By DAVID GREEN
When Lyle and Marilyn Bates learned about the SOWERS, they knew the organization had to become part of their future.
SOWER: Servants On Wheels Ever Ready.
The SOWERS—roving bands of retired travelers—operate as a mobile ministry. They offer their time and skills in a variety of projects while enjoying Christian fellowship through their travels.
“We joined SOWERS before we even had the RV,” said Lyle, a Fayette native.
Lyle had a successful career working in structural and miscellaneous steel, but he and Marilyn decided to leave the work routine a few years before the traditional time to quit.
“We decided that if we’re going to enjoy retirement,” he said, “we better do it.”
They quit their jobs and retired, but not in the classic sense of retirement. They also sold their house in North Carolina and moved into an RV.
That was nine and a half years and 56 SOWER projects ago. They’ve accomplished a lot of work in that time.
“We’re not vacationers and we’re not shuffleboarders,” Lyle said. “We have to be busy doing something. The Lord has been good enough to us that we were willing to give something back for Him.”
Last Thursday the Bates and four other couples wrapped up a project at Camp Michindoh in Hillsdale County.
A SOWER project consists of a three-week work commitment, with a relaxed schedule that retirees appreciate.
The day begins at 7:30 a.m. with a half hour of devotions, then it’s off to work for two hours followed by a 30-minute break. Two more hours of work, an hour for lunch, then two more hours on the job and the working day ends.
SOWERS work four days a week and have a three-day weekend to travel, if they wish.
They also have the option of staying at the work site for the final week of the month, where RV hookups are always provided.
Many SOWERS use that final week of the month to travel to their next project, but the Bates stayed at Michindoh for three consecutive months.
At Michindoh, SOWERS are invited to eat at the camp’s dining facilities.
”We want them for fellowship at meal time,” said camp director Cliff Miller.
They don’t want their volunteers to remain strangers, he explained.
“We don’t expect free meals,” Lyle said, “but it’s an extra benefit.”
The benefits go both ways. For the SOWERS, the free lodging makes it all possible.
“Otherwise, we couldn’t afford our lifestyle,” Lyle explained.
Michindoh maintenance director Dave Reyome hates to think how the camp would look without the SOWERS around six months of the year.
“Without them,” he said, “we could never get this place to look so good.”
Lyle and working partner, John—a retired broadcaster from southern California—have spent a lot of time renovating decks on some living units.
“Our staff could handle the project,” Dave said, “but then nothing else would get done.”
SOWERS fill out a skills sheet before they’re assigned to a project and that gives someone in Dave’s position the opportunity to decide what jobs to tackle.
He’s always surprised—and pleased—with his itinerant workforce.
“No matter what project we have, the right people come. Sometimes I’ll have an electrician who shows up. He’s done it all his life.”
Some volunteers are modest about their skills, Dave said, and he discovers their expertise by surprise.
“Some of us don’t have skills,” Lyle says. “I’ve learned a lot from other SOWERS. I’ve worked with drawings all my life. I couldn’t build a dog house without drawings.
”Very detailed drawings,” Marilyn adds.
“But Dave has it all in his head,” Lyle said.
Dave says he’s learned a lot from the SOWERS, too.
It’s always interesting for the SOWERS to discover what they’re in for when they arrive on the site.
“We never know what we’re going to be asked to do,” Marilyn said. “We’ve just got willing hearts.”
The morning work break Thursday was a special one. This was the final day of the project, the final time the five couples would gather together with Dave and Cliff.
“It’s been a great month,” Dave said, reviewing the progress of various work assignments. “Hopefully you can come back next year and see what you did.”
Cliff took his turn to thank his willing work crew.
“There’s not a building, a sign, any area that SOWERS haven’t touched,” he said. “Everything.”
In fact, the handsome dining facility where the group sat was built by SOWERS a few years ago.
“We tried to make an inventory of SOWER work once and we had to give up,” Cliff said. There was just too much from the years and years of projects.
The SOWERS philosophy is all about giving back, he said, and the group’s ministry has been invaluable.
It’s not just the labor that Cliff appreciates.
“We get to meet these wonderful people and we become life-long friends,” he said. “Someday my wife and I will be SOWERS.”
Leon Smith, who lived in Edon, Ohio, before heading out onto the road, said he and his wife aimed to participate in two projects a yea, but now they’re up to six.
“It’s just like mission work,” he said. “Once it gets into your blood.…”
The Bates are involved in volunteer work most of the year and a good share of that is with the SOWERS. Projects are generally chosen with regard to the location of family members.
Lyle’s brother, Elwyn, for example, lives in Fayette, and there are other friends and relatives to visit while stationed in southern Michigan.
They work in a state park every fall near one of their children in North Carolina. Later they’ll move on to Alabama near a child in the Florida panhandle.
They’ve worked at summer camps, a facility for troubled teens, a Christian school, a children’s home, a distribution facility for Christian literature, an agency that sends medical supplies overseas, and at other locations.
When they’re no longer able to live the SOWER lifestyle, the Bates will probably return to Spartansburg, N.C., to settle down. They lived there in a house for 17 years, and some day they’ll have to start all over.
Marilyn said they planned their RV life for five or six years before making the move. The change didn’t always come easily. People accumulate a lot over 17 immobile years, Lyle said, but everything had to go. They weren’t about to rent a storage unit.
“We got rid of everything,” Marilyn said.
“We’ve learned that memories are more important than things,” Lyle added.
When it comes time to furnish their next house—a house without wheels—estate sales and thrift stores will do just fine. As Marilyn sees it, living full time in an RV changes your perspective.
For now, they’re content to live on the road and sow their good deeds here and there.
“We’re houseless but not homeless,” Marilyn said. “We have a home. It’s wherever we park it.”