There are many organizations in the Statesboro area that assist individuals throughout the community that are struggling with food insecurities, financial needs and other needs. These organizations assist at any time during the year. Many people feel a sense of charity and giving during the holidays, realizing how fortunate they are and deciding to help those who may be struggling.
One program that focuses on a variety of needs for members of our community along with determining what those less fortunate want as well as need is the Georgia Southern Holiday Helper Tree.
Eileen Sconyers Smith along with colleague Victoria DuRee at Georgia Southern University co-founded the Holiday Helper Tree in September of 1994. The late DuRee was a project coordinator with the Georgia Southern Office of Volunteer Services, a department that is known now as the Office of Student Leadership and Community Engagement.
“Victoria approached the Sociology and Anthropology Department in late September of 1994 with questions about helping people in our community. Since we offered a degree program with emphasis in social work/social services, it seemed logical for her to do so. She had recently received a list of names of individuals in need from a couple of local social service agencies. The agencies were asking if Georgia Southern Volunteer Services could help them in any way,” said Sconyers Smith.
DuRee felt that because of the concentration of the department, the Sociology Department would be the best place to start the search for a leader for the project.
At the time, Sconyers Smith (now retired) was the Senior Administrative Assistance for the department. Her coworkers in the department were already working on other service projects and did not feel that they had the time to dedicate to a new project, must less the creation of one, but Sconyers Smith was up for the challenge.
“I agreed to take on the challenge. I was looking for a way to become involved in community and campus service,” said Sconyers Smith, “but I wanted to do something unique. So, this seemed to be a good starting point for me.”
Starting the program
After starting the planning and execution of the program, it was quickly realized that the program would involve the entire campus—faculty, staff and students and that the reach would be farther into the region and community than originally thought.
DuRee and Sconyers Smith brainstormed together, and they determined a format that they felt would work well for the program and the Georgia Southern University Holiday Helpers was born.
Sconyers Smith has been retired from Georgia Southern since 2018, but the program is still important to her. They changed the name of it a few years into the program to the Holiday Helper Tree.
Sconyers Smith and her late husband, Larry Sconyers, had two children together. Layla Sconyers Crawford (Jim) lives in Adel, GA and Joe Sconyers (Katie) lives in Statesboro and Sconyers Smith has two grandchildren—Addison and Elizabeth Sconyers, 4-year-old twins. Both of her children attended GSU and served as student volunteers with the Holiday Helper Tree Program. While he was supportive of her efforts with the program, Larry was never directly involved in the program. Sconyers Smith is now married to Frank Smith.
“In retirement, I remain very active with my church, Believers Statesboro, with the kickoff each year of the Georgia Southern University Holiday Helper Tree program, and with my children and grandchildren,” said Sconyers Smith.
Through her outstanding community service work with the program, Sconyers Smith has been the recipient of several awards. Her job performance in her 33 years at GSU also earned her multiple awards. She is a two-time recipient of the campuswide Georgia Southern Staff Award of Merit, awarded for outstanding job performance and in 2013 she was honored with the Georgia Southern University Administrative Professional of the Year Award.
In 2001, she was honored for her work as Director and Co-Founder of the Georgia Southern Holiday Helper Tree Program and as founder and director of the Ms. Statesboro Nursing Home Pageant Program with a Deen Day Smith Award for Service to Mankind. In the same year, she was honored with the Faith, Hope, and Courage Award by Safe Haven for the support they received through the Holiday Helper Tree Program.
Then in 2003, she was the first recipient of the Leaders by Example Award by the Office of Volunteer Services at GSU. 2005 brought her the Georgia Southern University Staff of the Year Award by the Office of Greek Life for service to the students of Georgia Southern.
While her list of awards is impressive, Sconyers Smith doesn’t do the program for the recognition- she does it for the community and its people.
“My childhood influenced me in many ways for this program. First of all, I was raised by Godly parents who gave and shared with others unconditionally. We were not well off by any means. Most folks would have probably considered us to be poor,” said Sconyers Smith. “But we were rich in many things that matter most in life, among them being love for each other within our family and love and compassion for our fellow human beings, especially those who are in desperate need.”
Holiday Helper Program
The way the Holiday Helper Program worked in the beginning is still similar to the methods that the program is carried out today.
Sconyers Smith explained, that “the program, since its inception, has involved creating a tag for each individual from the lists of those in need that we receive each year. The names are supplied by area social service agencies.”
To allow for confidentiality, everyone's tag includes only their first name and/or gender along with their age, clothing size and other needs. There are codes assigned to each agency sponsoring the individuals’ involvement and that is listed as well.
The last step before the public unveiling is erecting a tree in a centralized location on campus – currently the Russell Student Union and tying the tags onto the tree. Finally, the entire campus is invited to pull tags from the tree and help to fulfill the needs and wishes of those listed on the tree.
In the beginning of the program, DuRee was responsible for registering the program as an official GSU Volunteer Service program which ensured that students, faculty and staff registered through the Office of Volunteer Services as official volunteers. She also assisted each year in the collection of lists from participating social service agencies.
Sconyers Smith’s responsibilities included directing and coordinating the actual function of the program.
She said those functions “...included directing volunteers as we manually created tags for the tree (and that became hundreds within the first five years), coordinating and scheduling the volunteers who would sit with the tree each day (Monday - Friday, during the months of November though early December) assisting the campus community with pulling tags from the tree to fulfill needs, and keeping track of who had pulled the tags by collecting their contact information."
