She's still learning every day.
As we get older, sometimes our bodies get a little slower and our physical worlds get a little smaller. But that doesn't mean our minds or our hearts have to do the same.
95-year-old Ruth Bryant is proof of that.
She dedicated her life to helping people learn, teaching kids and adults on two continents — a dedication that earned her a presidential medal for service. Even now, when her life is mostly limited to her home, she's still learning — this time from her Meals on Wheels volunteers.
Ruth was born in Chicago, the youngest of five sisters. By the time she was 12, her mother was widowed and looking for a new place to raise her family.
They hit the road, trading the Windy City for balmy, sunny Santa Monica, California. The ocean breeze, the flowers, the people, the city — everything made them feel welcome. And they never looked back.
As Ruth grew up in her new hometown, she focused her future on one goal: becoming a teacher.
After all, it's a profession that runs in her family.
Ruth's mom liked to tell her daughters about her time teaching kindergarten through sixth grade to students in a small one-room schoolhouse "in the middle of the country." Like many teachers at the time, she was only 15 — barely an adult herself — and would ride her horse to the schoolhouse to teach.
One day in the middle of lessons, she watched her horse get loose and run away. As any teenager would do in the situation, she ran outside, sat on the stoop, and started to cry. Then, one by one, her students came outside to comfort her until an entire classroom's worth of kids joined her crying on the stoop in solidarity and support.
For Ruth, hearing that story from her mom was the moment she knew she wanted to teach. "That's unconventional and unconditional love," she said. "I knew I wanted to experience that too."
Ruth's dedication to teaching and empowering kids stayed with her through her entire teaching career.
She learned quickly that her philosophy of teaching was a little out of the ordinary. Lectures followed by worksheets followed by tests — that kind of teaching might work for other educators. But Ruth wanted to do things differently.
"My philosophy is that if you have students and you tell them something and they know it, that can be forgotten right away," explained Ruth. "But if you present something in a creative way, they get immersed and they want to be a part of it. It becomes a part of their very being."
Her unique, thoughtful, creative way of looking at things helped move her career in fascinating directions. Including Venezuela.
Accepting an invitation from two of her students, Ruth started visiting Venezuela as a volunteer teacher in the early 1970s. She fell in love with the country at first sight. Over the next three decades, she went back every single summer to train teachers in creative ways of educating, earning the nickname the "Teacher of Teachers."
After returning from a summer abroad in the mid-1990s, Ruth learned that she was being considered for an award. Suddenly, she was back on a plane to Venezuela to accept a medal for service from then-President Rafael Caldera and the Minister of Education. "It was a great, great, great honor to me to have a president of a country give me a medal for the work that I'd done in their country, a teacher from California," Ruth recalled.
Though she retired many years ago, Ruth still values teaching — only the tables have turned a little.
Ruth started using Meals on Wheels a few years ago after it became increasingly difficult to leave her home and care for herself. For many of the same reasons she valued her students and fellow teachers, Ruth loves her Meals on Wheels volunteers.
Meals on Wheels, she said, has been an actual lifesaver, helping her stay independent and live in her home. And while she is grateful for the food, it's the community and companionship that she finds truly rewarding.
"I'm hoping that people will understand that the meal that is delivered is good for the body. But Meals on Wheels also delivers food for the soul. They deliver smiles, compassion, companionship."
For Ruth, her experience with her Meals on Wheels volunteers is an extension of her lifelong love of teaching — but she's the student now.
"I learn so much from the people who visit me with Meals on Wheels, about their lives and their stories. We form friendships and real, lasting bonds. This program makes a real difference in people's lives to remind them to keep going on and keep living," she said.
"Ultimately, it's about delivering happiness."