Terminally Ill Library Volunteer Visits Billy Graham Library One More Time
June 18, 2015
She’s a spitfire with long gray hair and a story to tell. And she’s been missed.
It’s a hot, sunny Monday at the Billy Graham Library as a small group of women huddle in a shady spot on the curb. A van pulls up and a couple of Library staffers get giddy.
“There she is!” they say, waving furiously at the window.
A man gets out, pulls a ramp from the back of the van and wheels out a beautiful woman in a deep purple cardigan. She gives a big smile and bigger hugs.
“I told you I wasn’t gonna come here and look sick!” she says.
This is Corina Handy.
In 2007, Corina watched the dedication of the Billy Graham Library on TV.
“I thought, ‘I’ve got to get involved there,’” she said. But she didn’t think she’d meet the criteria to join the Library’s team of volunteers. “It took me four trips to get up the nerve to put in my application.”
Corina, 55, was a neonatal nurse at the time and was used to working long hours. The days she didn’t work, she’d volunteer at the Library from open to close. She saw many visitors come in and leave changed.
But they weren’t the only ones. She had her own special “God moment” one day while volunteering.
“I had a deafening encounter with the Holy Spirit one day, so I consider Sept. 27 of 2008 my birthday. … That’s when I was born again,” she said. She’d always considered herself a Christian but said that day—in the final room of the Library’s Journey of Faith tour—“God spoke loud and clear.”
She altered her work hours to volunteer more and couldn’t get enough of the Library.
“It was such a family,” she said. “It continued to enhance my life and bring me closer and closer to God. … I just could not imagine never having the experiences I had here.”
She’s convinced God was preparing her for things to come.
In 2009, after nearly two years of volunteering at the Library, Corina was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. She was forced to quit her job, reluctantly gave up volunteering and hung up the car keys. She moved back to Wilkesboro, North Carolina—about an hour and a half away—to live in her grandfather’s old house near her parents.
The only thing she missed about Charlotte was the Library.
“While she couldn’t be here physically, we’ve always counted her as a volunteer,” said Anne Marie Armistead, the Library’s volunteer program manager.
Corina has written cards to other volunteers through the Library’s card ministry, celebrating birthdays and expressing sympathy through her words.
“I have just refused to leave through the years, and I have wanted to come back here ever since,” she said.
But last fall, things got a bit more complicated. Doctors determined that she doesn’t have Parkinson’s after all; she has a Parkinson’s offshoot called Multiple System Atrophy (MSA), a terminal neurological disorder where the brain stops communicating with major organs. It was MSA all along, meaning the average 7-year life expectancy was cut short for Corina. She entered hospice care in November.
With elderly parents, her own worsening illness and limited transportation options, it was several years from the time of her diagnosis before Corina would see her beloved Library again.
“This has been a six-year prayer,” she said Monday, surrounded by old friends. She promised herself she wouldn’t cry, but Library staff made no such promises.
Anne Marie, along with assistant volunteer manager Terri Hazen, were in tears throughout the day. They weren’t just seeing a volunteer again; they were seeing a friend. One of Anne Marie’s fondest memories is from 2008, when Corina showed up at the hospital within hours of her son’s birth.
“That’s the kind of person she is,” Anne Marie explained. “She’s really, really special to me.”
Tears don’t last long around Corina, though. There’s just too much joy radiating from this woman to stay sad about anything.
With hugs given and a new day ahead of her Monday morning, Corina was ready to tour the Library once again. But where to start?
“How ’bout the homeplace, girlfriend?” Terri asked, her arms wide and a broad smile beaming at Corina.
The Graham family homeplace, right in front of the Library, is the house Billy Graham grew up in and one of Corina’s favorite places to volunteer. She must have told hundreds of people about the home by now, from the history to the décor. She has her own history with Billy Graham, too.
“My granddaddy always watched Billy Graham, so he and I never missed a Crusade together,” she said. “I would come home from undergraduate school to watch Billy Graham with him.”
With Corina’s support of Mr. Graham’s ministry throughout the years, she’s made another friend, Doug Barrett, a regional manager with BGEA’s donor ministries. They met four years ago and still keep in touch, even with Doug now living in Pennsylvania.
He drove to Charlotte to accompany Corina on her long-awaited Library visit.
“I get off the phone (with her) and my stomach hurts from laughing,” he said.
Her free spirit and easy humor are infectious, even if her independence worries her hospice nurses sometimes.
Back at the homeplace after a six-year hiatus, Corina pushed herself up out of the wheelchair to take a look around.
“Listen, you can’t just go jumpin’ out of a wheelchair,” hospice nurse Katie Osborne warned. She proceeded to follow Corina around with one arm extended—just in case.
MSA comes with some debilitating effects—rigid muscles, slow movement and poor balance just to name a few. Still, Corina stood on her own two feet, taking in her old stomping grounds. Then, after a pause, and surrounded by a group of nurses, staff and others, she recited facts about each area of the house, down to the 1932 Hotpoint stove in the kitchen.
“For those of you who are new here, I want to welcome you to the Billy Graham homeplace,” she began.
While doctors never expected Corina to live past March—especially after a recent heart attack—Corina knows there’s a reason she’s still around.
“I shouldn’t be sitting here, but obviously God has a purpose that I’m still here,” she said matter-of-factly.
From the looks of it, she isn’t done telling people about Christ. She’s even discipled one of her hospice nurses.
“I am freer and have more joy now than I have in a long time,” Corina said.
She talks openly about death and only teared up in the Library tour’s final room, the room where God spoke to her. There’s a video there where Billy Graham explains the Gospel. She asked to watch it again.
Instead of listing a death date on her gravestone, Corina says she has something else picked out: a reference to John 11:25.
“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live…”
“I have such a peace about going forward and going home,” she said, sitting up straight in her wheelchair. Her eyes were clear, her hands steady as she talked about a new beginning in heaven.
“I have absolutely no fear. The day that I leave this world, that’s one more birthday for me. … Like Billy Graham says, ‘I’ve read the last page of the Bible. It’s all going to turn out all right.’”