Lacey Peterson
The Union Democrat

Retired couple Gary and Shirley Roberson have found a fulfilling and creative way to help children in need and pass their time - selling fixed up furniture to benefit orphans in Ecuador.

The Robersons, both 75, of Tuolumne, say the project started in their spare bedroom as a way to help orphans and clean out old antique furniture from their house that was just collecting dust. Now, five years later, it's a full-time job and the couple raises $16,000 a year for the orphanage called For His Children, in Quito, Ecuador.

Gary Roberson, retired from Roberson Plumbing, fixes up items he finds at yard sales and things people donate, and Shirley, a retired secretary from the plumbing business and Mother Lode Christian School, is the techie and posts items and communicates with the buyers.

"They say she is the brains and I'm the brawns," Gary said, and laughed.

Gary Roberson met Shirley Holm in their senior year of high school when they were both 17. Shirley's family moved to Tuolumne in 1892 to build and work at the mill and Gary's family moved to Tuolumne in 1956.

"He was the new guy in town," Shirley said.

The couple were the prom king and queen at Summerville High School in 1958 and graduated that year. They married in 1959 and have five children - Sheree Cox, of Stockton, Janine Stafford, of Turlock, Kerry Williams, of Tuolumne, Michael Roberson, of Twain Harte, and Christina Cunha, of Mocassin.

About five years ago, their daughter-in-law, Melody Roberson, introduced the couple to a charity near to her heart, For His Children. It's an orphanage in Ecuador, where she had lived while the daughter of missionaries. Many of the children have special needs, including physical and developmental.

The Robersons have visited the orphanage several times, which has become a favored charity for their home church, Sierra Bible Church in Sonora. The couple has attended the church since 1990 and their son Michael is the minister of music and worship there. Any money the couple collects goes to the church, which then sends it and more from other members' donations/efforts, to the charity.

Gary Roberson has visited it four times and plans to go again next June.

"It's a very loving atmosphere," Gary said.

The children are well taken care, Shirley said.

"A little (money) goes a long way there," she said.

Selling their unused antiques and furniture that were taking up space in their backroom seemed a good way to make some money to send to the children, the couple said. Now they've got a garage full of stuff to be fixed up and sold.

"I'm not a hoarder or collector, it's just for this (charity)," Gary Roberson said.

Gary said he's never been a carpenter but he can do "a little of everything" and started going to yard sales to find cheap items that could be fixed up or cleaned up and sold for a profit.

He goes to yard sales every Friday and Saturday - something he never did before - and often people give him the items once they hear about what he's doing.

"They call him the 'orphan man,' " Shirley Roberson said.

"People are really good when it comes to orphans and babies," Gary Roberson said.

Ideal finds are $20 dressers in good condition, he said.

The community also donates, not just people from their church, Shirley said.

Just last week, a group of kids from the Turner family set up a lemonade stand outside of Mountain Treasures and collected $120 for the orphanage, Shirley said.

The Robersons sell small furniture only because they lack the space at home or their booth for bigger items. They also don't take appliances or televisions.

"Dressers are my biggest sellers," Gary Roberson said.

"Tables, chairs, you name it," Shirley added.

They also prefer buffets, china cabinets, vintage cookware and knick knacks.

Gary Roberson cleans, paints, stains and reworks items to make sure they are in good working order before posting them for sale.

Roberson said he's getting older, so he likes getting items that don't need much work.

"I even make furniture. I do that when I catch up, which isn't very often," Gary Roberson said.

He works on their orphan furniture ministry at least five days a week.

"It's a full-time job for him," Shirley said.

The first year they averaged about $500 a month in profit for the orphanage. It's grown each year, they said. Word of mouth has helped, Shirley said.

The project is something the couple plans to keep doing as long as they are able.

"We're parents and we have children and grandchildren. It's wonderful going down there and holding the babies. You want to bring them all home with you but you can't," Shirley said.

In fact, the Ecuadorian government prefers the babies are adopted in country, she said.

Helping children in a tangible way is what keeps them going.

"If you could save a baby or find them a home, wouldn't you enjoy it? Or would you rather sit in front of a TV and die without a purpose?" Gary Roberson said.