By Janet Tompkins, Special to the Message
ALEXANDRIA (LBM) – Who knows what life would have been like for Flora Coleman if her mother and father had not died in 1930 when she was just 8 years old and living on a mountainside in West Virginia?
She would not have been separated from her six other siblings, or gone to work in other households.
Maybe she would not have become a nurse or wound up in Otis, Louisiana, where she is a member of Dixie Baptist Church.
Those experiences, to be sure, have given her an extra dose of perseverance and a faith in God and fire in her belly to make a difference in other people’s lives — even at 96 years of age.
SHARING CHRISTMAS JOY
Her current project is Operation Christmas Child, the mission program of Samaritan’s Purse to bring a Christmas package and the message of Jesus Christ to children throughout the world.
Since 1993, Samaritan’s Purse has partnered with local churches around the world to deliver 157 million Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes of gifts to children in need in 160 countries. Each box is filled with fun toys, school supplies and hygiene items.
“Miss Flora” has her home filled with the decorated boxes in every stage of completion. There are 100 completed and stacked in one room, while her sewing room is filled with little girls’ dresses as well as pants for boys and girls along with an assortment of toys and gifts for each of the boxes.
Even though the boxes do not ship until Nov. 1 – National Collection Week is Nov. 12-19 – she is working diligently now to prepare as many boxes as she can.
“It is such a blessing for me,” she said. “It’s a reason to get up in the morning.”
Labels are attached to each box to indicate whether it is for a boy or a girl, and the age range, which can be 2-4, 5-9 or 10-14.
“I pray for each child when I make the box,” she said. “I pray that he or she will accept Christ and I pray for all his or her family.”
Along with the pillowcase dresses and pajama pants, she also makes bags for the marbles, crayons and other small items packaged in the shoeboxes.
“My eyes are not the best anymore,” she said. “I am so blessed that I can still do this. I’m giving this to Christ so I want to do the best that I can.”
Brandon Smith, pastor of Dixie Baptist Church in Sieper, said “Sister Coleman” is an inspiration to him as well as others in the church.
“She is one of my prayer warriors and is like a grandmother to me,” he said. “She is so outgoing and she even recently renewed her driver’s license,” although she doesn’t drive her truck to church much anymore.
But not to worry, the church orders plenty of pre-printed Operation Christmas Child boxes and makes sure Miss Flora has them at her house so she doesn’t have to worry about driving to the church. Dixie Baptist also pays for the shipping.
Miss Flora said all the boxes get a toothbrush, soap, washcloth and comb, and that “the littlest ones” of the children also get socks, a mirror, pencil, cup and bowl, little balls as well as toys and the clothes she makes.
The older children get flip-flops as well as items more suitable for them.
Anxious to make every gift box special, she will pack and unpack each one to try to get as much as she can in all of them, she said.
“As long as I can go, I will,” she said. “God has made us all and He loves us all. We should all help each other.”
WEST VIRGINIA ROOTS
Miss Flora’s faith goes back to that cabin in West Virginia.
She recalls her dad reading from the Bible in their four-room house. When her father was sick with tuberculosis she remembers others gathered round the bedside as he asked for someone to read from the book of Acts in the dim light of a coal oil lamp on the night stand.
Her father succumbed to the disease, leaving her mother, who was pregnant, to care for herself and the children (her older brother was nine-and-a-half years old, she was eight, and there were two younger siblings).
Shortly after the baby arrived, her mother became very ill because of a weak heart and she died at home with just the children there.
A social worker came and split the children up and told them not to try to find each other.
A DIFFICULT JOURNEY
There were several short-term places where she lived, but she has little memory them.
But she recalls living in the Bluefield, Virginia, home of a piano teacher who needed someone to watch over her elderly mother during the day.
For the next 5 years, she did just that, and sold vegetables from the home garden to neighbors.
When the elderly woman died, Flora was sent to the home of a lawyer to be a companion and helper to his daughter who had polio. She stayed there through high school.
“They were good people,” she said, noting that the father took the initiative to find out where most of her siblings were living.
Her sister Hazel was in an orphanage, and one weekend Flora rode the bus to visit her.
Flora also waited outside the classroom at the school where her older brother Carl was enrolled. “We didn’t say much at first—it had been so long.”
Miss Flora smiles at the memory.
Younger siblings Ruth and Edward were with different families in the same town but they did not know that at first because their names were changed. Not much was learned about “Baby William” until Flora was an adult. She found out he had died of cancer at age 46, but she was able to meet his wife and to catch up on the details of his life.
Reflecting back on her childhood caretakers she said, “I was never given love but I was given guidance.”
AT HOME IN LOUISIANA
After high school, she used her wages from working in the cafeteria to go to nursing school.
A hospital job came later.
Not long after that she met and married Hilbon Coleman in 1943 and began life as a military wife.
Thirty-two moves and five children later they moved back to Louisiana when her husband retired.
She went to work at Central State Hospital in Pineville where she stayed for more than 18 years, mostly working the night shift.
Now, a widow, she travels with her family, sometimes going to both coasts, and, she stays busy as a volunteer with several ministries of her church. In addition to her dedicated efforts for Operation Christmas Child, she makes adult bibs for those in nursing homes, and, sewed 100 pillowcase dresses for a mission project with Parkview Baptist in Alexandria, where her daughter attends church.
“I’ve had a good life,” she said. “I tell everyone: Look for the good in life. You can always find the bad, but sometimes you have to really look to see the good.”
This is Operation Christmas Child’s 25th year of shoebox ministry. National Collection Week for the shoeboxes will be Nov. 12-19.