When Tom Redig walks into Oak Trace Senior Living Community in Downers Grove, the faces of residents light up.
The former high school chemistry teacher performs "weird science" demonstrations, bringing in everything from dry ice to liquid nitrogen to shaving cream to explain fascinating science phenomenon.
The residents learn about such properties as light and electricity in demonstrations that are exciting, fun and easy-to-understand. But Redig is doing so much more than teaching about science, said Laura Witt, Oak Trace's director of life enrichment.
"There's a softer side of Tom that is even more important to residents," Witt said. "He really cares about them and the feeling is mutual. They adore him."
Redig brings in a mini-birthday cake, complete with sprinkles and an electric candle to celebrate each resident's birthday. Engaging residents in conversation, he empathizes with their pains and shares his own struggles with them.
"They throw so much love at you" he said. "It's not that hard."
Change in direction
A little more than two years ago, Redig couldn't have imagined himself at a senior home. He didn't like old people, never had, until his own physical difficulties left him seeking company and a way to serve God in his suffering.
A former competitive swimmer and athlete as well as a teacher, Redig, 50, had a tumor removed from his spine while he was in his late 20s. The surgery had not properly closed the spinal cord and blood was seeping in. The iron in his blood is toxic to the spinal cord and the brain, Redig said. The cause of the migraines and balance problems he had experienced for years was finally explained when he went to Mayo Clinic three years ago.
His condition, called superficial siderosis, is progressive and terminal. His deteriorating health left him unable to teach full-time for the past year and a half, and he officially resigned his position at Downers Grove North High School this past January.
Being home alone while his wife went to her own teaching job drove him nuts, he said. He couldn't explain what made him turn to Oak Trace (formerly Fairview Baptist), only about a mile from his home.
"How did I end up at Oak Trace? It's God's hand through this whole thing," he said. "It's a joy to volunteer there."
Friends who care
Redig began visiting Oak Trace two years ago and six months later suggested to Witt that he demonstrate "weird science" to residents. He now comes in one Saturday a month to do demonstrations and often visits the Wednesday before with "make and take" materials for interested residents.
The Saturday programs usually draw a group of 50 or more that includes residents' children and grandchildren, he said.
"Their reaction is the same as it was in my chemistry class. They enjoy it," Redig said.
He found the residents to be different from the "old people" he had been avoiding all his life.
Redig said his aversion to the elderly had probably stemmed from his boyhood visits to his grandparents. They had lived hard lives and were cranky. Redig always dreaded the moment when he would be told to kiss them goodbye.
"I didn't want to do that," he said. "They scared me."
But at Oak Trace, Redig found residents who shared his own faith in God and could identify with his pain.
"I enjoy just being there with them," he said. "They are just wonderful,"
Jean Forys, 92, is one of the residents Redig has gotten to know best. Forys said she enjoys the science demonstrations and gives Redig credit for how he has handles his illness.
"I can't praise him enough," she said. "I think it's remarkable. People have all kinds of illnesses and you deal with it or not."
Redig said his own faith journey has taken him far from the easy life he once had. Gifted as a teacher, he enjoyed his 25 years at Downers Grove North and had traveled around the country and even to Australia giving "weird science" demonstrations. But he had never thanked God for his gift, he said.
"I was doing it for me. There was way too much self," he said.
That began to change as Redig's illness progressed. Medication has diminished the migraines, but his balance is poor, his energy diminished and his thinking slowed. On occasion, he has even found himself incoherent and had accidents in his pants.
"You want a humbling experience. That's humbling," he said. "Every time a new symptom comes up, it shakes me."
But interestingly enough, Redig said he finds he now has an impact on people's lives that goes beyond what he ever had before.
"I've had people come up to me and say, 'Tom, you're such an inspiration showing your faith through your illness,'" he said. "No one ever came up to me in 25 years of teaching and said, 'Tom, you're such an inspiration showing your faith in your chemistry teaching.'"
Redig's willingness to share his journey has enabled residents to support him, Witt said.
"He is kind of a Pied Piper to residents. He has just such positive energy," she said.
Seeking more outlets to serve, Redig recently started to bring his weird science demonstrations to the preschool at his congregation, First Congregational United Church of Christ, in Downers Grove, where the youngsters enjoy them as much as the oldsters. He also volunteers at the church answering the phone and stuffing envelopes, and at his wife's school where he reads to special education kids.
But that will change in the coming months. The father of two adult daughters, Redig said he and his wife, Patty, have sold their home and will leave after one of their daughters marries in August. They don't yet know where they will go.
"We see this as an opportunity to serve God," he said. "We are really waiting for God's direction."
His own prognosis remains uncertain. The progress of the disease varies from person to person, and he recently has started taking an experimental drug that removes iron from the spinal cord.
"I've got to just trust God," he said. "Running away from God makes no sense to me. I can't do this by myself. I can't do this alone."