Drs. Robert and Bettina Barnes named 2001 Citizens of the Year

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 24, 2002

For Robert and Bettina Barnes, a life of community service is nothing extraordinary – it is simply expected.

“In our family it was taken for granted that you help your fellow man,” said Betty Barnes, Bob’s mother.

It’s a lesson Bob learned as a child growing up in Camden, Ark., and it’s a philosphy that he shares with his wife, Bettina. Together, the couple have quietly and consistently contributed their time and talents to their fellow man – whether through church or family activities – and their lifelong commitment to serving their fellow man has earned them the 2001 Citizens of the Year award from The Democrat.

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‘Always trying to be the best’

Married now for more than 50 years, the Barneses arrived in Natchez 50 years ago, when the town needed doctors. International Paper was new, and more people were moving to the area.

Robert Barnes, a Mayo Clinic trained surgeon, had friends practicing here, and they invited him to move to Natchez.

“I was lucky they needed me,” he said.

The Barneses raised five children in Natchez and have 13 grandchildren.

To each of those children, they taught a simple lesson: Serve your fellow man.

“They got us involved in the church, in little stuff, like getting it ready for Christmas or Easter,” said daughter Alice Barillas. “… And making sure we visited older people on Christmas Eve, which we found out later was very important to those people.”

Barillas and her siblings were taught by example to serve, with commitment, and to succeed in what they attempted to do.

“I think they were always trying to be the best at what they were doing, and that showed in their professions, in their life, and in their family.”

Faith has always been an anchor in the Barneses’ family. “It’s a big part of our lives,” Robert said.

The couple are members of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Vidalia, La. – a church they helped to found in the early 1990s.

Previous to that, they had been extremely active in Trinity Episcopal Church and Trinity Episcopal Day School.

‘Helping with someone’s real needs’

Bettina had always wanted to volunteer with foreign mission trips, but it wasn’t until both doctors retired five years ago that they had the time to take the trips.

On trips to Honduras, the couple, along with 10 or 12 others, run a clinic in a small mountain village.

Along with the necessary preparation work, Bettina helps fit glasses – old pairs collected back in the United States – for people with poor vision. Robert helps run the pharmacy.

It is difficult, and busy, work. On a recent trip, Bettina handed out 409 pairs of glasses in three days, while Robert filled 5,000 prescriptions. The mission workers face major and minor problems, from running out of medicine to not having eyeglass frames pretty enough for the women who need them.

And three years ago, the Barneses were caught in Hurricane Mitch, the devastating storm that killed thousands of people in Central America.

Their own inconveniences aside, the Barneses watch villagers face huge obstacles. Many of the people who come to the clinic have never seen a doctor – and might never see one again. Clean drinking water is not yet a reality. The poverty in the area is profound.

“One came in who wanted reading glasses so he could read his Bible,” Bettina said. “I suggested he use more light. He said, ‘But I only have one candle.'”

“You don’t ever think of people who have nothing,” Robert said. “They have nothing. Some have never seen a doctor before. But they always have their best on when they come to the clinic.”

But despite the problems, the Barneses believe the work is worth it.

“There’s just something satisfying about knowing you’re helping with someone’s real needs,” Robert said.

“If you could see one time the smile of someone who hasn’t been able to see …” Bettina said, smiling herself.

And the Barneses, who take foreign mission trips three to five times a year, are now putting into practice at home what they have learned in Central America.

They have helped start a mission in Waterproof, La., to minister to the needy there. Through Delta Ministries, the mission provides medical advice and monitors conditions such as hypertension and diabetes; workers hope to provide literacy training in the near future. “They spend every Tuesday over there,” said Betty Barnes. “They’re seeing so many people who have never been to a doctor.”

Bettina said the couple’s work in Central America has helped them help people in Louisiana.

“I wanted to see what foreign missions were like,” Bettina said. “There are places in Mississippi and Louisiana in as great a need as the places we were going. This was a way to experience it out of what I knew. Now we’re trying to put that into practice here.”

One of the lessons the Barneses have learned first-hand in Honduras is the power of hope. “When you’re living in absolute poverty, it’s hard to have hope,” Robert said.

But since their first visit to the mountain village, the Barneses and the other mission workers have returned to find something new: a cleaner clinic facility and more people training in carpentry.

“Each time we go down there’s so much more done …” Robert said.

“That they’ve done,” his wife added.

“They see it can be done,” her husband finished. “That’s why we like to go back, and that makes you feel good.”

‘To improve somebody’s life’

Commitment is a hallmark of the Barneses work.

“(Bettina) went back to school after she had five children,” Betty Barnes said of her daughter-in-law. “She would get up at 4 a.m. and be (at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge) for 7 a.m. classes.”

Bettina continued that pace for several years, earning her master’s degree and eventually a Ph.D. in child psychology. “It was an awful lot of study and hard work,” Betty Barnes said. “It took a lot of stamina.”

More important than earning the degree is what Bettina chose to do with her skills. In addition to opening a successful practice that focused on working with younger children, Bettina began working in the early 1980s with the Junior Auxiliary of Natchez’s Parents Anonymous program.

“She was absolutely wonderful at counseling them,” said Connie Burns, a longtime JA volunteer who worked with the project.

The national program provided a support group for parents who verbally, emotionally, mentally or physically abused their children.

“Bettina had a very calm, non-reactive approach to those people. She was not alarmed at anything they told her, and her advice was very sensible … always something they could go home and do,” Burns said.

The Parents Anonymous sessions were conducted weekly – each Tuesday evening – for more than 10 years.

“There’s just probably no one else who would take on that commitment to be there every week,” Burns said. “And if she traveled out of town, she always made sure someone was there to conduct the sessions … But it was always Bettina they wanted.”

While many parents attended at the direction of the courts, many more chose to come for the advice and the help.

Most important, Burns said, hundreds of parents were helped through the sessions – all provided free of charge and open to anyone who chose to attend.

“Many of these people certainly would not have been able to afford to see her in the office,” Burns said.

“… Just like everything else they do, it was entirely meant to improve somebody’s life.”