By Liza Roberts
For almost 16 years, Lillie Sanders has provided clothing, furniture, food and other essentials to Duplin County residents with nowhere else to go.
“My life is just serving people,” says the 63-year-old, who runs the Sanders Service Center out of her house in Magnolia, a community that lacks a United Way, Salvation Army or other similar outpost.
“What some people no longer use, they give to me, and I get it to people who need it,” she says.
Sanders knows what it is to be without.
She recalls her shame as a child at having to wear her grandmother’s housecoat to school in the winter.
“I’d hide it in the woods because children made such fun of me,” she says.
That inspired a steely promise.
“I told the Lord if I ever got a coat, I’d help people who didn’t,” says Sanders.
Since she started the center, Sanders has run the entire operation on her own, scraping by, without grants or outside funding of any kind.
“It’s a day’s work,” she says.
All told, that’s closer to thousands of days of hard, uncompensated work, all of which was acknowledged and rewarded in November when Sanders received a Nancy Susan Reynolds Award.
She was one of three winners of the award, given each year by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation to North Carolina’s “unsung heroes,” people who make a difference in their community at “substantial personal sacrifice.”
The award includes $5,000 award for the winner, a $20,000 grant to be directed to a nonprofit of the recipient’s choice, and a bust of Nancy Susan Reynolds, who was the daughter of R.J. Reynolds and Katharine Smith Reynolds.
Sanders plans to use the grant to keep the Sanders Service Center afloat.
“The struggle of carrying it on my back is over because of the grant,” she says.
She plans to use a chunk of the personal funds to reward the student engineer who draws the winning plans for a housing project she dreams of building.
Sanders is perhaps most pleased with the bust.
“She sits in my house, and I walk past her, and she’s changed my thinking,” Sanders says. “She says to me, ‘Don’t think about what you don’t have, think about what you can go and get.’”
And so, she is: She’s in touch with foundations and other grantmakers and she’s thinking big.
Her current plan is to construct, on a small city lot that was willed to her five years ago, two buildings with two apartments each, fully furnished and equipped, to house families whose homes have been lost to fire. Sanders plans to offer these apartments to people who need them for three months, enough time to get their feet back on the ground.
Giving from experience
Again, Sanders is giving from experience.
She was seven months pregnant with her first child when her own house burned down many years ago.
“I had nothing, I had nowhere to go,” she says.
She’s determined that others won’t suffer that same fate, and has raised $2,800 toward the $200,000 she needs to make the dream a reality.
Her fundraising style is straightforward.
“I will get 200,000 people to give me one dollar,” she says. “I’ll find some, you’re going to find me some, those people will find me some, and we’ll get there.”
That grassroots effort likely will get a publicity boost from the contest she is announcing December 7th, offering $500 to the student at one of two local schools – the James Kenan School of Engineering and the James Sprunt Community College – who draws the winning plans for the apartment buildings.
“If one of them draws the building, don’t you think this community is going to be involved?” she asks. “I’m 63, I’m getting ready to die, but this building is getting ready to live,” she says, laughing off the idea that preparing for death at 63 might be premature.
“You prepare to die as if you’re going to die in the next hour,” she says. “But you live as if you were going to live here forever.”