Student, 79, not ready to slow down
A longtime Palatka resident proves it is never too late to go back to college as she hopes to graduate in December 2021.
Esther McDuffie calls herself 79-years-young and is a senior religion and philosophy student at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach. She is doing her schoolwork online this semester because of the coronavirus pandemic.
McDuffie’s focus is Christian studies and she said she wants to get a degree in something she has been doing for 44 years – ministry work. After taking care of her daughter, who battled cancer, and becoming a widow, the college senior found the time in recent years to get a degree after originally starting college for sociology at St. Johns River State College in Palatka.
“It was just a dream I had had for all those years, and because of my family dynamics … I was there for (my family),” she said.
The dedicated student began classes in 2017 and even moved into the campus dorms with the other students. She lived adjacent to the campus for a little more than two years before returning to Palatka to work online. However, McDuffie hopes her graduation won’t be virtual.
“When that time comes, I’m going to run across the stage,” she said.
McDuffie’s done a lot with ministry work, including being a chaplain at Putnam Community Medical Center in Palatka and Haven Hospice Roberts Care Center and working as a chaplain in prisons.
“This may sound odd, but … I saw a vision about people behind bars,” McDuffie said. “And in that vision, the people were reaching out to me, but they couldn’t reach me because they were behind bars.” When I did understand that the people were in an enclosure … I went to the county jail.”
She said she ministered at the jail when it was located on the Palatka riverfront every Sunday for nearly five years.
Between classes and schoolwork, McDuffie is an avid gardener and spends her time at Water Works Environmental Education Center, 1101 Whitewater Drive in Palatka. She works on a plot in the community garden, where she recently planted fresh vegetables to grow for the winter.
McDuffie said she grew up gardening and her family would use their own crops for meals.
“When I was a child, (gardening) was for survival,” she said. “My mother didn’t say that, but we’d always have plenty of food on the table because of the garden. … I have a natural love for growing things, and so it just went over into my adulthood from that.”
Water Works volunteer Shann Purinton said residents from all over Putnam County including Q.I. Roberts students who have made a project out of their garden plot, grow organic crops there.
Besides the garden, Water Works is open to the public for tours, hiking the nature trails or even visiting the gopher tortoise enclosure. The 10-acre property – deemed a place for “nature-based learning and peaceful reflection” – houses the Palatka Water Works plant that provided up to 1 million gallons of city water daily from 1886 to 1986.
“Up until the pandemic, (up to) 500 students would come in,” Purinton said. “… That’s what we were hoping that this would be a local field trip. … It would be something they could (do to) get outside and enjoy nature and learn about water.”
Water Works volunteers were able to do online programs during the pandemic and Purinton said their lessons reached up to 800 students.
She hoped McDuffie would soon become a full-time volunteer with Water Works, but the college student is sticking to gardening for now and will help with field trips or tours.
McDuffie said she loves life and loves learning new things. She said no one is ever too old to be a student and go back to school.
“Never give up. Never give up. Never give up,” McDuffie said. “So, that means whatever age you are, whatever you want to do – go for it.”
Copyright 2020 by Palatka Daily News - all rights reserved.