Okaloosa Angel

The first time she visited the nursing home, she was three-foot-tall, delivering Christmas gifts. It was her idea. She left an armful of packages for people she worried the world had forgotten.

The Crestview Rehabilitation Center is a nice nursing home. Not fancy. The cafeteria is like any other. White walls. Fluorescent lights.

It’s Bingo day. You can smell excitement in the air—or maybe that’s meatloaf. The residents in wheelchairs are ready to play.

There isn’t a single strand of brown hair in this room. Except for Railey’s hair. 

Railey is calling bingo numbers over a microphone. She’s seventeen; your all-American high-school honor student.

She aced her ACT’s, plays volleyball, wants to be an engineer, and is sharper than a digital semiconductor. She’s going places.

Places like nursing homes.

“B-four,” Railey calls.

Folks inspect bingo cards. A lady cusses from her wheelchair.

“Railey comes here a lot,” her mother says. “Now that she’s got her license, she rides her truck up here all the time.”

She comes because she been coming here since she was a ten-year-old.

Railey has no relatives here.

The first time she visited, she was three-foot-tall, delivering Christmas gifts. It was her idea. She left an armful of packages for people she worried the world had forgotten.

By age eleven, Railey was speaking at local church services, suggesting that folks visit the elderly more often. She was asking for donations.

“I pretty much guilt-trip them,” Railey said earlier. “Just trying to get’em to donate. I gotta do what works.”

It works. She’s been delivering holiday packages to five area nursing homes. Her gift-giving operation grew so big that her stepfather bought an enclosed trailer to stockpile all the presents.

I asked Railey’s mother what sorts of gifts she buys.

“You’d be surprised at simple things these folks want. Lipstick, perfume, DVD’s… Once, someone wanted Cheese balls.”

“N-forty-two,” says Railey.

“BINGO!” a woman yells.

False alarm.

Railey might be seventeen, but she is older than I am—at least inside. There’s something inside her that’s bigger than a run-of-the-mill seventeen-year-old. Bigger than Okaloosa County itself.

“There was this old lady once,” says her mother. “She was a Mickey Mouse fanatic. Her room was all Mickey stuff…”

Railey visited her a lot. They became friends. They talked about anything and everything. They exchanged smiles. Stories. Hugs.

Railey visited the woman on Mickey Mouse’s birthday. She made the woman’s day. She bought the woman a Mickey-Mouse watch. The lady nearly lost her mind.

“Railey loved her,” her mother goes on. “They just connected, you know.”

On her next visit, Railey brought another bagful of Mickey gifts. But no sooner had she entered the nursing home doors than she knew something was wrong.

“We got to the desk. And everyone had sad faces, they were like: ‘You mean nobody told you?’”

The old woman had passed a few days earlier. It devastated Railey. They buried the woman with that watch.

“G-fifty,” says Railey.

“BINGO!”

The room applauds.

Before I leave, I give Railey a hug while she’s handing prizes to winners. I try not to interrupt her. She’s too busy with official gaming responsibilities to say much. She’s smiling at a white-haired woman.

I wish you could see how the woman is grinning back at her. It’s a look that says more than I am able to write.

“Hey,” Railey whispers to me before I leave. “Thanks for hanging out today.”

Sure thing, Railey.

And thank you for changing the world.

12 comments

  1. theholtgirls - December 28, 2017 9:18 am

    Sean, there is something about the way you string words together that changes my world. And something about your last sentences that often makes me cry. You did it again with this one.

    Thank you for changing the world.

    Reply
    • B.K. - December 28, 2017 12:38 pm

      I couldn’t have said it better, theholtgirls.

      Reply
  2. Lucretia - December 28, 2017 10:08 am

    Thank you Sean and Railey for multiplying your God given talents. . .May 2018 see me multiplying my talents. Lucretia

    Reply
  3. Perri Williamson - December 28, 2017 12:57 pm

    ❤️

    Reply
  4. Beth Ann - December 28, 2017 1:01 pm

    She is one of the good ones, just like you. Thanks for sharing Railey with us today. Thank YOU for changing the world one story at a time.

    Reply
  5. Connie - December 28, 2017 1:21 pm

    Young people like that give me hope. I listened to the news this morning-really bad idea. I’m glad I could read your column to offset that. Too much bad news: murder, bank robbers, drug deals…not near enough news like yours. Thank you.

    Reply
  6. Jack Darnell - December 28, 2017 3:01 pm

    Oh yeah, we need more Railey’s. If I live I will be there soon, so yep, we need more Raileys. And YES I have visited folks I do not know in nursing homes many times in the 50-60 era. Back then you fought the urine smell but the folks still needed that visit.
    Come visit. I will probably be some where in GAston County, NC See ya soon!

    Reply
  7. Barbara Weldon - December 28, 2017 8:09 pm

    Beautiful story!!!Thanks for sharing all you do!!!! God Bless you and your work!!! It’s truly a gift!!!!

    Reply
  8. Gretchen Passons - December 28, 2017 11:57 pm

    Ditto the Holt girls for me. So totally absorbed, and then tears! But happy, thankful tears! Good for you, Sean, with your kind heart!

    Reply
  9. Roxie Holland - December 29, 2017 12:11 am

    Thank you for sharing my daughter, Railey, with your readers.

    Reply
  10. George - December 29, 2017 1:25 pm

    Hey Sean, my wife turned me on to your writings about a year ago and I don’t think I have missed one since…normally read right after I finish my devotions while sipping my 2nd espresso in bed.
    I have loved a good story every since I was in 4th grade (for the second) time when my old Methuselah school teach Ms. Page would read us one of her amazing stories right after lunch. Your stories always take me back to those good memories.
    Thanks for finding your gift and sharing with us.

    From a story fan from Florida (Go Gators)

    PG

    Reply
  11. lavenderlady - December 30, 2017 1:51 am

    And your last sentence says it all. We need more Raileys.

    Reply

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