DIXON – Opal Bowers stares into the open oven and lifts the lid off of a heavy blue pot.
“What are you doing?”
“Just checking on lunch.”
At the Leydig Center, lunch is provided for workers every day at 11:30 a.m. The meal will feed about 35 people. Today, it’s Opal’s turn to cook.
“What’s for lunch?”
“Beef and noodles.”
When 87-year-old Opal first came to work at the Leydig Center, the charity still was operating out of Eurith Leydig’s basement. Back then, Mrs. Leydig gave away different items for free to those in need. Opal got involved through her church, the Church of the Brethren in Dixon, and spent her first day sorting boots and shoes.
“I remember thinking it was a really neat thing for somebody to do,” she says.
That was about 50 years ago, give or take a few – Opal can’t quite remember.
In the 43 years since Mrs. Leydig’s death, the Leydig Center has had four locations: a vacant church on Highland Avenue, one spot and then another on Brinton Avenue, and now its enormous, 68,000-square-foot location at 1101 Warp Road, behind BorgWarner Dixon.
Opal first came to Dixon from Moweaqua with the Illinois Central Railroad, working as a telegraph operator. She met her future husband through mutual friends, and they found a comfortable life here, raising their three sons. She came to spend her days doing volunteer work with her church and at the Leydig Center.
Since his death 37 years ago, volunteering has taken on an even greater role in her life.
“It’s my recreation or my social life, I guess you could call it,” she says. “We’re all just like a big family here, and we’re all good friends.”
The Leydig Center is unique, Opal says, in that no one on staff there receives a penny – any and all money made goes straight to charity. And she’s taken an active role to ensure it stays that way, serving on the board since 1970 in every position available.
The center gives at least $175,000 a year to local charities, she says, and that makes it all worth it.
“I know it’s doing a lot of good,” she says. “That’s why I’m here. I like helping people. That’s the way I’ve always been. That’s my life.”
In recent years, her involvement has declined, if only minimally. She has problems with her eyesight – macular degeneration – and recently quit driving, which meant she had to give up volunteering with Meals on Wheels, which she also had done for some 40 years.
But she still comes into the Leydig Center as often as she can, getting rides with co-workers and regularly working 6-hour days.
Once she leaves, her day isn’t done. She frequently brings home “homework,” choosing to spend her afternoons sorting greeting cards and jewelry, which she then prices and places out on the racks.
She isn’t just a worker, she’s a frequent customer, too.
“I can’t afford to go to the stores and pay the prices,” she says, dressed in an outfit that was bought entirely at the Leydig Center. “And some of the stuff in the stores – the styles are so bad and the material’s not good. What we get in here is.”
This year, Opal was grand marshal in the Petunia Festival parade, where the Leydig Center float took first place in the business category – an accomplishment to be proud of, to be sure, but for Opal, what it really comes down to is making a difference.
“It’s just a good feeling to walk in here every morning and know you’re going to be helping somebody.”