It is in one woman’s nature to be the source of empowerment for a community she has known her entire life.
Sandra Tooley of Naylor returned to her home community of South Street with the lessons learned growing up and ministering in the church. Her passion for reaching those who may not understand God’s love keeps her working through the night caring for patients at South Georgia Medical Center and throughout the day serving the residents at her South Street Community Care House.
Tooley, 57, was born and raised in Valdosta to the late George Copeland and Evelyn Tooley Smith. Tooley fondly talked about growing up on South Street and attending Southeast Elementary, Lomax Junior High, Pinevale (one year) and Valdosta High School.
She said she has always had a passion for helping others. After graduating from high school, she went to Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton and earned her associate degree in nursing.
Wanting to explore and see what the world had to offer, Tooley moved to Atlanta in 1988. While discovering her new life and surroundings, the reserved young woman decided to go to school to be a paralegal.
“I contemplated becoming a lawyer,” she said. “But I changed my mind.”
She earned a bachelor’s in business administration at American International (online) and Emory University.
During her 17-year stay in Atlanta, Tooley felt restless and joined many tour groups.
“I did a lot of traveling,” she said. “I traveled all over the country and even to Africa and parts of Europe. I learned a lot. I had fun just going from place to place. The men in Africa were really nice to me, but the women were something else,” she laughed. “It was very enlightening.”
Upon returning to Valdosta, Tooley began working at Smith-Northview. The well-traveled woman said once she set her mind on accomplishing something, she made it happen. These achievements include building her dream home from ground up. She found a spot in Naylor, had her house built, and still lives in that house today.
“I always dreamed I would have a red brick house,” she said. “And I made it happen. ... I have my red brick house.”
Tooley took a job at South Georgia Medical Center as a professional registered nurse, as needed by the hospital, and also worked in Albany and Tallahassee, Fla., as a traveling nurse.
One morning, while visiting her mother’s home on South Street, Tooley noticed a few children standing outside in the cold, early morning darkness. One of the young boys said he was hungry.
“I asked him, why he was hungry? Didn’t he eat breakfast this morning?” she questioned.
When the little boy said his mom didn’t have time to fix him anything to eat, Tooley went into the South Street home and gave the children something to eat as they waited for their school bus.
Tooley purchased the home once owned by her aunt and uncle, next door to the house she grew up in.
“I fixed it up and was renting it out for a while,” Tooley said. “It was important to me to keep the house in the family. After all, it had been in my family for 70 years. I didn’t really know what to do with it. I had my dream home in Naylor, but I spent time
in that house. I was basically raised by my grandmother next door (to the house) and my mother lived next door to her.... a lot of my history is on this street.”
Driving one day, she contemplated on what to do with the house on South Street.
“I didn’t want to keep renting it out. The thought came to me to have the children who were waiting for the bus in the mornings over and prepare a small breakfast for them. I just wanted to be sure they were eating something before starting their day. I asked my neighbor, Rachel Brown, and my mother if they would be willing to come over and help in the mornings. … They both agreed.”
Tooley found herself getting off from her night shift at the hospital and going straight to the house to help serve the neighborhood children.
The women went from serving juice and sausage to seven children on day one, Jan. 26, 2010, to feeding 11 children. By week two, the house was averaging between 20-25 children per week.
“We started having different foods,” she said. “We figured while feeding them, it would also take the opportunity to encourage them about school. We told them if they needed help with homework, they can also bring that to us in the afternoons.”
Tooley didn’t just stop there. She became more involved in the children’s lives. She went to the schools and teamed with Community Partnership in Education to see what else the women could do for the kids.
As the children continued coming, adults started visiting, too. Tooley said she never turned anyone away. It is her desire to help those in need with whatever she can supply. When the need grew, Tooley sought outside assistance.
“I went to the Second Harvest Food Bank and was told they just couldn’t give out the food. I have to be a certified non-profit organization. I didn’t know anything about getting that started. I sought some advice and, soon, got all the paperwork I needed to be considered a non-profit 501c organization.”
Tooley named her new organization South Street Community Care House Inc., where the motto is “Help One, Help Another. Help Us All Help Ourselves.”
“We went from serving breakfast to school children, to offering tutorial sessions, to feeding the elderly and others in need, and just being that safe place the young people can come to and just hang out.”
She has taken her outreach ministry even further. She gives the men in the Lowndes County Transitional Home a place where they can use their skills and abilities while doing light manual labor around the care house.
“This gives them an outlet and keeps them off the streets,” she said.
The organization has grown in the year and a half it has been caring for residents in the community. Currently, there are a total of five women who assist Tooley several times a week. Evelyn Smith, Mary Alice Daniels, Mary Lee Register, Ruth Butler and Rachel Brown report to the house on Mondays to prepare dinners for Tuesday’s “Serve the Community Day.” On Wednesdays and Thursdays, they assist with setting out boxes of food delivered by the food bank’s Manna truck. When school resumes, they will again prepare breakfast from 5:30-7:30 a.m.
When asked about any future plans or an ultimate dream, the always-smiling woman replied, “I would like to open up a big activity center for the children and offer a variety of programs. That will all come in due time though. For now, we will just keep serving with what we have been blessed with and try to make a difference, especially in the lives of the children. They are the future, and it is up to us to make sure they’re prepared to lead.”
Tooley said some of the blessings have come from unexpected sources. When supplies became more abundant, she searched for an additional freezer to store the overflow of food.
“I went to Advance Auto Parts and was talking to a man about what I was doing and what I’m in need of. Bucky (the name she knows him by) said he had a stand up freezer to give me. ... And that’s exactly what he did. He did not ask for any money. I said praise God!”
Sam’s Wholesale and the Church of God on Gordon Street have “contributed greatly” to Tooley and her cause.
“Sam’s Club gives me a gift card every month to buy supplies such as cups, plates, etc.”
Tooley is looking into grants to expand the house and secure needed items for the organization. She said she is not worried about not having all she desires because the Lord is in the business of blessing his children. Even if her visitors do not have a great need, Tooley does what she can for them.
“I am not doing this for me, therefore, I don’t get angry at those who take advantage and turn them away. I am just doing what God has led me to do.”
Tooley was married once, briefly, and has no biological children of her own. In a way, she said, she is married to her organization and her children are those who come from the community. Her busy life doesn’t allow for a lot of down time, but when she is able to catch a moment, she enjoys going to a nice restaurant and feasting on seafood.
During this interview, her warm spirit was not only felt through her words, but also in her actions as one by one people approached her door step and she made a point to acknowledge each of them.
“If you give back to your community, it will come back to you in ways you wouldn’t believe,” Tooley said.
More information on the Care House: Contact Sandra Tooley at (229) 834-0979.
South Street Community Care House is located at 311 South St., Valdosta, on the corner of South Street and Lee Street.
South Street Community Care House’s tutorial sessions will begin Aug. 8, 2011 from 3-6 p.m. Monday through Friday. Saturday sessions will be scheduled by appointment only. Sessions do include a snack.
School Breakfast resume 5:30-7:30 a.m., Aug. 8, 2011, and continue the same time, Mondays through Fridays.