Activist profile ... No rocking chair for Shirley
July-August 2012 – “I don’t want anyone to think I’m something I’m not,” Shirley Sparks said. “I try to tell some people, going to church every Sunday doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than sitting in the garage makes you a car. We just have to live it all day, every day.”
A retired home economics teacher, 82-year-old Sparks has not let the grass grow under her feet. In her local town of Geneseo, Illinois, she keeps her days filled ministering to those around her.
“Oh, I’m at church all the time,” she said, “I’m visiting nursing homes. The snapdragon flowers come up like crazy and I take bouquets to sick people. So, I’m busy.”
Finding a mission
Raised on a small farm in Bethany, Illinois, a nine-year-old Sparks walked to the altar at a revival with an urge to serve on the mission field. In the 1940s there was not much opportunity for a poor farm girl to serve in missions. She never left the country for the mission field. God had a different plan for Shirley Sparks here at home.
She married Quentin and they began a family. After raising six children, one of whom died at age 7? from a brain tumor, she went to work full time teaching high school home economics. After 15 years teaching full time, the tug of missions pulled once again at her heart, so she began volunteering at Arrowhead Ranch, a home for at-risk children in Coal Valley, Illinois.
The boys at Arrowhead Ranch are there under court order, in hopes of changing their current path of destruction and keeping them out of jail.
“You take kids in their teens and put them in jail, and you are determining a life of crime for them,” Sparks said. “This place was wonderful and I loved it.” She never told anyone that she was volunteering there. Her purpose for going to the ranch was to benefit the children.
“You don’t have to do much else than just help,” she said. “They know you care.”
Sparks spent 11 years volunteering at Arrowhead. After retirement, she and her husband, Quentin, spent several months a year at Lake Zapata in Texas, bringing her time at Arrowhead to an end. Not being content with fishing all day, Sparks started a mission to benefit the local people.
“I got people interested and we started a mission there,” she said. “Since I was a teacher, we would go into the schools and help the kids read. Most of them in this little town couldn’t speak English.” After Quentin died in 2003 she was unable to find anyone to take over administration for the mission and it closed, leaving Sparks heartbroken.
Fulfillment in aging
Since her time at Arrowhead Ranch and Lake Zapata, Sparks has found other ways to serve. Along with delivering bouquets and volunteering at her church, she currently spends two days a week volunteering and teaching at Excel, a school for behavioral problem children in Atkinson, Illinois. She frequently writes letters to the editor in her local paper, hoping to educate and motivate others to address the issues of the day.
Sparks starts every day with a quiet time and devotion. She does not feel like a power-house Christian. She simply realizes the importance of giving her time to touch the lives of the people around her. Living what she believes every day is what keeps her going. “I just pray that I can do what God wants me to do. I [may not] know for sure if it’s the right thing, but I figure He will close the door if it is not.”