May 4, 2010

USA: Elderly couple still help out

BUFFALO, New York / The Buffalo News / City & Region / Life / May 4, 2010

Tillmans continue decades of good works in East Side neighborhood

By Lou Michel

Geraldine Tillman, 89, works in the food pantry at the SonFest Center
on Masten Avenue, where she, her husband and friends distribute groceries
provided by the Food Bank of Western New York and others. 
Derek Gee/Buffalo News
Otis Tillman is 91, and Geraldine Tillman is 89. For decades, the Buffalo couple have volunteered their time and energy to improve a little piece of the world in a tough city neighborhood.

With a little of their income and donations from others, they feed the hungry, clothe the tattered and offer comfort and guidance to children.

Even at their advanced ages, they show no signs of slowing down.

Twice a month, 200 to 300 people line up outside a nearly completed 20,000-square-foot hall being built on Masten Avenue, between East Ferry Street and Woodlawn Avenue, where the couple and friends distribute bags of groceries provided by the Food Bank of Western New York and others.

Two doors away on Masten, inside the Tillmans’ home, Geraldine regularly sorts through parcels of clothing that come from churches as far away as Iowa and Florida.

The Tillmans’ living room often looks like a miniature department store where those who can’t afford to buy clothing can get a new outfit.

“Whenever anyone needs clothes, they can come here. All the clothes are donated,” Geraldine Tillman said.

During the summer, children participate in activities at “SonFest Pavilion,” the Tillmans’ vacation Bible school at 447 Masten.

The word retirement is not in the vocabulary of the untiring Tillmans. “When the Lord slows us, then we’ll slow down,” Geraldine Tillman said. “My vision is to please the Lord, and he has not told me to sit down yet,” her husband added.

Darnell Jackson, an East Side community activist, said he is astounded at the Tillmans’ energy level and commitment.

“This is an example of really godly work. When you put your trust in God, this is the type of work and energy you can be supplied with no matter what your age is,” said Jackson, who leads a group of young volunteers to remove snow in the winter for the Tillmans and spruce up their day camp in the summer.

Geraldine and Otis Tillman need about $50,000 to finish
interior construction at the SonFest Center. Derek Gee/Buffalo News

For the Tillmans, it all began about 40 years ago, when Otis said he felt a spiritual inspiration from God to serve the African- American community. He and his wife founded a small church, Cold Spring Bible Chapel, which started out in an East Ferry storefront, near Waverly Street, and is now located at 100 Northland Ave.

With 50 members, the congregation continues to worship every week, according to Otis Tillman, a General Motors retiree who was born in Georgia and raised in Ann Arbor, Mich., before arriving in Buffalo at age 15 in search of work.

The former Geraldine Bradshaw moved here from Terre Haute, Ind., when she was 20 to marry Otis Tillman, with whom her family had been corresponding in connection with a Bible study group that Tillman had started in the home of a friend on the East Side.

Otis Tillman said that although he can’t remember what street the house was on, he has never forgotten that God called him to be of service to his neighbors. “I can remember some intense games of basketball at our summer camp,” he said of the days when he raced up and down the court with youngsters. “At one point, we owned a bus and took the kids on field trips.”

Now he is more likely to assist the children in memorizing Bible verses or with arts and crafts.

The Tillmans said it is a joy to help children from the neighborhood get on the right path in life. “Some have grown up to become police and firefighters, Board of Education workers and others who make a difference in the community,” Geraldine Tillman said.

Not surprisingly, the Tillmans continue to set lofty goals.

Their latest plan calls for finishing the interior construction of the community hall, known as “SonFest Center.” The exterior construction was completed thanks to donations totaling about $50,000, but approximately the same amount is needed for the interior work.

“We need about $50,000 more or less to complete the inside,” Otis Tillman said. “There’s a big basketball court inside, and there will be accommodations for the food pantry and the clothes closet.”

Geraldine Tillman explained that the food pantry is already in the structure, but because the building has not been completed, it lacks a city occupancy permit, and food pantry recipients have to stand outside to receive groceries.

“When we get that occupancy permit, we’ll also have a kitchen and be able to feed the kids,” she said.

The parents of three grown children, the Tillmans said they are always looking for new opportunities to be of service but realize a day will come when someone else will have to take their place.

“I’m looking for someone who really cares,” Geraldine Tillman said. [rc]

Lou Michel

Copyright 1999 - 2010 - The Buffalo News