98-year-old volunteers with veterans

2013-08-04T00:00:00Z 98-year-old volunteers with veteransJon Krenek The (Kankakee) Daily Journal nwitimes.com
August 04, 2013 12:00 am  • 

MANTENO, Ill. | Wheelchairs provide nearly all the seating at chapel services held at the Illinois Veterans Home at Manteno. Many of the residents who come simply listen, as simple tasks such as singing or standing up are just too overwhelming.

So when Erma Peppin, 98, sat down on a recent Tuesday, moving only to roll her red, white and blue rosary beads between her bony fingers, she appeared to fit right in. That is, at least, until the service ended and she jumped up to greet everyone else in the room.

"She's like a saint as far as I'm concerned," said Diane Van Pelt, one of the home's volunteers.

Peppin has served as a volunteer Eucharistic minister at the home for 27 years serving communion to residents who are unable to attend daily chapel services. Recently, officials with the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs, the home's chaplain, staff, volunteers — and its residents — took a moment to honor her 27 years of service and her 98th birthday, which was in late June.

"That's all I live for — to serve the veterans. They're my way to heaven," Peppin told The Daily Journal. "I feel very privileged that God has given me another year to serve them."

Her work day starts with a long commute from Bradley aboard a River Valley Metro Mass Transit District bus and doesn't end until she finishes her rounds — usually about two hours after the chapel service has concluded.

There is little doubt her presence is felt by everyone at the home.

Elaine Schwass, the home's administrative assistant, said an umbrella-toting staff member will wait for her at the bus stop when it rains. Many of the residents still look up to her as their teacher, as she taught in Manteno's elementary schools decades ago. She's even had marriage proposals.

"There have been a few who asked her to marry them," Schwass said. "She always gets a kick out of it."

To be sure, Peppin gets around. The Rev. Sean Labat, the home's chaplain, estimates she visits between 40 and 50 residents who are unable to attend chapel services, giving them communion and praying with them. She writes a new prayer every day and keeps them all in a book.

"She is probably one of the most faithful people I know," Labat said. "She's 98. She doesn't have to be here."

Labat said it's become increasingly difficult for churches or any other social or service organization to find volunteers and the devotion Peppin has shown to her task is unusual. He made an example of her service in the chapel service recently, then offering prayers for the continuing strength of her "mind, body and spirit."

Reginald Booker, Manteno's administrator, was met with a kiss on the cheek when he handed her a certificate of appreciation from Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs Director Erica Borggren. Peppin stood up to applause to accept the honor.

"You've all been wonderful to me," Peppin said. "I hope I have many more years."

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