Troup former educator now helps local charity groups
Dr. Jackie Gerla has a philosophy: "serve God however He needs me."
It's a philosophy she practices as she serves her community.
The 66-year-old retired professor, who is sometimes referred to as "Smiley," is co-director of the food pantry at First United Methodist Church and helps run the Senior Citizen Game Day at the Cameron-J. Jarvis Troup Municipal Library.
"Ever since I was a little girl, my prayer ... has been 'Lord, help me to help others,' and I feel like (with) my teaching career, I definitely helped others out," she said. "My students were my main focus -- basically my life. Even when I got to the university, I knew them all on a first name basis...I knew them really really well because that's how you help kids ... basically my philosophy is 'What can I do to serve God by helping others?'"
Dr. Gerla, a Houston native, came to the East Texas to take a job at the University of Texas at Tyler, where she was a professor of reading and taught education courses.
She eventually ended up in the Troup area when she and her husband bought land outside of the city. She's been there 13 years, and the Senior Citizen Game Day is in its ninth year.
Dr. Gerla said her initiative to begin the game day came from God.
"One night I was sound asleep. It was the wee hours of the morning, and I was awakened by this voice that said 'You will call your ministry Foothold Ministry," she explained.
"It was like somebody was right next to me speaking to me. Then I saw a logo of a mountain and God holding his hand out and God supporting the mountain climber as he climbed up."
She said God had provided her with a ministry name and a logo so she asked Him what He wanted her to do with that. She said she later heard a voice that wasn't as clear, but indicated that she should take care of widows.
She said there was a senior citizen time where elderly residents would meet and fellowship, but it didn't last long, and she thought she could help bring it back.
"I thought, 'We'll try that again and we'll have games to play and we'll feed them and just make it a day they all look forward to," she said, adding that she received permission to use the library meeting room, and a committee was appointed to assist her.
"Of course, when you do things for the Lord, they're going to always come together if it's something that He's directed," she said. "They're going to fall into place, and our game day did."
The Senior Citizen Game Day takes place on the first Wednesday of each month. Dr. Gerla said about 15 or 20 people showed up when the event started, but the word spread, and about 50 are served each month.
And she said participants tell organizers that it's the highlight of their month.
"They get to meet friends...We do sandwiches, (and) they bring desserts now. We used to buy them or make them, but not anymore. (Then) occasionally we do treats. Like (Wednesday) we decided to make homemade soup," she said.
As far as the games, she said when the event started, she brought cards, Scrabble and other games, but the participants enjoy dominoes, 42, Mexican Train and Bingo.
Dr. Gerla said she receives pleasure from the day just like the participants do.
"It's the joy that I receive from seeing the joy on their faces," she said. "They laugh...the Mexican Train group -- they have so much fun -- they just cackle and laugh and cut up. In fact, we've got them in the room by the windows so the noise is not as much for the others. But they just have such a good time, and they appreciate it."
She added, "Senior citizens are kind of our lost or forgotten group in society. ... People don't pay much attention to senior citizens. They don't give them the credit that they deserve. They're such wonderful people, and you get to know them and you see they've still got so much to offer, and they need companionship so many of them are lonely, especially widows. I'm a widow now...I understand how many of these widows feel, especially those who don't get out much."
She said she's also met many wonderful people and does not have any immediate plans to change the game day.
She became involved with the food pantry last year. She said the director had cancer, and before she died, approached her about taking over.
She said she would do it if she ended up retiring from UT Tyler, which she did. She started the position in January and now has a co-director as well as various volunteers, who assist by unloading food; getting milk and juice that children haven't used at school; ensuring bags are ready when people arrive to get their food; and stocking shelves, among other things.
"It's amazing to watch all these people work together and coordinate in such a way that we can get the food out in a very quick manner," Dr. Gerla said.
The food pantry serves families every Thursday. Last week, there were more than 120 families served.
Besides the game day and food pantry, she also takes care of her 93-year-old mother, manages her property, raises horses and is involved in Bible Study.
Whatever she does, she said she thinks about the results of her words because she wants to encourage rather than tear down.
Beth Byrd, who volunteers with the food pantry, said Ms. Gerla does it all to serve the Lord.
Ms. Byrd went on to describe her as someone with a servant's heart who is accommodating, caring and friendly.
Ms. Gerla said she believes she hasn't yet done everything with the ministry that God asked her to, and in the future, she likely needs to get a nonprofit foundation started and look at what she can do with that. Ms. Gerla, who enjoys her horses and gardening, said she also always has more she wants to do at home.