Sharing Hope, Lighting the Way

By Brad McEwen

Editor’s Note: This the second part in a special series where Brad goes Beyond the Bank to explore the impact cancer has had in multiple Southwest Georgia lives, and to highlight this year’s Phoebe Foundation Lights of Love tree lighters, whose incredible stories of hope and kindness provide inspiration for all and help fuel the important work Lights of Love in doing throughout the SOWEGA community.

Robert Thomas – Americus

While a cancer diagnosis would likely have most folks dwelling on the negative—wondering how they would get through it, or worrying about all the help they’ll need getting to doctors’ appointments and treatments, or simply maintaining some semblance of their normal day-today-lives—Americus resident Robert Thomas had a much different take.

For the Robert, the news that he had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, or “bone cancer” as he put it, sent his thoughts where they often go—to thinking about others.

“I like volunteering,” Robert told me during a recent interview recognizing him as this year’s Lights of Love tree lighter for Phoebe’s Sumter County campus. “When I was younger, when I used to work at Davidson, I used to raise money and all to take kids fishing—kids of single parents, people that their father wasn’t able to do it, or stuff like that.

“I love being around kids and the way I felt was, every kid should learn how to fish. I think I had about 350 kids that got poles and I taught them how to fish.”

Back then, Robert recalled, he just did what he could, saving some extra money and raising a little too, just to get it started. And before he knew it, his idea had caught the attention of others wanting to do their part to help out.

“The first year I did it, I paid for it myself and I bought six or seven poles,” Robert remembered. “The next year, it went up to about 20 poles. People were volunteering to give me money. And then the third and fourth year, Davidson donated to me and I went over to Walmart and got poles. And I would go over to Purdue, the chicken place, and they volunteered and gave me about 80 pounds of chicken livers (for bait).

“I would go to the Boys and Girls Clubs; I knew the manager there and I told him, ‘Look here, I’ve got enough for 50 or 60 kids and if you will let me use your bus, I can take the kids where it ain’t going to cost them nothing. All they got to do is just go fishing,’” he continued. “And I did that about four or five years.”

During that time, Robert said he also worked with the court system to help children who had been removed from their biological parents’ homes, and work with them to help them see a better future for themselves.

“I would go to fish with the kids and talk to them or go check on them in school and stuff like that,” he said. “And even go by their houses and check on them and stuff like that.”

As Robert saw it, by spending time with those kids he wasn’t just looking out for them and teaching them a safe hobby they could enjoy their whole lives. He was also providing them with alternatives to getting into trouble. And the impact of that was not lost on those whose lives he touched.

“Even four or five years after I stopped doing it, people would come up to me and say, ‘I want to thank you for taking my son out fishing,’” Robert recalled fondly. “They’d say, ‘You know, he’s still got that pole. He hung that pole up on the wall and he’ll take that pole down and go fishing and I know where to find him at night, or out in the daytime. He out fishing.’

“The way I see it, you teach a kid how to fish and stuff like that, they don’t want to do other things. They’d rather sit by the pond and go fish than hang out on the street and sell drugs or do something stupid.”

At 66, the effects of his cancer and a lifetime of hard work now requiring the use of a cane to get around, Robert isn’t able to take disadvantaged children fishing anymore, but just a mention of those halcyon days and his mind quickly, and happily, drifts back in time to the genesis of his desire to help others, particularly children.

Growing up in Connecticut as the oldest of 8 siblings, Robert said he started working at a young age to earn a little spending money, but also to help support his brothers and sisters, and ease any financial burdens the family was struggling with.

“I been working since I was 13 years-old,” Robert said. “I always took little jobs.

“They had this thing (up in Connecticut) called CRT; it’s Community Renewal Team. And in the summertime, you worked for the city doing little odd jobs and stuff like that. And it would give you 10 dollars a week and put 25 dollars a week in the bank. I was able to buy them school clothes, so my mother didn’t have to worry about buying no school clothes.”

Robert said that early experience eventually led him to a job in a restaurant, and ultimately yet another avenue to serve others, primarily young folks.

“I started working at a restaurant at night,” Robert said. “I started as a dishwasher, got good at that and I became a waiter. I got good at that too, so they taught me how to cook and help clean. I raised my brothers and sisters, so I learned to cook and feed them and take care of the house.

“I love cooking. It’s one of my favorite hobbies.”

While Robert mentioned cooking as a hobby, in truth it’s much more than that, as he actually went to “trade school,” to improve his cooking and at various times won small awards, like Student of the Month, thanks to his culinary skill.

And while he is no doubt proud of his abilities, and the recognition he’s received for demonstrating his talent in the kitchen, it’s clear he’s much happier about the fact that he’s been able to impart his love of cooking and some of his skills to others.

A devout Christian and life-long churchgoer, Robert said his culinary abilities eventually opened the door for him to teach youth cooking classes at his church. Through that ministry, Robert said he was able to impart many of the same important life skills he once learned, and then taught and his siblings, to a whole new generation.

