Repaying a lifetime of service 

Eliza Elizabeth Bazemore has lived in three different centuries. Her family believes she is 113 years old, but a 1930 census record put her age at the time as 38. If that record is accurate, Bazemore will turn 112 on Aug. 9.

“Either way, she’s a true centenarian,” says Linda Fields, coordinator of the Economic Opportunity Authority’s Retired and Senior Volunteer Program.

But it’s not just age that makes Bazemore’s life so remarkable. Her husband, Thomas, lived to be 99 and the couple was married for 74 years.

“Every time you would see them, they were holding hands,” says Bazemore’s daughter, Millie Wright, who is 66. “It was a real romance.”

The couple raised five children. “She worked outside the home,” Wright says. “Her next-to-last job was head of the nursery at Hunter Army Airfield. They had a farm. When she came home in the evening, she would help with the farm. We had a horse in the back yard. My mother shared food with everyone. Any time any of the family came, she met them with open arms.”

In 1945, Bazemore and her husband moved to a house on Stokes Street in the Carver Heights neighborhood. “When my father was ill, she took care of him,” Wright says.

Bazemore has never taken -- or needed -- prescription drugs. In fact, she never had a day’s illness until two years ago, when she fell and broke a hip.

“When she was 110, she told me she had never been sick and the only time she was in the hospital was when she had her children,” says Bazemore’s niece, Annie Johnson. “She never needed to see a doctor until she broke her hip.”

After her husband’s death in 1983, Bazemore continued to live in her house alone until her hip fracture. She relied on city buses to get around, or walked.

After Bazemore’s fall, she spent 11 months in a nursing home. Wright, who was living in New York, came back to Savannah to become her mother’s only caregiver.

“She came out of the nursing home on Aug. 1 of last year,” Wright says. “I couldn’t see her in no nursing home, no matter how bad she got.”

While Bazemore spends most of the day sleeping, Wright says she is more active -- and talkative -- at night. She remains remarkably alert and responds ably to questions.

Good things keep happening to Bazemore. Her house has been completely refurbished, thanks to grants, a small army of volunteers and the Economic Opportunity Authority for the Savannah-Chatham County Area, Inc.

Last year, the EOA received $5,000 from the Junior League of Savannah for its weatherization program. Under this program, the EOA applies energy conservation measures to the homes of low to moderate income elderly residents.

The program was started as a project designed to honor the spirit of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It has since grown into a year-long service program.

In November, the Corporation for National and Community Service awarded a $5,900 grant to the EOA for the weatherization program. To make the money go as far as possible, the EOA used the efforts of volunteers with paid contractors.

Several elderly residents benefited from this year’s program, including Bazemore. In January, work began on her home to coincide with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

“There were volunteers who painted, volunteers who planted flowers,” says Weatherization Supervisor and Building Grant Supervisor Raymond Johnson. “When we first came out, I did an assessment. We replaced the old wooden windows with aluminum ones to help with the utility bills. We put a picket and hand rails on the front porch, which was open.”

The biggest change was the addition of a laundry room. Before that, the washer and dryer were kept in a storage building in back of the house, making laundry a difficult chore for Wright.

“There was an open porch at the back,” Johnson says. “We closed the porch in and brought the washer and dryer inside.”

Because federal grant money cannot be used for remodeling projects, money from the Junior League was used for the repairs and upgrades. With its new windows and freshly painted walls and trim, Bazemore’s house has been given an entirely different look.

The home of Mary Alice Hughes of Little Neck Road also was chosen for the program. Hughes is a paraplegic with partial paralysis of her hands. She was paralyzed in a bizarre accident in 1996. She fell down two steps and hit her chin, which injured her neck.

When the EOA contacted Hughes to offer assistance, she was elated. “I like bright colors, it cheers me up,” she says.

As a result, Hughes’ room was painted the color that she selected -- bright pumpkin orange. The EOA also poured a concrete pad to extend Hughes’ wheelchair ramp, which has enabled her to be outside more.

“It is stories like this that show the difference small gestures can make in the life of an individual,” says EOA Executive Director John H. Finney. “We sincerely appreciate the contribution of the Junior League and the Corporation for National Service. It enables us to reach out to more individuals in our community.”

The EOA is a private non-profit agency created by a joint resolution of the City of Savannah, the Chatham County Commission and the Savannah-Chatham Public School Board. Its mission is to improve the quality of life and promote economic independence of low and middle-income residents.

EOA programs include Head Start, Housing, the Foster Grandparent Program, the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, Weatherization, Energy Assistance, Homeless Services, Welfare Reform, Employment, Youth-At-Risk, the Sickle Cell Anemia Program and the Computer Learning Lab.

Volunteers ranged from neighbors across the street to employees of Memorial Health University Medical Center and Savannah State University. “It was a beautiful group,” Wright says.

“They were outside working and I was inside praying,” she says. “They were happy. I can’t describe how they were carrying on. It was so beautiful!”

No one is more deserving than her mother, Wright says. “She’s kind-hearted, always smiling, always ready to do a favor for anybody. She’s had a long life because of doing right by other people.”

Bazemore’s niece Kathleen West agrees that her aunt is a beautiful person, but adds that Bazemore’s daughter also deserves praise.

“Millie is her only caregiver,” West says. “She doesn’t complain, she doesn’t get tired. She does it all herself.”

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Linda Sickler

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