Everyone needs a helping hand, a word of encouragement or a listening ear from time to time.
Local nonprofit The Sycamore Tree has been providing just that to people in need for the last decade, and the community benevolence ministry’s team of dedicated volunteers are amazed at the miracles they’ve seen happen over and over when they trusted God to provide — and He did.
“(Miracles) happen all the time,” says Donna Dixon, Sycamore Tree president and founding member. “We could share so many stories.”
More times than Dixon can count someone will drop off a clothing donation or other item just in the knick of time.
“There would be a knock at the door and somebody would bring what we needed — the exact size we were looking for,” she says.
Once, the ministry was able to provide clothing in all the requested sizes for a family except for one child.
“We had no size 8 little boy clothes … somebody came to the door and said do you need these?,” Dixon recalls. That donor handed over clothes in the exact size needed.
Kathy Herrin, longtime volunteer with The Sycamore Tree’s clothing warehouse, even keeps a miracle log, documenting the instances when God provided right on time.
A mother came to the warehouse needing size 16 tennis shoes for her child. Herrin looked the shelves over, knowing the ministry didn’t have any shoes that large. While still checking the shelves, she heard a knock at the door.
“I still get goosebumps when I talk about what God did,” Herrin says. “This person handed me a pair of (size) 16 tennis shoes and turned around and walked off. I stood there with my mouth dropped open. It was just awesome.”
Another time a woman donated baby clothes for her twin daughters she had packed up years ago. The very same week a woman expecting twin girls came by The Sycamore Tree in need of baby clothes.
“All I can say is God saved those clothes for a long time,” Herrin says. “The things He’s done out there are amazing.”
“We feel free to meet the needs as they arise and not worry about the money because the money just seems to always be there. I give God the glory — nothing we’ve done has caused that,” Dixon says humbly.
The Sycamore Tree opened its doors at 204 W. Central Ave. in 2011, but the idea for a community supported ministry began much earlier when two sisters with hearts of service started dreaming big.
Dixon and her sister, Marian Evans, moved back home to Blackshear in the early 2000s, but neither woman could enjoy their retirement for very long before they felt a call to ministry.
“We were taught to give back, to care about where you live, and the people who live around you,” Dixon says.
The sisters became actively involved with the benevolence ministry at First Baptist Church (FBC) and then launched a community needs assessment, interviewing area pastors, school system administrators and other community leaders in an effort to identify Pierce County’s largest needs.
“We had no idea when we started exactly what we were trying to do. We tried to seek God’s guidance in it and here’s where we are now,” Dixon says, gesturing around the ministry office where she sat talking with The Times recently.
Dixon and Evans knew this ministry needed to be a community partnership to effectively meet people’s needs, but they could not have imagined what their dream would grow to be.
“I always wanted it to be something that would involve churches in the area who work together so that it wouldn’t be a one church ministry,” Evans says. “But, it was growing for us, developing on its own.”
“They (Dixon and Evans) had the vision for this ministry. They have the spiritual gift of ‘helps’,” recalls Dr. Bill Young, former FBC pastor. “Everybody was looking for something like this. We want to work together … I knew it had to evolve into an ecumenical, interdenominational-type ministry.”
The Sycamore Tree organized with support from four or five churches, but is now partnered with at least a dozen assemblies who donate monthly or annually to the ministry and refer clients to the nonprofit as they come. Other community members donate items to the ministry, volunteer their time to interview clients or organize clothes in the ministry warehouse.
Young credits that collaboration for the ministry’s success in providing effective, timely support when needed.
“When somebody called for help we were able to send them to Sycamore Tree. It evolved to be very good stewardship — to help churches meet a need and not just put a Bandaid® on something,” Young says.
The Sycamore Tree’s goal is simple — help those in need and share the love of Jesus.
“We wanted them to know God loved them, He saw their needs and there were people who wanted to help meet those needs,” Evans says.
She’s since moved on to spearheading a Job Corps program at FBC, but the benevolence ministry under Dixon’s leadership and a board of directors still operates by the same founding principle.
The nonprofit’s name, a reference to a New Testament story, is intended to do the same — point people to Jesus. In the story, Zaccheus climbs a sycamore tree to see Jesus.
“(The tree) helped him (Zaccheus) see Jesus … we thought as people came (to us) it wouldn’t be a tree they were seeing, but they would see the love of Jesus,” Evans says.
Volunteers ask every client “how can we help?,” and they pray with each person who walks through the door.
“We talk to them, find out what their problems are and help them anyway we can,” says Lanny Farr, longtime volunteer.
Then, The Sycamore Tree works to meet those needs as best they can. Sometimes it’s paying a utility bill for a single mom, providing clothes for a family who lost everything in a fire or assistance for a father struggling to make ends meet after losing his job.
Farr stumbled onto the ministry in its early stages in a Sunday School room at FBC and was quick to volunteer his time. He works as an interviewer now, meeting with clients and identifying ways The Sycamore Tree can help.
Through the years, The Sycamore Tree has provided food staples, temporary housing and furniture to help families get established, but the ministry has shifted its focus occasionally in an effort to be more effective.
“We started off doing so many things, and they were all good things, but sometimes you’ve got to (evaluate) what is the best,” Dixon says. “We’re still fine tuning it. It’s a responsibility when people give you money … We really pray we’ll use the money like He wants it to be used.”
These days Dixon refers those needing food assistance directly to the Pierce County Food Pantry now under the leadership of Brenda Sutton, and they no longer store or deliver furniture. Another area nonprofit, Okefenokee Alliance for the Homeless (OATH) works directly to combat homelessness and help families find secure, stable housing. Dixon sits on that board of directors and refers The Sycamore Tree clients who need housing assistance to OATH.
The Sycamore Tree works hand in hand with the school system and other groups, too. School counselors call when a child needs new shoes, long pants or a jacket when the weather changes.
“The relationship with our school system is phenomenal,” Dixon says. “No child should be hungry in Pierce County and no child should not have clothes and shoes to wear.”
Herrin keeps the clothing warehouse running like a well-oiled machine. She agrees the ministry’s function is simple. Her role is to put donations in the hands of folks who need them.
“I feel like I’m the middle man,” Herrin says. “We’ve got awesome people in Pierce County. They want to help, they just don’t know who needs it. They bring it to us and I give it to people who need it.”
The Sycamore Tree organizes a large Christmas store where families can shop for their children. They served 70 families, a total of 200 children, at Christmas time a few weeks ago.
Herrin recalls helping one young mother who had depleted her Christmas savings on a car repair one year. Her voice breaks recounting the story.
“She needed us that one time and that was enough for me — to be there that one time, for that lady,” she says.
That’s why Herrin and the rest of The Sycamore Tree team keep toiling away. The joy of meeting someone’s need far outweighs the exhaustion they sometimes feel.
Dixon expects the ministry will continue to evolve as the years go on, but some things haven’t changed in the last decade, and those practices will remain in place so long as she’s at the helm. Volunteers at The Sycamore Tree still pray for wisdom ahead of every client meeting and they pray with each client, too. Dixon is also known to give a bit of grandmotherly advice when needed.
“We’re not a counseling center, but we share some advice,” she says chuckling.
Since 2011, The Sycamore Tree has helped 1,500 families. The ministry team is proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish, but each volunteer is quick to give God credit for what’s been done.
Every success story, every miracle energizes them to keep moving forward. They’ll keep asking “how can we help?” and keep finding ways, with God’s help, to do so.