Hiding behind a thick line of pines off of a Hillsdale County backroad, a 140-year-old house peeks out between fat shrubs and a cluster of brick-red barns. A soft murmur passing between chirping birds fills the natural hush of the countryside, and a couple cats yawn as they loll about on the front porch.
Welcome to the home of Bill and Elsie Hayward.
Bill Hayward, 83, has always lived on his family’s farm, manning it for 62 years. His wife, Elsie Hayward, 78, worked as a nurse at the Hillsdale Hospital for 40 years, and continues to volunteer at a local clinic. Longtime Hillsdale residents, the couple still attends the church they got married in, Hillsdale First Baptist.
While the couple has made Hillsdale home, they haven’t been afraid to leave its embrace — Bill Hayward has traveled to 44 countries, and his wife’s personal record is just behind his own. From Bulgaria, to Australia, to Japan, to Thailand, to Myanmar, to India, to South Africa, to Latvia, to Denmark, to Nicaragua, to Honduras, the Haywards have left their mark all over the earth.
But they never leave a place without taking something, and oftentimes someone, home for safekeeping. The Haywards are the friendliest of hosts, welcoming strangers into their home and their hearts.
“Our house has a revolving door,” Elsie Hayward said. “All the interesting people we’ve met and friends we’ve made, they’ve been people we’ve added to our family.”
Bill Hayward’s love for travel began when he made his way through France, Germany, England, and other European countries as a team chief in the army during World War II.
“When I was in the army, I traveled all over Europe,” Bill Hayward said. “I became addicted. I just think it’s so interesting to see all these different cultures.”
Evidence of this fascination with travel is all over the Hayward home: foreign treasures and trinkets from yearly vacations decorate the walls, shelves, and tables.
The Haywards continued to collect souvenirs and friends when they started traveling through mission trips in the early 2000s with a program called Men for Missions. After Bill Haywards initial 2002 trip to Brazil to do construction work — this time without his wife, who was recovering from back surgery — the Hayward’s have been on five international mission trips with Men for Missions.
“I go to give, but I end up getting so much back,” Elsie Hayward said. “People to people do a whole lot more than government to government.”
2004 brought them to Ecuador, where they worked with a 12-person team to erect a medical clinic in a church with only two walls. Elsie Hayward, clad in patterned scrubs, assisted a doctor in treating long lines of patients: a woman with tuberculosis, a man with festering snakebites, a little boy with a tongue-tie. Bill Hayward manned the makeshift pharmacy, cutting pills and filling prescriptions.
“These little kids I got to be friends with would help me put labels on the pills,” Bill Hayward said. “They thought that was so great.”
Although farming is a full-time job, the Hayward’s prioritized their travels and mission trips.
“We live in a 140 year-old house,” Bill Hayward said. “We chose not to spend our money on a house. We chose to spend our money on doing this. We’re perfectly satisfied. If someone gave me $10 million, I’d go visit missionaries and leave the money all over the world. I would have no desire to go out and get a new house or a new car.”
A second trip to Brazil in 2006 introduced the Haywards to Luciana Sampio, 19 years-old at the time. Sampio visited the Hayward home twice before inviting them to her wedding, asking Bill Hayward to walk her down the aisle.
“It was quite the affair,” Bill Hayward said of the celebration, which took place amid the colorful parades during the Carnival of Brazil.
“It was so special,” Elsie Hayward said, recalling how sharp her husband looked in his snazzy wedding garb.
Just before the 2011 – 2012 school year, the Haywards embarked on another mission trip — this time right here in Hillsdale. The Haywards received a call from the United States Department of State, asking them to host Daniyar Allabergenov, a foreign student coming to the United States from Turkestan for 10 months.
Hesitant to take a teenager into their home for almost a year, the Haywards agreed to a short-term stay until other plans could be made.
Those other arrangements fell through, but that didn’t matter.
“He got attached here,” Bill Hayward said.
“We got attached, too,” Elsie Hayward reminded her husband gently.
The Haywards said Allabergenov acclimated to farm life and American family life quickly.
“The Haywards cared about me just like their real son and I am sure they still do,” Allabergenov said in an email. “When I stepped into United States for the first time, I was very young, all alone, and could barely speak English, but they accepted me into their family and everything became easier because I felt their support every second. I call them Dad and Mom because they have changed me in terms of shaping up my personality, manner, and character — I really became a different person.”
When Allabergenov’s year abroad came to an end, the goodbye weighed on everyone.
“It wouldn’t have been any harder to put my own daughter on that plane and say goodbye,” Elsie Hayward said.
Allabergenov isn’t the only teenager the Haywards have taken in. Mary Giberson, 20, has worked at the Hayward farm for five-and-a-half years, making the short commute from her home in North Adams, Michigan, a few times a week since she was just 15 years old.
“When I first started, I thought I was going to help with the cleanup after an ice storm,” Giberson said. “They ended up liking how I worked so much that they gave me a full time job, and I have just loved it.”
Although Giberson met the Haywards through her mother’s job at Hillsdale’s Sud-Z Coin Wash rather than halfway around the world, she’s had the same experience anyone loved by the Haywards has had.
“They’re loving people,” Giberson said. “I couldn’t ask for anybody better to work for. They’re a lot more like family than bosses.”
Between their short-term adventures and lifelong friendships, the Hayward’s tale is one worth hearing, but not for its exotic settings and surprising twists. Rather, the story of Bill and Elsie Hayward warms the heart because of its incredible lead characters, who have spent their lives reaching out with open arms to their fellow man.
“You get so involved in people’s lives, and they in yours,” Elsie Hayward said. “God is so good.”