At age 59, Martha Hansen went under the knife. After successful heart bypass surgery, the doctors informed her that she was looking at five to 10 more years of life, and that teaching, her profession and passion, was now hazardous to her health.
After retiring, Martha found herself at a loss. She remembered a feeling she had experienced a few years earlier, after her high school sweetheart and husband of 25 years passed away: “When my husband died, I felt as though I had to do something to make up for his loss of life.”
For Martha, bridge and bingo just weren’t cutting it. She remembers thinking, “Just sitting here — no. Just playing cards — no … I’ve got to do something.”
With that, she began looking for some way to give back to the community, and before she knew it, the opportunity found her. One morning after church, Martha was approached by a fellow parishioner who, knowing she had a background in education, asked if she were willing to help a friend who had recently emigrated from Cambodia.
“She knew hello, goodbye, and thank-you,” Martha said, remembering the first time she met the new arrival. Rapidly though, this three-word vocabulary blossomed, and with Martha’s help, the girl learned to read, write and speak English, eventually landing a job with the local newspaper, a position she still holds.
While she was working with her Cambodian student, a position opened up in the church auxiliary as a representative to Talbot House Ministries, a homeless care center in Lakeland, Florida. Initially, Martha began volunteering at Talbot House on Saturdays, working in the clinic. Soon, Saturdays turned into weekends, and before she knew it, she became a regular fixture in the hallways. Still looking for different ways to give back, Martha saw an opportunity.
She remembers thinking, years after her bypass, that “the Lord has given me this time, and I’ve got to use it wisely.” The Lord certainly has given her time, because Martha is now going on 90 years old, and she has spent the past 30 years wisely, tutoring students at Talbot House. There, she has played a major role in changing the lives of those who needed it most. “It’s giving people a second chance … [they] can be down and out and have no place to go and nothing to do … If they want to change their lives, it’s a place they can go; they can stay.”
Martha works with students from all walks of life, each with different baggage. She never turns away a willing student, whether they are from a broken home or coming off a lifetime of drug abuse.
“Some come and they get interested — they go on to do better things … others, they find it’s not for them,” she says. But if they want what she has to offer, “I work with them, and I want them to succeed.”
Martha’s friends often ask her why she does what she does, why she doesn’t just kick back and enjoy her free time. She always answers the same way: “It gives me something to do with my retirement. It makes my retirement worthwhile… What they don’t realize is that I do it as much for myself. I need to have that.”
Martha thinks that it may be time for her to slow down, but she has multiple students currently working towards their GED, and she insists on seeing them through.
By refusing to give in to a sedentary lifestyle, Martha has carved her own way through her retirement, changing lives all along the way. Now, decades and countless pupils later, the Talbot House van still picks Martha up a few times a week for her to go tend to her students. As she approaches 90, it’s becoming more and more difficult for her to get into the van.
She has had the same driver for years and she smiles while she remembers telling the driver, “When I can’t get into the van anymore I’ll have to quit,” Her smile grows even wider, as she repeats his response: “Well, I guess we’ll have to get a lift.”
CLIFFORD PARODY of Lakeland, Fla., is a graduating senior at Florida Southern College.