Guthrie farmer suffers stroke, finds new purpose helping special needs students

GUTHRIE, Okla. - After working in the fields for up to 12 hours each day, Guthrie farmer Bruce Branson felt he had lost his purpose in life when a sudden stroke paralyzed the left side of his body.

Bruce had only been married for five months to his bride Audra when their lives took an unexpected turn.

"December 31, 2015, I came home and Bruce was on the floor," Audra said. "They told me he may not live through the night."

Bruce also heard that comment from the hospital's medical staff, and to prove them wrong, he pinched himself all night so he could stay awake until the next morning.

He survived, but, confined to a wheelchair, he wasn't sure what life would bring - until Audra, who was a teacher at Guthrie's Upper Elementary School, talked to a fellow teacher.

Kara Sawyer teaches special education students with profound disabilities, and she thought Bruce might feel more useful by volunteering for a day in her classroom.

"He started with one day and after the first day, he came back every day and he's been with us for two years," Kara said. "The fact that he does come every day and doesn't get paid shows the type of character that he is and how well-deserving he is."

Kara nominated "Mr. Bruce," as the students call him, for a $400 Pay It 4Ward award from First Fidelity Bank.

News 4 surprised Mr. Bruce in the classroom, with our camera rolling, as Kara presented the award.

"I'm honored that you have spent the last two years with us and look for many more days to come. So, thank you for everything you've done for me and these students," Kara said.

With a stunned look, Bruce laughed and replied, "Hey, you caught me with nothing to say!"

"That's a first!" Kara said.

Over the past two years that Mr. Bruce has volunteered in Kara's classroom, he says he has found a new purpose, teaching them ABC's, counting, or even holding their hands if they're having a bad day.

"You can't complain about your life when you see that somebody has it harder than you do, and I see some of what these kids go through every day, and I have no problems at all," Bruce said. "They think on a whole different level, because of their contentment, they're more advanced than we are. You know, I have nine kids now, and I'd do anything for any of these kids."

Kara's non-verbal students created an automated message on an iPad to Mr. Bruce, that was played aloud with the press of a button, "Thank you for everything you do, Mr. Bruce!"

"I actually have three students who are verbal and have had huge gains in their verbal skills," Kara said. "In fact, our speech therapist has commented many times, 'Watch how Mr. Bruce does this.'"

Feeling is slowly returning to Bruce's left hand, his speech has improved, and he's gone from a wheelchair to a cane.

"Even as the recovery goes on, I don't know if I can leave these kids," he said.

He may never go back to farming the fields, but why would he, when his biggest bounty is right here.

"I have a purpose," Bruce said. "If you ever pray to be used, don't complain about which way you're gonna be used. These kids are everything."

Pay It 4Ward is sponsored by First Fidelity Bank.

If you know someone who is deserving and would like to nominate them for Pay It 4ward, click here.