The Bessie Thomas Senior Center was packed with well-wishers on Sunday, as friends, family members and former students gathered to wish a happy 95th birthday to the center's namesake.
"She is quite an incredible lady," said Laurie Patterson, one of the party's organizers. "She's still very independent and active, and lives in a beautiful home built for her by her sons, Emmanuel and Dennis. She's just amazing. I only hope I'm as spry as she is when I'm 95!"
Thomas, an Evans resident for more than 70 years, started her career as a teacher in 1935 at the Clary Grove Elementary School in Harlem. She witnessed the desegregation of Southern schools during the turbulence of the 1960s, teaching at blacks-only schools until shortly before her retirement in 1974.
In 1979, Thomas became the coordinator for the Columbia County Council on Aging, and worked out of old Army barracks in the Blanchard Park Community Center, running the Meals on Wheels Program and providing lunch and afternoon activities for area seniors.
When the new senior center was built in Grovetown in the early 1990s, it was named in honor of Thomas for her dedication and service to the community.
"I am a people person," Thomas said. "I worked with children for 37 years and with seniors for 15. I just love people. I have been so blessed in my life, and I just thank God for everything; for my sons and for my being here. When people ask me what I want or need, I tell them, 'I want for nothing, because I have Jesus!' When you take God out of your life, you have no life!"
Pastor Eric Taylor, from the Emmanuel Faith Tabernacle Christian Center, where Thomas attends services and teaches Sunday school, said Thomas is a devout Christian and that she and God have a special connection. "If she says that she will make it to her 100th birthday," Taylor said, "then I have no doubt that she will!"
Thomas said that the secret to longevity and good health is staying busy.
"I read a lot and work in my garden," she said. "I make quilts and teach Sunday school. But most importantly of all, I depend upon God to carry me from day to day. That's the secret to life."
When asked what advice she would give to young people, Thomas answered, "Listen to your parents and have respect for other people. Stay in school and get a good education. People can take things away from you sometimes, but they can never take away your education."
Several people stood to give their thanks to Thomas, including her two sons. Dennis choked up as he spoke.
"I thank God for my mother," he said. "I am so grateful for the right values that she and my father instilled in us, and for the good example that they set for us. They would talk to God about everything, no matter how small. They used to tell us, 'Set an example for others; don't just say it, do it.'"
"She is such a wonderful person," Emmanuel said. "I am here to tell you that she is who she says she is. She's got 95 years of wisdom. All you have to do is look at her work and at all of the people that she has helped, to know just how close she and God are."
Thomas expressed her appreciation for the celebration.
"I thank each and every one of you," she said. "You are all my friends, my family, and I love you all. And I am already planning for my 100th birthday, so you'd all better be ready!"
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