LAVALETTE, W.Va (WOWK) – Her commitment to God and strong faith is Joan Chambers’ driving force. “It’s only by the grace of God that I’m here.” Her quiet voice echoed through the empty sanctuary. “If I’m a Christian, and want the world to see Christ living in me, then I need to do what Christ did. He was always giving to people.”
An educator by trade, Chambers first taught at Crocket Elementary School in Wayne County, West Virginia. She would then teach at Lavalette Elementary for 31 years; she would be principal for 15. Between graduating from Buffalo High School and attending Marshall University, she found work as a waitress, but that’s not all she found that summer. In June 1965, Nicholas Donald Chambers swept Joan off her feet.
“He came in and wanted to know if I was gonna work all day and I said, unless you’ve got a better plan, and evidently he had a better plan!” Joan said.
Things were going well for the couple. Like many young men at the time, Nick went overseas to fight in the Vietnam War. But even after the war, he would find himself in a battle of a different kind.
“He was in the Navy and was exposed to agent orange, which we did know,” said Joan. “He was a diabetic, and we got a V.F.W. magazine that said exposure to agent orange causes diabetes, so they started doing the testing and yes that was.”
They learned that because of his exposure to agent orange, his probability of getting colon cancer was high. In 2003, Nick had stage four colon cancer. “He had a colon resection done in at the Huntington VA and he lasted 25 months. He died August the 6th, 2005,” Joan said.
It’s been 15 years since Nick’s passing, but the pain of his loss is still hard to bear. Joan’s daughter, Beth Thompson, spoke through tears describing her relationship with her beloved father and she believes he is watching over them.
“I was a huge daddy’s girl,” Beth said.
It is here where our story takes a remarkable turn. In the months that followed after Nick’s death, Joan found a new calling. After caring for children for most of her life, she turned to assisting veterans at the Hershel Woody Williams VA Medical Center in Huntington. She would spend nearly 10,000 hours volunteering, undertaking many tasks over the course of fifteen years.
“I’ve done in-patient bags, I’ve done No Veteran Dies Alone, I’ve driven the courtesy van, I’ve made phone calls…” Joan said.
She explained while looking up at the ceiling in an effort to remember the various assignments. The list was long. Some tasks minor, as simple as answering a ringing telephone. Others would prove far more intense. She takes part in a program called, No Veteran Dies Alone. Joan would spend three to four hours in the company of a veteran with no family or loved ones to accompany them, lending them an ear perhaps for the last time.
“You would go in and report to the nurse in charge and she would give you a bag. You could have a tape player, play music, you could have books that you read,” Joan said. “I did have one veteran pass away on me,” she said quietly. “I’m hoping that my being there, it lets them know that somebody cares about them, that they’re not truly alone.”
“Her focus is to give back because of my dad’s wishes,” said Beth. “When he was alive, he wanted to help other veterans and he wanted them to make that a project of theirs.” Beth nominated her mother Joan after witnessing her turn profound grief into a project of love and compassion towards total strangers. “She just always has that in her mind you know, what she can be doing to help with the next project or the next person.”
You may not have been fortunate enough to call Mrs. Chambers your principal, but we could all learn a lesson from how she lives her life day-to-day. “Kindness goes a long way. You can always be kind. It doesn’t cost you a cent.”