This week Brittany (a fellow Story Gathering Intern) and I visited worksites in Sullivan County and got to know several homeowners. It was great to see how the volunteers, staff, and homeowners all interacted with such kindness.  

The Sullivan County staff told us about Debby. The Center Director said Debby knows all about the land, how to garden, and all sorts of things. She was kind enough to introduce us to her, and getting to know her was a treat. I learned a lot about hard work and generosity.   

Meeting Debby

We knocked on the door and heard “Come on in!” As we walked through the kitchen, Debby was sitting at a purple desk with her granddaughter. She got up to welcome us into the living room and explained what they were up to.  

“I’m teaching her Venn Diagrams. I’ve been helping her this summer to get ready for third grade.”  

After saying hi, her granddaughter kept working while we all exchanged introductions. Debby told us she has lived in her house since 1988 when she and her husband moved from Bristol, Tennessee.  

As we kept talking, her granddaughter asked if she could have a snack break. After getting the go ahead she disappeared into the kitchen. A few minutes later she came back with some leftover milk in a cereal bowl.  

“Can I take this out to the cat,” she said.  

Debby responded, “No just leave it by the sink. I’ll take it later because the rooster is out, and I don’t want it to hurt you.” 

Debby turned and told us about how she gives leftover milk to the cat because she doesn’t like to waste things if she can help it. If a toy or anything else has stopped working, she tries to fix it on her own. If that doesn’t work, she tries to find a YouTube video to teach her. If that doesn’t work, “I guess it’s just destined for the trash.” 

“Some people might call it cheap, but I call it thrifty,” Debby said. “It’s important to take care of what we have because there aren’t any free rides in this world—well, there aren’t many.” 

It became apparent that Debby has worked hard all her life. She had always wanted to be a nurse. So, when she and her husband saw the opportunity to go to school for that, she pounced on it. She said some people are confused by her love for science classes, but she just thinks it’s amazing how much we can learn. 

“I make sure I read every day,” she said. 

Right now she’s reading about the benefits of herbs and plants. Peppermint, apparently can help with calming anxiety, and cayenne pepper, it turns out, can help with ulcers.  

Another recent read for Debby was a university study that said the color red can increase plant growth. So she sets red food-colored water by the plants in her garden. 

“I just love to try new things and see how they work,” she said with a grin.  

She also prepares special water for her plants. She soaks egg shells in the water before watering, that way the calcium can go straight to the plants when she waters them. Then she adds the egg shells to the compost to help the soil later on.  

A Tale of Two Bandits

Debby gets her eggs from the chickens that live by the garden. Recently, they ran into some trouble with some ambitious raccoons.

One morning when Debby woke up, she noticed a hole had been dug under the chicken coop fence. She thought, “A raccoon must have snuck in to steal some chickens!” She counted them all up, and fortunately all the chickens were still there. The rooster must have fought it off.

The next morning, however, was different. When she woke up she counted the chickens. Two were missing. She figures that the raccoon must have called in backup because that’s the only way they could get past the rooster.

“He keeps them real safe,” she said. “If something threatens them, he’ll raise his claws up and spin them almost like they’re knives. He’s smart too. Anytime a hawk flies over, he leads all the others under the trees.”

Debby aids in the defense effort too. She’s started screwing shut the chicken coop every night because raccoons, if they set their mind to it, can open latches.

As Debby talked, she showed a wealth of knowledge, intention, and hard work at the base of how she cares for her place and her family. With the resolution of a rooster, or I suppose a mother hen, she protects it. 

“Free of Charge”

When she and her husband moved to the 3 acres of land, they spent some time making repairs on the house. Some friends from church were happy to help them out. Apparently Debby’s husband had helped them out previously, and when they asked how much to pay him he said it was “free of charge.”   

It might seem like such generosity goes against the idea that “there are no free rides.” But I don’t know if it does. Debby knows there aren’t free rides because anything good takes work. Her granddaughter knows it (Venn Diagrams can really be a pain sometimes). And their rooster knows it too (don’t get him started on those rowdy raccoons). But the need for hard work doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as generosity.  

This reminds me of something a volunteer told me this week. Dave has done 31 weeks of volunteer work with ASP. As he wore his purple bandana and took a short break from nailing vinyl siding, I asked him why it’s so important to him to keep coming back.  

He smiled real big and said that it might seem like he’s given a lot over these years of volunteering. But he doesn’t see it that way. He compared it to lyrics from Tennessee Ernie Ford, a Sullivan County native. The song is about being a coal miner, and the chorus starts like this: 

“You load sixteen tons, what do you get? 

Another day older and deeper in debt.” 

Now you might be thinking, “What in the world does that have to do with ASP?” Well, Dave explained it. He said that when he gets back from volunteer trips he always feels like he’s received far more than he’s given. It makes him want to “repay his debt” by volunteering more. And the cycle continues.  

Of course, the debt of coal miners that Tennessee Ernie Ford sang about was a different type of debt, and that is a topic for another time and someone much smarter than me. But I just love how Dave applied the song. Ha smiled when he said, “Another day older and deeper in debt.” It was as if he’s happy to be in debt because it allows him to keep giving and keep receiving.  

Service may be important for more than the economic benefit. It might just be that debt incurred from things freely given is a debt that we need because it binds us together. Dave goes deeper and deeper into “debt” and returns for more because the hard work of service connects him to others.  

Debby teaches her granddaughter the importance of hard work, like learning Venn Diagrams. And she practices what she preaches by working hard to take care of her family and home. It also became apparent that she has passed on to her granddaughter the gift of gift-giving.  

Throughout our visit, Debby’s granddaughter persistently proved to be a pro at hospitality. After placing the cereal bowl by the kitchen sink, she brought us a snack, handing us cheese sticks and candy canes. I was hardly finished enjoying the cheese stick when she brought us something else: Easter eggs filled with goodies.

The jelly beans were generously delicious and free of charge, the best sort of gift you can hope for.

Isaac Wood
Story Gathering Intern