Lillie Sanders was surprised when a friend referred to her as a “philanthropist.” Philanthropists are rich people, Sanders said, and she lives a Spartan existence believing the Lord will provide for her as she tries to provide for the needs of others.
But Sanders has perfected the art of giving – whatever she has on any given day. Consequently, she has become a model for others, especially in low-resource communities such as Magnolia in Duplin County, which is about equally divided between whites, blacks and Latinos. She ministers to everyone. ‘There is no difference in the tears of the needy,” she says.
Duplin County is largely agricultural, jobs are scare and wages are low. There is no United Way, no Salvation Army, none of the services larger communities take for granted. So over the years, the hurting and the needy have turned to Lillie Sanders, who time after time has helped.
She is motivated in part by a childhood experience. As a 12-year-old, she went to care for her grandmother. In the dead of winter, Sanders, who had no coat, was sent off to school in the best her grandmother could provide – an old housecoat. Children teased her and afterwards she would hide the housecoat in the woods on the way to school and retrieve it in the afternoon. She resolved that someday she would make sure no child had to go to school without a coat.
People give her things – clothes, furniture, appliances, food – and she makes sure those who need them get them. She now has a clothes closet where anyone can come and get whatever they need for free. The furniture in Sanders’ house is forever changing. If someone needs something she has, she gives it to them. She places the day’s bounty – donated eggs, tomatoes, potatoes, odd items – on a table in her front yard for takers. She has no rules. “Sometimes I tell people I serve the needy and the greedy, but I don’t think it’s my place to try to distinguish.”
If someone needs a bed for a night or two, she shifts family around to make room. One elderly friend, lacking family to care for him, came and stayed for years until his death. She has a special place in her heart for those who lose their homes to fire. As a young mother, she lost everything and family had to take her in. She will work tirelessly to find temporary housing and to replace lost household goods. Her dream is to build two apartments on land she owns as housing for burnt-out families and to send them on their way eventually along with all the furnishings. It will cost $250,000, and she is raising the money a dollar at the time.
Lillie Sanders understands the needs of young people. She has started a program with grandparents, asking them to provide small monetary incentives to students who work at their math and English. She has turned a small house into a recreational center.
She makes “bereavement baskets” – small baskets full of hard candy with a poem she has written – that she takes to homes where there has been a death. “It gets me in the door,” she says, and then she can offer assistance. Often families lack resources for burial expenses. “It’s bad enough to lose someone and then on top of that to have the whole community know you are too poor to bury them.” She has started a small fund to help but, more important, has gone to funeral homes and negotiated payments so loved ones could be laid to rest with the family’s dignity intact.
Sanders’ giving knows no limits. She attended an international philanthropy conference so she could share her story. All expenses were paid, and she was provided spending money. Later she revealed that she had given her money to other conferees – women doing similar work around the world -- $5 and $10 at the time, to help with their projects. “It made me feel good that money from Magnolia, North Carolina, could be helping out all over the world,” she said.