‘A window of opportunity’
In retirement, Paul and Diane Geddes are finding joy and adventure by serving others in unexpected places.
Jim Killam
February 27, 2024

Paul and Diane Geddes never really imagined themselves as snowbirds.

Now that they’re both retired, though, you won’t find them in Illinois during the dead of winter. The past three winters, they’ve used the month of January to head south—not to beaches or golf courses, but to communities recovering from natural disasters.

“That just appeals to me, to go and be helpful and do something,” Diane says. “I’m more of a climb-a-mountain person than a sit-on-the-beach person.”

She worked as an elementary reading teacher in the Rockford Public Schools. Paul was an instructor at the Byron Nuclear Plant; after retiring in 2011 he contracted with ComEd part-time, mostly as a project manager. COVID changed their situations. Contract work dried up for Paul, and Diane wasn’t needed during online learning for RPS in January 2022.

“I knew I had about three weeks to play with,” Diane says. “I wanted to go somewhere warm. I like the snow part of winter, but I don’t like the bitter cold. I had heard of people who in their retirement go and serve at places like Wycliffe (Bible translators) or JAARS (a missionary aviation center) in the winter.”

As she prayed, a thought came to mind. Paul had helped coordinate a ReachGlobal Crisis Response team in 2018 after Hurricane Harvey on the Texas Gulf Coast. Could they do something like that together?

She mentioned it to Paul, and they checked the ReachGlobal website to see where teams were working that winter. One site was Covington, La., reeling from two hurricanes. Paul knew Jessica Schutte, the ReachGlobal staffer in Louisiana who scheduled teams to work in disaster areas. So he emailed Jessica and told her he and Diane were looking for short-term service work. “Would you have any use for us?’”

No mission organization will ever turn down an offer like that.

So in January 2022, Paul and Diane spent three weeks in Covington helping Jessica and her husband, Ernie, work on flood-damaged homes with volunteer teams from churches around the country. The next year, with Diane now retired, too, they went for four weeks. This year, it was five: two weeks in Covington and three in Lake Charles. The latter site held a bonus—on the weekends they drove 2 ½ hours to Houston to visit their son, Sam.

ReachGlobal Crisis Response has jobs for all skill sets — including painting.

Let there be hot water

Paul grew up on a dairy farm in Michigan and learned to fix practically anything. His favorite story from this January happened in a flood-damaged Lake Charles home they also worked on a year earlier. A tankless, electric water heater hung on the wall, higher than the water had risen. It looked pretty new, but Debra, the owner, said it hadn’t worked since the flood. She could only get lukewarm water in the house. Plumbers told her she needed a new water heater.

Paul took a look, too. “I honestly think it was the Holy Spirit that prompted me – Why don’t you download the owner’s manual?

When he did, his electrical engineering background took over. The troubleshooting section mentioned thermal overloads—basically it’s when a circuit breaker trips if the unit malfunctions and the water gets too hot.  He took off the front panel and found the overload switches.

“I pressed the first one and it went CLICK. I thought, that’s a good sign. And sure enough, I put it back together and turned the power back on, and she had hot water.”

“We saw her the next morning and she said, ‘I took a hot shower this morning!’”

Divine interruptions

Working side-by-side for weeks at a time with complete strangers isn’t the easiest thing for some. Diane says she’s the social one. Paul is more introverted.

“But with small groups of people I can quickly adapt,” he adds. “As an instructor, I had to act like an extrovert. I can pretend for a while, until I become comfortable with it. Now we’re so comfortable with them that it’s just not a problem at all.”

Team members are encouraged to take prayer walks every day in the neighborhoods where they’re working, and to get to know the homeowners. From the opening orientation each week, the emphasis is: people over projects.

“They really emphasize divine interruptions,” Diane says. “As you go through your day, it’s about being open to things that you don’t expect. Instead of getting frustrated over them, be open to see how God might use this interruption for his glory. Because you know, a lot of Jesus’ ministry was interruptions.

“So if you run into somebody, you stop and talk with them and ask if there’s anything you can pray for them about.”

“That’s way outside my comfort zone,” Paul admits. “So that has been a learning experience, to see other people in action. Because a lot of other people are really comfortable doing it. So I think that has probably emboldened me some, to be willing to speak openly about my faith.”

“You find brothers and sisters in the Lord,” Diane says. “It’s been a great experience for us. The bond that we have in Christ has been pretty cool. The sharing that goes on in the devotional times, or just as you’re working side-by-side with people, getting to know them and having that unity.”

In Lake Charles, with the team from a church in New Jersey.

Uncertain future

The Geddeses know this is a season in their lives—one of a very uncertain length. Paul is steadily losing his vision because of a rare eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa.

“I basically have no peripheral vision,” he says. “They say my central vision is still 20/25. But if I hold up both of my hands to either side, they are invisible to me. It’s above and below, and either side. As I look into the distance I see more, but it’s really a problem up close.”

He doesn’t drive any more, and Diane holds his hand and guides him in busy places like church on Sundays. His central vision is getting cloudier now, too.

“Nobody really knows how long I have,” he says. “I’m guessing eight to 10 years before I’ll be functionally blind. Barring divine intervention.”

Diane adds: “Even apart from the vision thing, we feel like we have a window of opportunity. I’m 65. He’s 70. We don’t know 10 years from now …”

They’ve done other short-term service trips, too, including the one our church organized last fall to Hazard County, Kentucky. They plan to go to the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of the consortium involving several EFCA churches including First Free. What they are giving, and gaining, during their retirement years makes life both an adventure and a blessing.

 “I felt really energized when we got back from Louisiana this last time,” Diane says. “I just thought, what a great way to spend that month of January. To go and meet or reconnect with all these wonderful believers and make new relationships and go help these people who really are in great need. It just felt like a really good use of our time.”

Diane with Wanda, one of the two homeowners they served in Lake Charles this year. At age 73, Wanda learned how to roll paint onto a wall while Diane cut in the edges. “Working alongside her and getting to know her was a blast,” Diane says.
Jim Killam
Jim Killam is a journalist, author, teacher and terminal Cubs fan. He and his wife, Lauren, live in Rockford and work internationally with Wycliffe Bible Translators.

1 Comment

  1. Avatar

    Being in class with you, plus the RCS connection, I’ve known you quite a while. Still, this shares with us your heart in doing what you’ve been doing in recent years, and I thank you for that openness.


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