When Virginia Sumpter was a girl growing up on a farm in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, her family grew corn, beans and other vegetables to live on throughout the year.
“I was a poor farm girl,” said Sumpter, 85. “We grew what we ate.”
Sumpter, the oldest of five siblings, took a trip home this summer to visit family, and this time around, they lived it up.
“I didn’t cook,” she said. “We went out to eat the whole time. That’s something I’m not used to doing.”
Sumpter was surprised by the trip thanks to an organization called Wish of a Lifetime. Founded in 2008 by former Olympic skier and NFL player Jeremy Bloom, Wish of a Lifetime grants wishes to senior citizens as a way to celebrate and honor their position in society.
Wish of a Lifetime selected Sumpter for its program in part because of her longtime volunteer work through Foster Grandparents of the Wyoming Rockies, according to wish specialist Kaylah Malillos, who reviewed Sumpter’s nomination. Sumpter has volunteered as a foster grandparent at Laramie Head Start since 2006.
“We particularly like Virginia’s story because she’s so giving,” Malillos said. “She works with children, and we love intergenerational connections.”
Wish of a Lifetime has fulfilled more than 1,500 wishes during the last decade for seniors 65 and older who are unable to fulfill that wish on their own.
Malillos said many of those wishes are related to reconnecting with loved ones. Others are focused on commemorating service, renewing a passion or trying a new experience.
Sumpter last visited Arkansas six years ago for the funeral of a sister.
“That was a sad trip,” she said.
This summer, she didn’t believe she was really taking a trip to Arkansas until she was handed a boarding pass at the airport.
“I thought it was a hoax,” she said.
During her recent adventure, she ate pizza, rode a ferry, went on drives with her sister and visited the cemetery where her parents and other family members were buried.
“I got to sit down and talk to my mother and dad, even though they couldn’t talk back to me,” she said.
Sumpter lives on a stretch of land west of Laramie with wide-open views and loves to fish in the Snowy Range. She doesn’t miss the snakes, bugs and chiggers native to her home state. But she managed to avoid one menace during her visit.
“I lucked out,” she said. “I didn’t get a tick on me.”
Sumpter raised six children and now has 17 grandchildren and 27 great-grandchildren.
She remembers being home in Arkansas with two daughters one night in 1961 when a tornado came through. They lived in a trailer placed between two large trees for shade. Sumpter was afraid the trailer was going to be lifted off the ground, and when she went outside to check on things, she ended up pinned underneath a tree.
“A tree hit me in the back,” she said.
She passed out but remembers waking up and somehow making her way inside, where she threw herself on top of the children, who were huddled on a bunkbed. She said she spent a month in the hospital.
“There had to be a guardian angel there somewhere,” she said.
She moved to Wyoming in 1965 with her husband, Leon, who did road construction. They lived in Rock Springs first but then moved to Laramie to work on Interstate 80, and Sumpter decided she wasn’t leaving.
“So, that’s what I’ve done,” she said.
After a lifetime of hard work, Sumpter began volunteering as a foster grandparent about a decade ago.
Through the Foster Grandparents of the Wyoming Rockies, seniors 55 and older are placed in local schools, where they work in classrooms.
“They’re the extra hands, extra eyes, extra hugs,” project coordinator Lisa Marno said.
The grandparents earn a tax-exempt stipend that doesn’t affect their eligibility for other benefits while also building relationships in the community. Meanwhile, students receive the attention and affection of a grandparent relationship.
“In the long run, it helps everybody,” Marno said. “It helps the seniors because they’re active in the community — which is proven to make for a better quality of life for them — and then it helps the kids in the classroom, and it helps the teachers.”
Sumpter works about 20 hours a week at Laramie Head Start. As the school year gets underway, she’ll teach early literacy skills and read to children. Last week, she spent most of a morning comforting a crying preschooler.
“Finally just before lunch, I got her quieted down,” she said.
Crystal Ballard, education coordinator at Head Start, said Sumpter loves the children and brings a lot of energy to her work.
“She’s everywhere the kids are,” Ballard said. “She’s never taking a break either.”
Sumpter is an important part of the Head Start team, Ballard said.
“We don’t have a lot of money for staff, so the volunteer time helps the teachers and helps the kids,” she said.
Sumpter took a year off from her foster grandparent work several years ago but then decided retirement wasn’t for her.
“I can just do crochet or I can just read so much,” she said. “I thought, I’ve got to find something else to do.”
She said the work keeps her going.
“They keep me young at heart,” she said. “They don’t do nothing for this old body, but they keep me young at heart.”