His closet of hope and care
By Noble Sprayberry
Mattresses, canes, walkers and other necessities needed to support the sick or weak surround the Rev. Carroll de Forest as he stands in his “Closet.”
A tall man, he speaks in soft, soothing tones hinting neither of his New York upbringing, nor of the more than four decades spent in Eastern Kentucky.
“There are a lot of people here in Jackson County who have to choose between putting food on the table and meeting their medical needs,” he says. “Equipment is really expensive, and almost everything is given to us. So, we loan it out, for nothing, to whomever needs it, for as long as they need.”
The longtime pastor of the Gray Hawk Reformed Church continues to spend much of his day managing the Carroll de Forest Loan Closet, which is supported by the Jackson County Cancer Fund.
“He didn’t want us to name it after him, but we out-voted him,” says Vivian Marcum, a fund board member. “We decided he deserved that and even more.”
But the Closet, in the red, metal-sided building near his home, is only one way de Forest, who turns 80 in July, has touched a community he adopted as his own after arriving in 1971.
A life of service
He was raised in Duanesburg, New York, just northwest of Albany. “I grew up on a turkey farm,” he says.
He attended the State University of New York at Cobleskill, where he completed a two-year agriculture engineering course. Then, he went to Central College in Pella, Iowa, and majored in psychology.
The college is affiliated with the Reformed Church in America, a denomination de Forest continues to serve. And after his degree, he began his journeys.
“I went to Japan as a short-term missionary after graduating,” he says of the time he taught English and Bible in a small town in the north of the country. “I was there three years. It was an agricultural college, with a boys high school and a girls high school connected to it.”
Once he returned to the United States, his continuing education included seminary in Holland, Michigan. He married his wife, Betty, during his senior year. After graduating, the couple returned to Japan. “We were there for five years, but Betty didn’t like it as well as I did,” he says.
The church’s mission board found the couple a new home. “They needed an agriculture teacher at Annville Institute, and I’d also done a year of graduate work at Iowa State after returning from Japan,” he says. “So, I became an agriculture teacher and farm manager in Annville.”
Jackson County Ministries took over operation of the institute in 1979, and de Forest headed the integrated pastoral calling program, which coordinated visits to area residents in nursing homes and hospitals.
In 1971, he also became a part-time pastor of the Gray Hawk Reformed Church, eventually serving as full-time pastor. The couple lived in a ranch-style home on the property, where they raised five children: Danny, 44; Nathan, 42; Mark, 41; Angie, 39; and Sherry, 34.
“I was pastor here for 29 years, and in 2000 I retired,” he says. “But, I like to say that I don’t retire, I retread.”
Joining the struggle against cancer
Over the years, de Forest contributed to the community in many ways, including officiating more than 120 marriages and participating in at least 600 funerals.
He has offered condolences and hope, with much of the work focused on individuals and families touched by cancer. He is an organizer and supporter of the Jackson County Cancer Fund.
“He’s the most thoughtful, caring and considerate person I’ve ever met,” Marcum says. “He treats everyone the same, like they’re a brother or a sister. I call him the gentle giant. He’s just wonderful.”
Teams from local churches organize events such as fish fries to support the fund. Also, an annual fall festival in September raises money and honors those lost to cancer, as well as those who survived.
Last year, the effort raised nearly $47,500. Ten percent of that money supports the Markey Cancer Center in Lexington, and the rest remains in the local community to fund efforts such as the Loan Closet.
The fund does buy mattress covers, which go along with any bedding distributed by the Closet. And, the fund may help defray the cost of providing batteries — as much as $170 — for electric-powered chairs. But, the Closet’s operation is frugal. De Forest, for example, pays for his own gas whenever he drives an aging van to deliver items or to pick up donations.
When asked what de Forest means to the community, fund board member Pat Henderson says, “Just about everything. He’s involved in more than you would expect from anyone. He’s just real caring, and a big help to the county. If you need help, all you have to do is ask. He doesn’t care what it takes.”
Through his work as pastor and with the Closet, he has seen people struggle with cancer. And while medicine now often provides life-extending treatments, if not outright cures, cancer remains a diagnosis fraught with fear.
“Cancer makes people think, ‘Well, I’m a goner, and I’m not going to make it through,’’’ de Forest says.
When offering comfort, de Forest turns to the lessons of his church: “As Paul says, our little earthly tent will be folded up one day, and God will move us out to our eternal dwelling. It’s a journey we all make.”
Through the Closet, de Forest, and those who help him, strive to make the journey a little easier.”