29 February 2016
Every week at the Salvation Army's Gympie Corps in Queensland, a vase of freshly cut roses decorates a table on the stage and sends a sweet and delicate fragrance throughout the meeting hall.
Valma Leighton, who grows, cuts and prepares the beautiful roses, never sees how lovely they look there, or how much people appreciate them. She only hears about it.
Val, as she is affectionately called, can’t even enjoy the scent of the roses once she’s cut them. They go straight into a vase of water in the fridge to keep fresh until her husband, Allan, takes them to the meeting and arranges them.
Val has an autoimmune disease and multiple life-threatening chemical sensitivities and allergies that prevent her going out in public.
Outside her home, set on five acres so she doesn’t react to exhaust fumes and everyday chemicals used by neighbours, the only “outings” Val risks is to the doctor, chiropractor and optometrist. Even then, she has to avoid contact with as many people as possible.
Even a brief exposure to the chemicals from washing detergents in the clothes people wear; or in the shampoos, shaving creams, makeup and perfumes they use, can give Val puffy eyes and a red sore throat and cause her body to swell for days.
She has to take a range of anti-allergy tablets and other medication to prevent her going into anaphylactic shock.
In the 30 years since her diagnosis, Val’s disease has steadily worsened.
For example, she can now only read magazines and new books that have been hung out to “detox” for a couple of weeks, and she cannot use a computer because of the plastics used in their construction.
Her allergies have also put an end to the painting she loved, but this determined lady has changed to pencil drawing instead!
“You don’t have to give up,” says Val. “You just have to find new ways to do things!”
“My condition is extremely isolating and I love being around people but they have to detox before they can come and see me,” Val explains. “This involves washing their clothes in fragrance free washing powder and using fragrance free toiletries. It’s a personal thing to ask people to do which is why there is so much loneliness involved with this.
“It’s also challenging, hard for people to understand, and sometimes I think I’m going mad!” she adds, with a laugh. “Thanks to my earthly and heavenly fathers though, I can usually keep a sense of humour about it.
“I have also learned to stop grieving for what I can’t do any more and accept what I can – that helps me deal with this.”
Val is strong in her faith and relies on the power of God to get her through each day.
“I talk to him about everything all the time,” she says. “I don’t know if he has a pocket, but if he does, I’m in it!”
A small group of ladies from the corps go through the detox process to visit Val every Friday for their “prayer, share and care” group.
“They are just wonderful,” says Val. “We have a cuppa and chat and I try different recipes out on them!”
Once a month Gympie Corps Officers, Majors Peter and Royalene Maynard, join the Friday morning get-together to hold a “cottage meeting”.
“I literally thank God for those who detox so they can come to see me,” says Val.
“It’s God, and these people who give me the little bit of sanity I still have!”
In November last year, Majors Mark and Julie Campbell, South Queensland Divisional Leaders, went through the detox process and enrolled Val as a senior soldier.
“I just loved the fact that they came and did this,” says Val.
“I love being a soldier and feeling part of something which is usually so difficult for me to do.”
Val watches DVDs each week of the corps meetings, and is kept up to date with prayer needs and events.
Majors Peter and Royalene Maynard also keep their home, and themselves, constantly detoxed, so they can visit her at any time.
“Val has such deep faith and is such an encourager,” says Major Royalene.
Val uses the phone to talk to and encourage others in a similar situation, and to reach out to those in the corps needing support.
“I don’t know a lot of people, but those I do I can certainly contact,” she says.
Val also leads prayers in the Friday meetings. “I have a lot of time so I can pray a lot!” she says cheerfully.
A birthday card and chocolate ministry are also ways in which Val encourages others – sending cards to those in the corps celebrating a birthday, and leaving chocolates for those who care for her at her medical appointments.
Val’s greatest pleasure though, is preparing her roses each week for the corps.
“There are few people who don’t appreciate roses, men included,” she says.
“Roses simply mean love and that’s the message I want to send.”