Seniors help in NC

Retirement for 80-year-old O.A. Collins isn't a game of shuffleboard in the Florida sunshine.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | DURHAM, N.C. | December 18, 2002



"That has been my joy -- to help others and serve God's love."

—Sturgeon


Retirement for 80-year-old O.A. Collins isn't a game of shuffleboard in the Florida sunshine.

What most people would consider backbreaking manual labor, Collins considers rest and relaxation. He does it for free, and he does it without complaint.

Collins was one of hundreds of Southern Baptist volunteers working to cut up and clear away trees felled from the Dec. 4 ice storm.

Collins, born and raised in Kentucky, began volunteering in disaster response in 1996, and he has been working full-time at it ever since -- all year long.

His work has brought him to North Carolina four times before. All four occasions were hurricanes -- Fran, Bonnie, Floyd and Wilson.

Hurricane cleanup, he said, is obviously a lot different than ice storm recovery. For one thing, following a hurricane, more people are homeless and hungry.

So in the past, Collins has done a lot of cooking-something for which the Southern Baptist Men are famous in the disaster response community.

But in the situations like the one here in North Carolina-where there are not a lot of hungry people-he's out in the field, sawing up trees and hauling away logs and sticks.

"This is the greatest thing in the world," Collins said, adding that volunteers provide not only material help for people, but spiritual comfort as well.

Collins said he and his fellow workers help anybody, even people who might be well off and able to pay for the work they are getting for free.

"Whether it's rich or poor, we go in and do it -- we don't even question."

Does he plan to call it quits any time soon?

"Let's see now -- not until the Lord calls me home," he said, "and I'm ready to go, but I'm not going to go jump off a bridge now."

Collins is certainly not the only senior citizen involved in cleanup in North Carolina. Most of the volunteers, in fact, are over 60, said Gary Dowell, of Versailles, Ken. Dowell, 49, is one of the youngsters of the group.

"These guys are 60, 65, 70 years old, and they'll outwork you and me, and they won't complain," said Dowell.

"We're not only here to serve," Dowell said, "but we're there for people to see Christ in us. And we have a good time doing this."

Sturgeon "Monkeyman" Leathers, 72, is another volunteer who's been actively enjoying this kind of work since 1987. Leathers, like Collins and Dowell, is also from Kentucky.

Leathers said he and his wife, who had been doing missionary work since the mid-1980s, "just fell in love with disaster response," he said. "So we've been with it ever since."

Leathers has worked disasters "everywhere up and down the whole coast," and as far west as an Oklahoma City tornado. He's served as a missionary in Russia, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Leathers, once a dairy farmer, sold his farm in 1976. Since then, he's worked as an independent salesman for Southwestern Petroleum Co., and he also does roofing work. He's still selling and roofing today.

"I'm still staying quite active," he said. Performing horticultural work in a local graveyard is another way he keeps active.

Leathers has acquired more than a few nicknames over his years as a disaster worker- "Monkeyman" among them.

At one disaster, Leathers and his team were confronted with a tree that had collapsed on top of a house. An argument ensued about how best to get the tree off the roof. Some suggested ropes; others were talking about ladders and cranes.

Leathers shook his head.

"Give me a saw," he said, "and I'll show you how to take that tree off the house."

Using only a chainsaw, Leathers climbed up and down the trees, patiently cutting off all the limbs. His almost simian-ability for tree-climbing promptly got him the nickname of "Monkeyman."

When Leathers crawled back down to the ground, the tree trunk lifted itself off the roof and stood straight up in the air.

That's not all that unusual, Leathers said, since a tree's roots can act as a powerful counterweight, especially when all the limbs have been removed.

But at the time every one working nearby was thunderstruck.

"Look!" someone shouted. "Monkeyman was holding down that tree."

"No," Leathers said, "the Lord was just holding it down until I got off."

"The good Lord has taken an old dairy farmer and moved me around the world," Leathers said. "That has been my joy -- to help others and serve God's love. This has been my way to reach out and share with others. It doesn't matter to me if I'm out with a chainsaw or cutting down trees or out picking up sticks. Where the Lord puts me, I try to serve."


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