July 31, 2018

The Gift of Connection

One of Barbara (Benham) Miller’s earliest life lessons was the importance of community. Her father volunteered at several organizations, and when the United States entered World War II he felt compelled to serve even though he was 43 years old.

“He couldn’t get in the army, the Marines, or the Coast Guard,” says Barb, “but the navy accepted him. He shipped out on the USS Dewey to Hawaii and we couldn’t get ahold of him for six weeks. We found out it was because he’d had severe heat stroke and ended up in the hospital.”

Born on November 16, 1930, Barb was 11 when her father entered the service, and during the four years he was away she grew up fast. She says, “Mum was a tiny little woman from England. She didn’t drive or use the phone, so my sister and I had to be independent and help her, too.”

Barb became determined to help wherever needed. At the age of 12, she worked at the café at Creston High School, where she attended classes. By the time she graduated, she was head cashier. Her jobs and classes revealed qualities that she has tapped into during her whole life. She showed herself to be dependable, organized, eager to learn, and capable.

When Barb was 13 she cooked meals for a family whose mother had rheumatoid arthritis. Later she worked as a cashier at local dime stores and for a doctor who ran a surgery in his home, where he specialized in removing tonsils. There she did billing, sterilized equipment, and cleaned the operating room. All of her wages were given to her mother for household expenses.

Barb Miller, high school graduation

When H.J. Heinz Company interviewed students at Creston High in Barb’s senior year, she was hired on the spot as a purchaser/bookkeeper. Later she transferred to their Memphis, Tennessee location.

In 1954, Barb married Bill Miller, whom she met at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where they were both involved in the youth group. After Bill served in Korea as part of the Air Force, he became a state policeman. The Millers raised a son and a daughter.

No matter where Bill’s job took the family, Barb enjoyed organizing church and community events and taking classes. She published three cookbooks for fundraisers and became a Cub Scout den mother and Girl Scout troop leader so her children could benefit from being a part of the groups.

Barb and her “Office Helpers” at Jackson Middle School

In 1966 Barb became a secretary at Jackson Park Middle School (part of Wyoming Public Schools), where she worked for 30 years. “I loved my job,” she says. “I worked with the principal, the teachers, the counselor, and took care of sick kids. When my students had families of their own, I got to work with their kids and watch them grow too.”

After retirement Barb and Bill spent winters in Florida, and Barb organized bus tours. She chartered her final trip to Niagara Falls in 2001.

Barb and Bill Miller, 50th Anniversary

In 1991, Barb had a series of strokes that attacked her right side. She lost the ability to speak and walk. Barb worked diligently at Mary Free Bed during her rehabilitation and followed the doctor’s exercise prescription to the letter. To keep her mind busy, she continued to do some secretarial work, which was delivered to her room. Her experiences and recovery gave Barb an appreciation for how life changing a stroke can be.

“Stroke patients have many challenges,” she says. “Sometimes family members leave them—the caregivers can’t handle that their loved one’s whole being has changed, and when the patient doesn’t get the loving care they need, they give up.”

Driven to be with others who understood, Barb joined the Never Give Up Club. The main goal of the group was to provide information and support to stroke survivors, their families, and caregivers, but sing-alongs, exercise, and picnics were also on the schedule. When the leader stepped down 15 years later, Barb took her place. It was important to her that survivors and their loved ones had a safe place to go at which they could feel accepted and talk about their feelings.

In the past few years, Barb has experienced many losses. Bill died in 2014, her son Michael passed away in 2015, and last year she lost her sister.

“I wouldn’t have gotten through it without faith in God,” she says. “I always turn to prayer. Things may not turn out like you want it to, but God is listening and He’ll answer in His own way and in His own time.”

Because prayer has been such a cornerstone throughout Barb’s life, she trained to be an oblate at St. Paul’s, where she has been a lifelong member. As an oblate, she leads a Benedictine prayer group.

Barb and her collection of angels

When Barb moved to Sunset in 2014, she began leading trivia activities and reading nostalgia pieces and Scripture to residents in the Reflections memory unit and Assisted Living.

She says, “I can’t imagine what it’s like to look at the same four walls day after day, and some people don’t have many visitors. The residents respond when we talk about old times. We laugh and joke—I have a good time, and I hope they do, too.”

Barb has 8 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. She values her volunteer work and the relationships she has developed at Sunset. With the help of the Wellness Department, Barb was instrumental in organizing trips to Shipshewana, Indiana, and the Grand Rapids Public Museum.

“I don’t like to sit still,” she says. “I’ve always liked putting things together and seeing how it turns out. Experiences and learning make life richer.”