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LaVerne Thomas: 32 years at Baptist Village but not retiring from ministry

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WAYCROSS — When she was in her late 20s working on her and husband’s farm, LaVerne Thomas could not think of being any happier.

She had a full-time job as a mother, housewife, and helped with farm chores when her husband wasn’t working at the railroad. When she was in her late 30s and her family was largely grown and out of the house she was busy welcoming grandchildren into the world.

That’s when, one night as she sat in her church pew, she listened politely as the Georgia Baptist representative spoke in her church, soliciting feedback for the possible founding of a senior citizen’s home outside the city limits.

“Sounds like a good idea,” she remembers thinking as she threw her support behind the eventual ministry and continued on with her life.

But unknown to her – as the empty nest syndrome began to hit home – she would eventually graft her life onto what would become Baptist Village and serve there for more than three decades.

On Dec. 29 Thomas ate celebratory cake and nibbled on nuts and fresh vegetables on a crudité platter as she and longtime friends closed the door on 32 years and 2 months on the ministry’s nursing staff.

Retirement is launching pad for second career

The memories flowed like punch but Thomas knew it wasn’t the end of a career. Rather, it was the launching pad for a second chapter of her life, in some ways just as busy as the first half.

“In those early years I spent a part of my life working our small family farm. It wasn’t a large operation, only about 300 acres. But we raised our four sons and a small herd of cattle, some chickens, hogs, goats, guineas, and some riding horses.

“A large part of the land was in timber,” she adds.

It was a good place to raise boys and they learned responsibility with a variety of chores. Her sons were active in Royal Ambassadors at Mount Calvary Baptist Church in very rural Brantley County.

But that empty nest eventually got to her, especially as the farm was put up for sale. In the quiet of those days LaVerne admitted to herself that she had never asked the Lord what He wanted her to do with her life.

“One day I was washing some blackberries and I heard God speak to me with His answer. A strange warmth, a calmness, came over the room and the hair on the back of my neck stood on ends, if you know what I mean.”

A surprise answer from God

God told her He wanted her to serve Him in nursing. Even though she had never had a class or inclination to serve in the medical field and was nearing 50 years of age.

She picked up the phone and called what was then known as Waycross-Ware Tech and inquired about enrolling. The woman on the other end of the line told her she was welcome to do so but the nursing class only had 30 positions and already had 50 applicants. She was encouraged to apply for another field of training, she says.

“I politely replied ‘No thank you, I’d like to apply’ because I believed in my calling that much.

“I went right out and purchased some good shoes because I knew I’d be needing them for classes. A few weeks later, after the interview with the administrator, I was accepted and enrolled in the School of Nursing,” she remembers.

The students rotated among a variety of local medical settings to gain experience and hone their skills. One of the rotations was at the same senior citizens home she had learned about in church years earlier. That’s when she received the second part of her calling.

“I never had a desire to serve anywhere else,” she says.

Thomas applied and was given the nursing job while she was completing her licensed practical nursing degree. She became a fixture at the facility and watched it grow through the years – beginning in 1984 – as it added more beds to new wings, branching out from the original independent living villas to assisted living and then skilled nursing care options.

Though she could have furthered her career – and her paycheck – with an advanced degree as registered nurse, she never felt the call to serve in administration, supervising other.

Serving on the front lines

“I enjoyed being on the front lines, ministering directly to those people in their later years. I was serving God by serving and caring for them.

“Those senior citizens are so special, they need care just like anyone else in society. That was also the vision of Harvey Mitchell when he advocated for Baptist Village in the 1950s."

The years flew by as LaVerne worked all shifts, but primarily the 3-11 p.m. time slot. She worked every wing in the Village, even a time or two as a nursing assistant and ward clerk, answering the phones.

“I did whatever needed to be done,” she says without boasting. “Even washing bedsheets for patients whose illness exceeded the limit allowed by the laundry service.

“My happiness came from giving quality care to the residents; they were far more like family to me than just residents. You know, when you have a family member who is sick you want to give them the best possible service. And that’s what I did … I loved them,” she says with hesitation.

Thomas’ life could be divided into three segments. The first was her family, the second was her career blended with her ever-expanded children and grandchildren, and the third her retirement. But she does not see the third being any slower or less committed than the previous two.

Becoming more involved in the life of Pleasant Valley Baptist Church

“I have no plans to do anything big in retirement but that doesn’t mean I don’t have plans. I want to be far more involved in my church – Pleasant Valley Baptist Church, another very rural congregation – than was possible when I was working.

"I was involved earlier in my life with Woman’s Missionary Union and rotated through the nursery and served as a greeter at church, but my job prevented me from being involved at a greater level,” she notes with a hint of regret.

She then begins to check off a list of things she wants to pursue at 82 years of age.

  • “I want to join the Tuesday morning sewing class, Sewing Sisters, who have donated quilts, lap robes, and such to the needy.”
  • “I want to work in Vacation Bible School. It meets in the evenings but I worked nights so I wasn’t able to help. I don’t know how they will use me but I want to do something.”
  • “I want to join the choir.”
  • “I want to work the Wednesday night church dinners. I am able to wash dishes – I already have long rubber gloves if necessary – but I can do whatever they need.”

Thomas also plans for more time with the next generation in her family tree. That means spoiling six grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, and two great-great-grandchildren.

She doesn’t see retirement as retiring from serving God.

“I’ll still be serving Him, just not on a time clock.”

Since the first five residents came to live on the Waycross campus in 1958, Baptist Villages and Retirement Communities has expanded to three locations serving more than 600 senior adults. For more information on the Waycross, Macon, and Lake Park communities visit baptistvillage.com or call (912) 283-1234 or toll-free 1 888 662-3395. Delos Sharpton serves as president and chief executive officer.

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