“I lived bad for a long time.”
Sonny Westmoreland’s direct gaze, glistening eye and the raw way he adds, “I put my wife through some hard times,” bespeak a man whose deliverance is not taken for granted. Like his testimony, Westmoreland’s life demonstrates a grateful man who does good wherever he can – not for atonement but in thankfulness for it – and in hope of sparing others.
Sonny Westmoreland keeps Red Bags stashed in the trunk of his car – ready to share with friends or strangers. One family reported using a Red Bag during emergency transport to a hospital. “Her daughter told me they were real pleased they had the Red Bag,” he said.
Retired for 18 years and widowed for five, 80-year-old Westmoreland does not let grass grow under his feet. Or his neighbor’s for that matter. He stays active helping others – like the frail neighbor whose yard he mows each week, or the numerous walk-a-thons he participates in each year – chiefly the annual Relay for Life where he walks one lap for each year since his successful treatment for lung cancer. Last year, that was 29 laps – seven and a quarter miles, with only one lung. He also is an active deacon at Haymore Memorial Baptist Church in Mount Airy and a weekly volunteer at a local food pantry and clothes closet.
Westmoreland also “opens the doors, turns on the lights, and makes the coffee” two evenings each week at a local Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting. “I used to go seven nights a week, but now just two – but not to keep from drinking. God gave me that program. Now, it’s my obligation to be there for others. You can’t do a lot for people at AA; they have to do it for themselves. But they have to have a place to go; so I keep the doors open for them.”
Westmoreland is frank about the addiction to alcohol that threatened his marriage and life. After his “Savior, Jesus Christ,” Westmoreland credits his wife Polly for seeing him through. “We met on a blind date when I got back from Korea. I kept my drinking secret until we married, and then I couldn’t any longer.”
In May 1972, after 15 years of turmoil, Westmoreland found himself in the Alcohol Recovery Center (ARC) in Butner, N.C. Retelling a memory from those first days of sobriety still casts a shadow across his face.
Sonny Westmoreland was married to Polly for 53 years. “I’ve never done enough to deserve the good that God has done to me – the wife and the life he gave me.”
“They made a movie of the get-acquainted session on the first day and showed it to us later. I was disgusted to see my nasty, rude attitude.”
Afterwards, Westmoreland dropped to his knees and prayed, “If You’re really up there, show me what to do. I never want to be that person again.”
Family dynamics were part of the treatment, so Polly was asked to stay at ARC for 28 days. “I had given her some pretty hard times, so I told them, ‘She won’t come.’ But she came on Sunday and stayed 28 days. Our kids were eight and nine.”
Polly became a Christian as a teenager, but Westmoreland’s road was longer. After two years of sobriety, he began attending church with Polly. “One Sunday, when they had the altar call, I felt I had to go up. I was baptized in a lake on the side of Turner Mountain in the summer of ’74.”
Because of relocations and loss of contact, it took Westmoreland 40 years to complete step nine of AA’s 12 steps to recovery – “make direct amends to all persons harmed.” “I sure dreaded going to some people. The last man on my list was a good man who taught me to never give up on anybody. I’m grateful God gave me the chance to make amends with him after 40 years. Now I can say that, by the grace of God, every person on my list accepted my apology.”
Westmoreland’s bucolic home – built with his own hands – sits atop a ridge in the foothills of North Carolina. A vista of undulating green fields softens into the haze of the Blue Ridge Mountains on the horizon. Inside, Polly’s touch is still evident – the cozy rocker, the personalized cookie jar, and her worn Bible – an apt sequel – resting on the sofa’s end-table. It’s easy to imagine she might emerge from the kitchen with a warm smile and a tray of coffee.
The five years since Polly’s passing have been marked by many firsts – the first Christmas, the first anniversary, the first steps of great-grandchildren. Firsts now come further apart. But this year brought another one – the first time he’d planted green beans without her. Last Christmas, he opened the last of the 27 quarts he’d canned while she gave directions. “That last summer, she wasn’t up to it, so she talked me through it.” The tender green shoots peeking through the cold soil will provide another first later this summer.
“We had the best 39 years anyone could ever have.” The fact that Sonny and Polly were married for 53 years doesn’t dim his appreciation for the years when he says he “came closer to giving her the husband she deserved.”
Life has offered Westmoreland exceptional opportunities for despair: addiction, cancer, and most recently, widowhood. But he has declined each one – choosing instead to keep his chin up and be a blessing. His service to others is powerful because it stems from a heart connection – like his Red Bag ministry. “I see Red Bags as a way to honor Polly. She worked in a doctor’s office 45 years. If she were living, she would be right here with me, getting them in the hands of people who need them.”
Westmoreland first learned of Red Bags when Martha McDowell, central regional director for North Carolina Baptist Aging Ministry (NCBAM) shared “Priority #1: Prevention” programs at his church. “I could see the need for these right away,” says Westmoreland.
He pitched Red Bags as a ministry outreach to his pastor and fellow deacons and they jumped on board. Westmoreland also purchases bags and routinely shares them with others.
Deacon Eric Southern, an EMS supervisor, and Westmoreland have spoken on a local radio program sharing medication safety tips such as storing medicines in one place and making them accessible to emergency responders. Westmoreland appreciates that each Red Bag comes with the plan of salvation. “If they are not a Christian, this Red Bag will give them another chance,” concludes Sonny Westmoreland – ever the lover of a good second chance.
What’s a Red Bag?
Red Bags for medication management are part of NCBAM’s “Priority #1: Prevention” programs that include smoke detectors, grab bars and fall and fire prevention strategies. Red Bags make it convenient to store medications in one location and to transport medications to doctor visits. The bright red color makes it easy for emergency responders to spot – and receive a quick answer to the question they often ask first, “What medications are you taking?” NCBAM Red Bags include the plan of salvation and an insert where the purpose and dosage of each medication can be written. Red Bags are available from NCBAM for $3 each with a minimum 50-bag order. Call (877) 506.2226 for more information. Visit ncbam.org.