Like so many Broome County Council of Church volunteers, this year’s Lives of Commitment Honorees give, and give, and then give some more.
And they say they get a lot back, too.
Those return blessings come in the form of deep satisfaction, human connections, and the abiding awareness that they are helping others by serving as God’s willing hands on Earth.
Being celebrated this year for their generosity of spirit are: Debbie Thorpe, Faith in Action Volunteers honoree; Jeff Kellam, Broome County Council honoree; and The Sew ‘n Sews, the Lives of Commitment Community honorees.
For 13 years, Debbie Thorpe has been part of the BCCC’s Faith in Action program, which empowers people age 60 and older to be active, engaged and involved in community partnerships. She has worked for Faith in Action Volunteers as an assessor, driver, and occasional shopper. On top of all that, she just started her newest mission, as a Friendly Visitor.
“I don’t think I do as much as so many people do,” said the self-effacing Debbie, who lives in Endwell. “There’s so much need but so few people.”
Volunteering has given her the opportunity to meet and talk with so many great people in the community, she said.
“I’ve always loved history, and you hear a lot of people’s histories,” she said. “What it was like back in the day, how they feel about things — you do it for them, but I get a lot out of it, too.”
What she doesn’t get out of it is financial reward, although she could.
“When they try to give me money, I tell them to donate it to Faith in Action,” Debbie said. Sometimes the recipients of her kindness really want to “repay” her somehow, though, and Debbie understands the need to give.
“One lovely lady — I used to take her out quite a bit — every time I picked her up, she’d give me a couple pizzelles she made! I must have mentioned at some point that I love pizzelles!”
She credits husband Don with being “the penultimate errand runner” because he now shops for people, too. “He’s a big support for me,” Debbie said. The two have two children and two grandchildren.
Born on Long Island, Debbie moved to the area in 1971. After she graduated from Syracuse University, she began her career in geriatric social work, applying her skills and talents in several local long-term care facilities. Much of her career was spent at Good Shepherd Fairview Home, where she served as residential services administrator and the licensed administrator for the adult care facility.
After retiring from that career, Debbie followed her passion for gardening and reinvented herself as the “Weed Wench” in a business where she maintains gardens and yards for 20 clients. She also spends as much time as she can in her own garden. As Debbie likes to say, “Gardening is all about me, God, and the sun!”
When she’s not elbows-deep in dirt, flowers and weeds, Debbie can often be found volunteering. She helped establish and now coordinates the Soup and Sandwich Saturday free meal program at her church, All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Johnson City. She’s also involved in an interfaith group to bring understanding and education to people of different faiths through fellowship and education.
Debbie also served on several community boards and now sits on the Board of the Johnson City Senior Center and the advisory board of the Willow Point Rehabilitation and Nursing Center.
And that’s not all! Continuing a passion for music that began in her early youth, Debbie plays French Horn with the Vestal Community Band. She also likes to travel — especially to a sunny beach! — and read.
Remember the famous words, “It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!” ?
We could write another version for this year’s Council honoree, with every exclamation an accurate assessment of this multi-faceted individual: “He’s a retired Presbyterian minister!” “He’s a writer, blogger, videographer and talk-show host!” “He’s Jeff Kellam!”
“Retired” is a word that doesn’t fit him very well, though. Rev. Jeffrey Stanton Kellam of Owego isn’t slowing down any time soon. He co-hosts the Council’s “Encounter” program, introducing movers and shakers to the community. He’s equally comfortable behind the camera and has served as film maker-par-excellence in many and varied capacities throughout his long career.
Among the stars that have crossed his path as an interviewer, he numbers Harry Chapin, Jesse Collin Young, Kenny Loggins, and blind British jazz great Sir George Shearing.
The 1964 interview with Shearing was Jeff’s first-ever. “I didn’t know what to ask,” said Jeff, who was still a college student at the time. “It was terrible!”
Now, “Smooth” could be his middle name, so fluent is Jeff both on air and off.
Though officially “retired” from active ministry a decade ago, Jeff now serves as volunteer parish associate at Endicott’s Union Presbyterian Church, where his parents were married and where he himself was baptized, confirmed, and ordained as “Minister for Electronic Media.”