“I would teach cooking classes, you know, just for kids,” Robert said. “They had to be a teenager to come in there. I’d teach once a month and I would teach them how to do basic stuff like make gravy or how to cook eggs, how to fry corn bread, hoe cakes and stuff like that. I taught them how to make lasagna, how to make pasta salad and different things, like how to cook greens and stuff like that.

“I really enjoyed teaching the kids how to do that.”

And his actions clearly had the desired impact, as Robert shared a powerful experience he once experienced, when going out to eat and crossing paths with one of his former students.

“I had one young boy,” Robert said. “I was at Ruby Tuesday and he came up to me and said, ‘You don’t remember me do you Mr. Thomas?’ I said no and he said, ‘You taught me how to cook for my mama.’

“It was just him and his brother. She had to work. So, he learned to cook from my cooking class and he would cook and fry biscuits and stuff like that so his mama didn’t have to cook when she came home.

“And he learned important stuff that you learn through cooking. I mean you got to learn when you cook. You’ve got to learn to know you can’t turn the stove on and go watch TV. You can’t do that.

“So, I taught the safety things, how to adjust the heat and stuff like that, so the kids would be safe.”

Throughout our conversation, Robert returned to repeatedly to his past working with children, but it was also clear, as much as he “loves kids,” he’s simply hardwired to help others, no matter their age.

Nearly a decade after he made the decision to start curtailing his volunteer work after years of physical decline following his diagnosis, treatments and a bone marrow transplant eight years ago, Robert’s willingness to help others is still evident.

In fact, it’s Robert’s willingness to spend time with others to hopefully boost them up, that he feels is the reason he was asked to be this year’s Lights of Love Tree Lighter for Phoebe Sumter—even if that news came as a total (albeit quite pleasant) surprise.

“That lit my face,” Robert said of getting the email from the Lights of Love team. “I was looking at the email and I said to myself, ‘that must be {Phoebe Oncologist} Dr. (Jose) Tongol; must be something he said or did,’ because he’ll use me sometimes to talk to some patients that have the same sickness I have.

“I would talk to them, explain what I was going through, ask them what they were going through,” he continued. “I would talk to them and give them some guidance or help them out. And tell them, ‘You’re going to get through this. You’re going to have some good days; you’re going to have some bad days.’

“I would try to build their confidence up, let them know what had happened with me.”

Cancer free for almost a decade now, Robert still relishes his regular visits with the team at the Phoebe Sumter Oncology and Hematology Clinic in Americus, where he gets to interacted with folks like Dr. Tongol and the many others who he credits with providing him with the joy and inspiration to minister to others.

And while Robert’s situation isn’t much different than what the vast majority of cancer patients endure, the mere fact that his focus remains squarely on others, is testament to his character.

Much like my own father, who succumbed to cancer more than 15 years ago at the age of 59, Robert’s faith has remained strong and his focus has remained outward, despite the fear and difficulty he has had to endure during his own cancer journey.

“Chemo ain’t no joke,” Robert said of one of his treatment regimens. “All I wanted to do was sleep. And when the hair start falling out, and stuff like that, and my body was weak and stuff like that, it was hard.

“One of things that I had was that my skin came off; every bit of my skin came off my body. From my head to the bottom of my feet. I didn’t realize what was going on, you know. I felt this coming off and first it would be the hands, then it would be your face, ears and stuff like that, your nose and then your legs.

“That stuff will scare you.”

Despite that fear, and the fact that he ultimately endured a full bone marrow transplant and continues to take myriad medications and vitamins to this day, Robert said he has never felt sorry for himself.

And he has not lost his desire to do what he could to help others, which he still tries to do whenever he can. When I asked what he tells fellow cancer patients, or anyone else who simply needs to know they are not alone, his message is pretty simple and direct, as well as inspirational.

“Prayer,” he said. “You got to pray. And ask the Lord to watch over you, to guide you, guide your heart, your mind.

“Prayer builds the body up. It filled me up, built my body up. So, for the times it gets bad, I just pray about it. And leave it in the Lord’s hands because he’s going to do what he’s going to do.”

Having seen the power of prayer at work during my own family’s battle with cancer, I concur with Robert.

But rest assured my prayers will also include those of thanks for amazing people like Robert, the Phoebe Oncology family and the countless folks who support Lights of Love and its mission.

To learn more about Lights of Love and the myriad things this initiative is doing to better the lives of countless cancer patients across southern Georgia, visit lights-of-love.org

And be sure to mark your calendar for this year’s Tree Lighting ceremonies at Phoebe’s three area campuses.

Tree Lighting Schedule

Worth County: Phoebe Worth Medical Center (807 S. Isabella St., Sylvester); Tuesday, Dec. 1, 7 p.m.

Albany (virtual): Facebook @Phoebe Foundation or at lights-of-love.org, Thursday, Dec. 3; 7 p.m.

Sumter County**: Phoebe Sumter Medical Center (126 Hwy. 280 W., Americus); Tuesday, Dec. 8; 6 p.m. **Hosted by Phoebe Sumter Foundation

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen 

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