In the Service of Others
– Alta Whipple
Some people in this world get their joy by giving to others. Fortunately for the rest of us, these magnanimous souls can be found in every community – always willing to give a helping hand in times of need or sharing with those who have little. Such is the case with Alta Whipple – long-time islander, Florida native and daughter of the famous 'Island Poet' Harry Whipple. Driven by her faith and empathic love for her fellow islanders, Whipple creates 10-20 gallons of natural laundry detergent every week in her kitchen and then donates it to the food bank at Beach Baptist. We met with this dynamic woman this week to find out more about her life and how she came to be one of our community's unsung heroes.
Whipple grew up in Miami and spent her childhood vacations fishing and camping on Marco Island in a time when Florida had yet to be discovered by northern retirees and was still a place where – in many places – alligators outnumbered humans.
"I don't remember not knowing how to swim,” Alta told us, her soft Cracker accent belying her heritage as she told us the story of her youth. "At a very young age, Dad taught me how to shoot – both with a bow and arrow that he made himself and with a gun – and how to sail. He taught me how to be self-sufficient, and there wasn't anything related to the outdoors that we weren't involved in – that's how people were back then.”
Right after high school, Whipple told us that she left her home state to chase her adventures.
"I got married and lived in different states, but my heart was always back home in Florida,” she said. "Then one day, my brother in law – who was retiring to Fort Myers Beach after a career as a cop in North Miami Beach – sent me the lyrics to a Jimmy Buffett song about 'going back to the island'. I decided right then and there that it was time for me to come home so I packed my bags and left.”
That was over 20 years ago. Since moving to our emerald shores, Whipple met and got married again to her husband, Rick, worked in various jobs including a short stint at the Lani Kai and suffered the pain of watching her parents celebrate their 72nd wedding anniversary last August only to leave this earth within months of each other shortly thereafter.
"That was tough,” she said. "When you get to my age – 72 - and you're still lucky enough to have your parents with you, you start to think that maybe it's going to be that way forever.”
What got Whipple through that tragic time was a spiritual reawakening that occurred eight years ago in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Charley – an awakening that also led to her becoming who she is now.
"During that storm, I was staying with my one of my nephews in Cape Coral,” she said. "At that time, there were three of my family members and myself who all lived on islands, and I was not sure if any of us would see our homes again. Up to that point, I figured that I was in control of my life and could take care of my family. Then Charley came, and Katrina hit the next year, and I felt so helpless that I went into a deep depression.”
Alta told us that all she could do for several years after was to sit and cry.
"I got to the point where I couldn't talk to anyone and refused to leave my house,” she said. "So my family talked me into going to a doctor who prescribed me anti-depressants. After a month and a half on those, I didn't feel anything at all – I didn't feel alive or dead – so I threw them away and turned to the only thing that could help me – my faith.”
After praying for six months to ask what her purpose was in life, Whipple had a conversation with a woman she barely knew that ended up changing her life forever.
"She told me about spiritual counseling and said that there was a class that very night at this Presbyterian church across from Health Park,” Alta said. "I went and stayed for the next three years! Then one day as I was pulling weeds in my yard, I discovered that I wasn't depressed anymore. I found out that the reason I was depressed is because I was afraid. Why was I afraid? Because I didn't trust God. But God said, 'Do not worry about tomorrow because today has troubles of it's own'. When I realized that and decided to turn control over to Him, I was set free.”
During this time, Whipple decided to go back to church. A lifelong Baptist, she chose Beach Baptist and found that the more she became active in the ministry, the less depressed she felt.
"I started volunteering and I realized that when you are helping others, you are not thinking about yourself or your problems,” she said.
Whipple has been volunteering at Beach Baptist for seven years now. As many times as she can, she travels with Pastor Bob and other volunteers to Haiti where she visits some of the 15 children that the church sponsors as part of the Baptist Haiti Mission. She also takes a trip once a year with her best friend, Anita Palmer, to countries like Panama and Nicaragua to help kids who are in need of school supplies. But what she is known locally for is her status as the 'Soap Lady'.
"I became involved with this online group of women who believe in being self-sufficient and raising their kids to have character,” she said. "I am a firm believer in being prepared for whatever comes, so when I saw that they had a recipe for laundry soap, I decided to make a batch.”
When she realized how easy it was, Whipple decided to donate it to Beach Baptist's food bank, known as the Choice Market.
"I found out that when people are on food stamps they can't use them to buy stuff to make their clothes clean,” she said. "In the past year, I've made over 540 gallons and loved every minute of it. Being able to make people feel better because they can wear clean clothes makes me so happy.”
Alta's detergent is made from all natural ingredients and works even better that the 'store-bought' stuff. She has also learned how to make facial powder, shampoo and conditioner and plans to try out recipes for aloe cream and deodorant in the near future.
"Each thing I find helps save me money and it's better for the environment,” she said. "Anyone can do it – most people just don't want to take the time, I think.”
Anything Alta learns, she is quick to share with others.
"My priority is helping people,” she said. "I see people all the time who are depressed like I was, or just going through hard times, and I will do whatever I can to help them because that is what gives me joy and I feel it is what I am here to do.”
Anyone interested in helping Alta distribute more of her wonderful laundry soap is asked to help out by saving their empty milk jugs and plastic soda bottles and dropping them off at Beach Baptist.