As can be assumed, one of the largest responsibilities for Sconyers Smith was accepting the gifts as they were returned to the tree, cross-referencing the information from the tags with the records daily and then organizing the gifts for delivery to the agencies.
“I organized, managed, and participated in every facet of the ‘hands on’ part of the program for the first 12 years of the program.” said Sconyers Smith. “After that time, I began to share some of those responsibilities with other project coordinators in the Office of Student Leadership and Community Engagement. Each year since its inception in 1994, the program kicks off the first week of November and it is completed by Holiday break in December, but the prep work always starts in late September.”
Most impressive is that Sconyers Smith did all of these responsibilities while still maintaining her daily duties as Senior Administrative Assistant for the Sociology and Anthropology Departments.
“It was a LOT OF WORK, but ALL of it was oh, so very rewarding...both volunteering at Georgia Southern and my job at Georgia Southern,” said Sconyers Smith.
With the growth of Georgia Southern University to the Savannah Campus and operating in a post-COVID world, the Holiday Helper Tree is done both in-person and virtually and also includes the Savannah Campus and the community of Georgia Southern in Savannah in addition to the Statesboro campus and community.
From the humble beginning of the Holiday Helper Tree program the Georgia Southern University Office of Student Leadership and Community Engagement (or Office of Volunteer Services as it was known in 1994) has been an integral part of the program.
Since Sconyers Smith’s retirement from GSU, the Office of Leadership and Community Engagement has continued to organize and promote the program. Emily Tanner is the program coordinator and is fully responsible for the operation of the program with her colleagues in the department.
In her retirement, Sconyers Smith still enjoys being a part of the kickoff tree lighting each year and helping to promote the program.
In 1994, when the program was founded, Sconyers Smith had no idea that the program would grow to the magnitude that it has. At one point, the program was serving 17 different social service agencies and nearly 1,000 individuals and families each holiday season. She certainly did not expect that the program would one day celebrate a 30-year anniversary as it will this year.
“It’s humble beginning gave no clue that the program would be as large as it is today, and that it would still be a program with such an overwhelming response 30 years later.”
One sad but heartwarming story that Sconyers Smith still remembers years later is one of a man under care at Ogeechee Area Hospice. The man, in his forties, was dying of cancer. His wish for the holidays was a live Christmas tree for his family – and he hoped that the family would plant it in their yard in his remembrance.
A campus student organization pulled the tag. They bought the tree along with some ornaments, treats and some additional gifts for the man, his wife and three young children.
“A small group of students from that organization, with the family’s permission, carried all of those things to the home one evening. They helped the kids decorate the tree and spent some time getting to know the family.,” said Sconyers Smith.
Later, each of those students talked about what the process had meant to them, and they each shared a beautiful story.
After the first of the year, the man had passed away and the group of students once again reached out to the widow to visit with her and her children.
“She agreed and they assisted her and the children with planting the tree in their yard just as the man had requested. Those students carried that experience with them as they graduated and left Georgia Southern. I do believe it had a lasting, wonderfully positive impression on each of their lives.,” said Sconyers Smith.
That group of students was the Department of Sociology and Anthropology’s Sociological Society, from the very department that Sconyers Smith served in.
“I was so very proud of them, and I still am, but yet humbled by their generous and compassionate hearts.”
Sconyers Smith feels that the campus and the community come together because it’s not just the students that are participating in the program—it's faculty and staff as well as the community. However, the majority of support comes from within Georgia Southern and its two campuses along with the community around it.
Some of the agencies that have reached out for help for the individuals within their programs include Statesboro Head Start Program, High Hope Center, and area nursing homes. Sometimes agencies get added or discontinued for various reasons while some drop out of the program, allowing other programs to take that spot.
When discussing the longevity of the program and the milestone 30-year Anniversary approaching, Sconyers Smith commented on the giving spirit of Georgia Southern and its students, faculty and staff.
“I believe that the entire campus of Georgia Southern University has forever embodied the spirit of kindness and caring. That being said, the Holiday Helper Tree gives each faculty, staff, and student the opportunity to express that spirit each year. Whether the gift is small, large, or anything in between, the willingness to help is the most precious of gifts from our campus family to the community.”
Anyone willing to participate on the program that are not a part of the campus can reach out to the Georgia Southern Office of Student Leadership and Community Engagement for information on how to become involved in the program. The contacts there would be Emily Tanner or Urkovia Andrews for the Holiday Helper Tree program.
Sconyers Smith’s hope for the program is that Georgia Southern will remain vigilant in providing the opportunity each year for the campuses to assist individuals in need.
“At the same time, the University would be continuing to offer campus individuals, and community citizens alike, a life-learning experience of compassionately assisting those who are disadvantaged.”
With the passion of Sconyers Smith, the reach and growth of the program comes as no surprise. Now, under the watchful eye of the Community Engagement office, the program’s reach into both the Statesboro and Savannah communities should expand. While individuals in our region should always be willing to help others, the holiday season offers a perfect opportunity to help meet the needs of our fellow man.The Georgia Southern Holiday Helper Tree Program’s 30-year impact on the community should be an example to all in our community how an idea, dedication and a servant’s heart can provide joy and hope to an entire region.