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.
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.
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.