96-year-old's volunteer work honors late granddaughter

Jan. 20, 2013 @ 01:00 AM

Thurman Haynes used to own this land. He owned it for decades, and when suitors came calling, wooing him to sell, he had no interest.
Times and lives change, though, and Haynes eventually agreed to sell the land to Guilford County Schools. Today, a school for special-needs students — the Meredith Leigh Haynes-Bennie Inman Education Center — stands on the land, which is located on Haynes Road, just off of Harvey Road.
And Haynes — 96 years old and still spry as a fly — visits daily, spending as much as seven or eight hours a day volunteering.
“I started when the school opened (three years ago), and I’ve been doing it ever since,” Haynes says. “I just felt like it was something I was supposed to do.”
In case you missed it, the school shares a name with Haynes — Meredith Haynes, who happened to be a special-needs child herself, is his late granddaughter — and therein lies the motivation behind the oldest volunteer in the Guilford County Schools system: It’s about family.
“They had a very strong relationship,” says Haynes’ daughter-in-law (and Meredith’s mother), Susan Haynes. “She had had some orthopedic surgeries, and he would pick her up at school every day so she didn’t have to ride the bus, and he’d bring her home with him.”
Meredith was born in 1974 with tuberous sclerosis, a disease in which tumors can grow in the brain and on other organs. Other than occasional seizures, Meredith seemed healthy until she was about 18 months old; then she regressed, losing her ability to speak and suffering other physical disabilities. She went to a number of schools in the county, including Gateway Education Center, a special-needs school in Greensboro. She died of pneumonia in 1993, less than a month shy of her 21st birthday.
Meredith’s death no doubt impacted her grandfather deeply — she remains his only grandchild — so when he learned the school system wanted to buy his land and build a school for severely developmentally disabled students, he couldn’t say no.
And when the school opened, Haynes — who had rarely done volunteer work in his nine-plus decades of living — began showing up every day to help. Helping students on and off the bus. Pushing them to their rooms in their wheelchairs. Setting up the gym for adaptive physical education classes. Playing with children on the adaptive playground.
Just being there, spreading a little love.
“These are my adopted grandchildren,” Haynes explains. “I just love these kids.”
That love clearly goes both ways. On Jan. 11, the day before his 96th birthday, the students and staff at Haynes-Inman threw a surprise party for the man they affectionately call “Grandpa.” They celebrated with cake and punch, singing and dancing, cards and gifts. They sang his favorite song, “Keep on the Sunny Side.”
“It was something else,” Haynes says with a sheepish grin. “You wouldn’t believe it.”
Haynes, who lives just a couple hundred yards up the road from the school, drives his truck to the school most days, but every once in a while he’ll walk, a testament to his good health at 96. He still maintains a garden and mows his own yard.
“I’ve got a little arthritis in my legs,” Haynes says, “but other than that, I feel pretty good. One day, we worked about 12 hours setting up the gym — I was kind of tired that day. Sometimes it’s a job.”
Don’t believe him. This has never been a job for Haynes, and everybody — including Haynes — knows it. Ask him what he gets out of it, and he’ll tell you.
“A lot of pleasure,” Haynes says, breaking into a wide grin. “The pay is good.”
Again, the feeling is mutual. Ask Principal Kevin Carr about the school’s most-loved volunteer, and he’ll tell you.
“Thurman is an incredible volunteer who gives his time and his love to our students,” Carr says. “We appreciate everything he does for our school.”
There’s no denying it. Thurman Haynes may have sold this land years ago, but he still owns the place.
jtomlin@hpe.com | 888-3579