to focus on the good.

Thinking about His grace, I realized that perhaps this could be a key for my friend to heal from some of her guilt and regrets. Since her Mother has already passed away, she won’t be able to ask her for forgiveness, but she could begin by confessing her regrets to the Lord and asking Him to forgive her and help her find peace. Moving forward, she could do as the Lord did in Psalm 105, and focus on the good. Let the sad, bad and ugly memories be replaced by the better ones.

A second witness is found in Hebrews 6:10 where the Lord assures us that He is still looking back over our past and remembering the love and kindness we have shown to others.

We can follow His example by doing the very same thing for ourselves. It’s never too late to change our focus.

 

Seasons

While Wayne and I were visiting with Mama today, a new resident was wheeled into the activity room and up to the table where we were sitting. I was busy chatting with Mama while spoon-feeding her some thickened water, so I didn’t pay much attention to the new lady.

At one point, she told us her name was Amy and asked us what Mama’s name was, “Muriel”, Wayne replied.”

“I was hoping to talk to her,” Amy said.

We explained that Mama doesn’t talk much these days. “She likes to listen to others talk, and likes to sing…well, she used to sing, but she still likes it when others sing.”

Amy nodded her head. Then she began singing softly.

At that moment, I was so sad that Mama wasn’t able to talk – she would have really enjoyed visiting with Amy.

I resumed giving Mama her water. We finished our visit and began our goodbyes.  I looked over at Amy, she was praying softly. What a wonderful lady, I thought to myself.finishing_well-in-life-almond

As I walked outside underneath the gloomy-gray, overcast skies of winter, I happened to notice a lovely almond tree in full bloom. How beautiful, I thought, here in the midst of winter is a spot of beauty.

I remembered that God used the almond branch to symbolize His watching over Jeremiah. I smiled as it occurred to me that God can bring a spot of beauty even in the midst of winter.

He didn’t suddenly change winter to spring, He simply made something beautiful blossom in the middle of it. He didn’t change Mama’s winter season of life, but He brought Amy to blossom in the middle of it.

We can all find a way to blossom in the midst of someone’s gloomy day.

Who are you?

I’m not saying I’m predictable, but on the rare occasion, if I happen to act uncharacteristically, such as ordering something different off a menu, or suggest we see a Sci-Fi movie rather than a Chick flick with a good ending, my husband will say, “Who are you and what have you done with my wife?

I believe we are all a bit predictable to some degree. After folks have known us a while, they might be able to anticipate some of our reactions to certain questions or events. The way in which others see us respond to various occurrences might actually be the result of our ‘social filter’. Something might annoy us, but since it would be impolite to show the annoyance, we smile and let it go.

Now, I’m not saying that it isn’t a good idea to be polite, show finishing-well-in-life-questionconsideration and act kindly to others, but some recent observations have convinced me that we might want to do a bit more than ‘act’.

I was attending a class recently that my sister teaches. She was recounting a recent visit she and a friend of hers made to our Mama (who is in the final stage of dementia).  During the course of the visit, her friend remarked how sweet and kind our Mama has always been, and that the dementia didn’t seem to change her personality any—she was still as sweet as ever. My sister responded that she believed that it was because Mama was so nice on the inside, and when she lost her ‘veneer’ it didn’t change who she really was—that it wasn’t simply a social nicety. At that point, her friend quipped, “Uh, oh, I better begin working on becoming nicer on the inside now, so when I lose my social veneer, it won’t be such a dramatic change.

Another person in the class said that they had heard it put that, “We are who we are, and as we age, we become more so.

The bible teaches us about the need for certain qualities such as showing mercy, genuinely forgiving others and ‘walking humbly with our God’.

There is no time like the present to work on becoming a better version of who we really are.