He can also be spotted holding worship services at local nursing homes.
As Jeff was learning about religion, philosophy and psychology in order to earn his undergraduate degree at Westminster College in Pennsylvania, he fell in love with an aspiring church musician there. He married Joan while earning his Master of Divinity degree at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.
As Jeff says every chance he gets, the fact that the two of them never worked in a church together helps account for 51 years of happy marriage!
His first call was to a media ministry in Richmond, producing radio, TV, and cable programs, including “Celebration Rock,” a nationally-syndicated rock music show that aired locally on WAAL. That ministry led to speaking engagements and youth retreat leadership throughout the U.S. His early work with Richmond teens recently resulted in an almost-50th reunion of his “kids,” some of them now grandparents!
In addition to Richmond media work, Jeff served several churches part time in a variety of pastoral positions. He also founded the Video Education Center at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education, now part of Union Presbyterian Seminary. While there, he also taught Youth Ministry as an adjunct professor. Jeff served on various community and church boards, including the steering committee of the North American Broadcast Section of the World Association for Christian Communication.
After 27 years in Richmond, Jeff and Joan moved to Vermont where Jeff served as pastor of the East Craftsbury Presbyterian Church. Ten years later, Jeff was called to the First Presbyterian Church in Trumansburg, NY.
Now “retired,” he devotes his hours to writing, mentoring, photography, model railroading, volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, enjoying nature and doing video for the Presbybop Jazz Quartet and the Broome County Council of Churches. Jeff also serves as a co-host of the Council’s “Encounter” program.
Jeff and Joan are very proud of their two very adult children and four “nearly perfect” grandchildren. The Kellams enjoy bike trails and walks in the woods, and balance Jeff’s jazz sessions with Joan’s organ concerts.
THE SEW ‘n SEWS
And then there are the Sew ‘n Sews! For several hours every Friday morning, this happy group of up to 17 men and women turn the church hall of the Whitney Point United Methodist Church into a bustling dress-making factory. Each person takes a place at a work station, measuring, cutting, serging, sewing, ironing, or performing one of the other functions involved in making colorful dresses for little girls in sizes 2T-12.
They could tout, as their biggest claim to fame, that in just over 10 years they produced more than 10,700 dresses for impoverished and at-risk girls around the world. Instead, “ringleader” Joan Ellis of Lisle sends the credit elsewhere: “We have never bought fabric.”
An invisible network of kind souls has constantly supplied them with not only the cloth they need, but other necessary items as well.
“One lady doesn’t come but donates all the elastic,” said worker bee Alice Andrews of Endwell.
Nor does all the work take place under one roof. The Sew ‘n Sews create complete kits to make the dresses, which are then adopted by churches through the Triple Cities, as well as in Windsor, Union Center, Maine and elsewhere. Kits leave Whitney Point, and completed dresses ricochet back.
The group ships the completed dresses to Rochester, NY, where each dress receives a tag that serves to label its little wearer as “protected.” Sex traffickers may not be able to read the English words on the tag, but they understand that the girl is being looked after by the organization the tag represents — so the tag functions as a glaring “HANDS-OFF!” for each of those girls.
Through “Dress a Girl Around the World” and “Angels of Mercy”, the Sew ‘n Sews’ dresses go wherever they’re needed — after they have been prayed for by the Sew ‘N Sews, who drape 100 at a time across the church’s altar rail so the congregation can pray over them as well.
These ladies (and a handful of occasional men) feel the satisfaction of unselfish jobs well done. But there are other benefits that draw them week after week.
Katie Row of Lisle never sewed before she visited the Sew ‘n Sews, but she learned. Then she in turn dragged daughter Victoria Swatloski of Lisle in the door. Now Victoria is not only a vibrant part of the group, but of the congregation as well.
And the ladies aren’t just great at making dresses. They grace one another with their homemade baked goods when it comes time to take their morning break.
“As much as we think we’re doing good things,” said trim cutter Lois Brown of Whitney Point, “it’s social, too!”