VALDOSTA – It began with a small vision, a concept to assist people in need.
Darcy Gunter and her husband, Tony, initially began their philanthropic efforts in April 2014 when they established Living Bridges Ministry.
Through the organization, they want to make a difference in Valdosta and aid residents who are low income or impoverished, Gunter said.
They originally began borrowing space from Coastal Plains Charter Academy and Park Avenue United Methodist Church before recently moving to a new home at 111 E. Adair St.
“The foundation of everything that we do is spend time and prayer with God and talk to Him about what it is He desires that we do for His Kingdom,” Gunter said.
The name, Living Bridges, has a special meaning to her.
It stems from bridges in India built by tribal elders that act as a crossing for tribes that experience flooding and heavy rain caused by monsoons, she said.
Gunter said the elders begin weaving tree roots across a river to allow people to walk across the water during this time period.
She said it takes 15-20 years to grow one of these bridges and it will strengthen as time moves forward.
“The reason why we chose that name for our ministry is that the elders who start that process won’t live to walk on the bridge,” Gunter said on the verge of tears.
“They do it because it’s good for their people. It’s good for the community and it’s good for their tribe.”
Similar to the elders, she said her ministry does not promote community service for itself or for recognition.
“We’re making a difference in Valdosta,” Gunter said. “We may not be here to see the change when it occurs, and that’s OK because we’re not doing it for ourselves.”
Upon founding Living Bridges Ministry, she and her husband wanted to address food insecurities by forming Kid’s Connection.
The program was a summer Vacation Bible School held on Saturdays. Meals were provided to participants and their families.
“That was what we thought was our answer to some of the food insecurity here in the Lowndes County and Valdosta area,” Gunter said.
She and her husband later created a fall festival and "trunk or treat" for kids to have a safe environment to trick-or-treat.
Following this event was a food drive set up two weeks prior to Thanksgiving.
A Christmas toy distribution and the Birthday Party for Jesus came next.
“That was all within the first year. When we finished it, and we actually got a chance to relax and just kind of breathe through, it was like all was awesome but none of that changed a life,” Gunter said.
“The same people that got food from us this Thanksgiving or toys from us this Christmas are going to need it again next year. There’s nothing any different (that’s) going to change.”
From this thought came Transformations.
The course teaches people how to leave poverty, get and maintain jobs and manage finances. Gunter said the goal is to help them live independently.
It lasts 12-15 months and has graduated nine residents so far.
“Almost every graduate we’ve had has had a job or been back in school by the end of that program,” Gunter said.
“If the people apply what we’re teaching, their lives will be dramatically different when they leave.”
Additions to Living Bridges Ministry include tending to a community garden behind the Maceo Horne Learning Center and a Mom’s Connection program.
Mom’s Connection acts as a support group for moms to congregate with others.
It helps them to build healthy communication and relationships while making them better spouses or parents, Gunter said.
“About 75 percent of our clients are single moms, and so, they don’t get that break that other parents get,” she said. “This gives them a chance to come and get a little bit of a break, enjoy the fellowship of other people and still learn in the process.”
Living Bridges also partners with the Valdosta-Lowndes County Habitat for Humanity to provide housewarming gifts during Habitat house dedications.
A community clothing closet and a six-week financial literacy course are offered.
In 2018, the ministry served 719 clients through its clothing closet. Gunter surmises it will be more than 500 by the end of this year.
The clothing closet is a favorite for Elizabeth Corbitt, a three-year Living Bridges volunteer.
She said she enjoys the interaction she is able to make with people and said, of all the work she’s ever done, volunteering for the ministry has been the most gratifying.
“This is by far the most satisfying to provide a service, connect with people and try and show people that I’m no different than them,” Corbitt said.
She said Living Bridges strives to help its clients feel comfortable and not looked down upon.
Gunter said the goal is to show the clients they’re loved and the volunteers see them the way God does.
“People walk through our doors at very difficult times in their lives and they need to know that this is a safe place that they can come be who they are and that we’re going to love them anyway,” she said.
Through its five-year progression, Gunter said the ministry has grown larger than originally planned.
“That’s kind of how it works,” she said. “He shows you things as you need to see them and grows you into what He wants you to do, and so, if He had laid it out all up front, it might’ve been so overwhelming, we wouldn’t have ever opened the doors.”
Now that it’s in its new home on East Adair Street, Gunter said the organization plans to have Bible studies, healthy cooking and eating classes and a healing through the arts program.