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A gift of kindness comes full circle

The daughter of a New Port Richey couple unwittingly aids a woman who helped support her parents' missionary work in Thailand years before.

By Mallory Simon
Published July 5, 2006

[Times photo: Brendan Fitterer]
Corrine, right, and Elmer Sahlberg received $1,000 from a woman to be able to be missionaries in Thailand a half-century ago. Years later, their daughter Evelyn, an Ohio Supreme Court Justice, unknowingly returned that generosity by helping the $1,000 donor to be able to have brain surgery.

Corrine Sahlberg is an 85-year-old former missionary, and it might sound like nothing more than a predictable platitude when she says: "Everything you do comes full circle. When you do good work, the Lord watches over you and helps you help others."

But Sahlberg has seen and experienced the circle closing. For the New Port Richey woman, it's a story that begins more than a half century ago.

* * *

Corrine and her husband, Elmer, were fledgling missionaries then. They had graduated from Nyack College, a missionary school in upstate New York. The couple moved to Prattville, Alabama where Elmer worked as a preacher in a local church. They lived on a salary of $35 and spent their time spreading the word of Jesus.

But they wanted to travel abroad and be missionaries.

The couple learned of an opening for missionaries in Thailand, but they had no money to pay the $1,000 in travel costs. So Corrine Sahlberg prayed that someone would send them the money.

One day, a check arrived.

* * *

Before they left, the Sahlbergs set out to learn more about the donors, a couple from Ohio whose last name was Moon. The Moons had picked the Sahlbergs at random from a list provided by the missionary school and sent a check with no strings attached.

The Sahlbergs made it to Thailand and for several years stayed in touch with their Midwestern benefactors. But then the Moons moved, and the Sahlberg's lost touch with them for 30 years.

* * *

The Sahlbergs had four children. One of them, Evelyn, returned to the United States, got married and began a career in law. She practiced under her married name, Evelyn Stratton.

One of Stratton's clients was an Ethel Morris, for whom Evelyn prepared a will.

One day, Ethel came into Evelyn's office seemingly upset. She said her sister needed surgery to remove a brain tumor. But there was a problem. The insurance company said her sister had failed to pay the premium and the policy had been canceled.

Evelyn volunteered to look into the matter.

She looked into the sister's condition and learned that a side effect was memory loss. Given that evidence, the insurance company paid for the life-saving surgery she needed.

No one realized it then, but the circle had closed.

* * *

Ethel Morris' sister was Violet Moon. Twenty years earlier, Violet Moon had sent a $1,000 check to some young missionaries named Sahlberg.

Of course, Violet did not realize the connection at first. Her benefactor's name was Evelyn Stratton.

But the two sisters and the attorney developed a friendship, and at one point Evelyn asked them if they would like to meet her parents, who would be visiting from Florida.

Only when Violet asked their names did she realize that a decades-old favor had been repaid. When Violet heard the names Elmer and Corrine Sahlberg, she paused. She could not believe Stratton was their daughter.

"The odds of winning the lottery are probably 10 times greater than us meeting by chance this way," Stratton said. "When we found out, it just blew us away."

* * *

Evelyn Stratton is now a Supreme Court Justice in Ohio and uses the story in speeches highlighting the impact a gesture like Violet's can make on the life of another.

"I can't tell you how many times when I open and close with that story I have people crying, even men telling me, 'You moved me to tears, you've made me believe we can make a difference,' " Stratton said. "I try to inspire people and let them know they can make a difference in other people's lives."

Corrine, too, has shared her story of life in Thailand in her book Please Leave Your Shoes at the Door, after a Thai tradition of removing shoes before entering another's home. The Sahlbergs keep the custom themselves, along with other signs of Thai culture. Thai tapestries drape the walls of their home, and a back room is filled with Thai art.

Violet Moon died some of years ago, leaving the Sahlbergs' her Bible, a reminder, Corrine said, of the importance of giving to others.

"When you see how many people were touched by this one gift," she said, "that's when you know you've fulfilled God's wish."

[Last modified July 5, 2006, 00:17:58]

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