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Volunteering: ‘It gets in you and you can’t go away’
Brenda Lee
Brenda Lee - photo by by Scott Bryant/photographer

Some people drive by a construction site and wonder what the building might ultimately look like or how it will be used. Brenda Lee drove by the under-construction Open Hearts Community Mission a few years ago and wondered how she could be of use there.

Fast forward to today, and you’ll find that Lee is at the mission every day, and is a vital part of everything they do. She serves on the board, which makes the budget and all the important overall decisions, and she is involved in the day-to-day activity at the facility as well. 

Lee worked for more than 40 years as a nurse for a private physician in Statesboro and then, since she wasn’t quite ready to retire, she began working at Briggs & Stratton. Once her husband Bobby Joe retired, he urged her to do the same, and now they have both been retired for around four years.  She was trying to figure out what to do with her time when she happened upon Open Hearts. 

“I said, I’m going to go there and volunteer. And I have been here ever since,” she said. “It gives you a sense of doing something. I have been working with the public all my life, so it was like putting me back into society.”

Lee comes to the center every day and says she enjoys the work she does there, and the residents, although some of them say she’s mean or tough, because she is a stickler for the rules. 

“I tell them, but I’m right. It might be tight, but it’s right,” she said, smiling. 

As for her duties at Open Hearts, Lee says she’s kind of “all over the place.” In addition to serving on the board, she is on the intake team, she answers the phones, and she does the meal planning for the residents, making sure the meals are there and that there’s someone to serve them. 

“I like to be here when the volunteers bring the meals, and not just let them drop them off,” she said. 

Lee also does room checks, assigns chores to residents, and watches them to make sure that there is nothing going on that’s out of place. Her background as a nurse means that she knows what to look for if a resident gets into trouble with drugs, and she also can help them with taking prescribed drugs correctly.

“If I see a need for a drug check, I speak up,” she said, adding that she tries to make sure the residents hold to what the rules dictate.

“When you’ve been living on the streets for so long, you’re kind of set in your ways. You have a certain way of kind of how you want to do things. But in this situation, there are rules. There are certain things you have to do a certain way. You can’t just be all about the place,” she said. 

For example, at Open Hearts, which is a hand-up shelter, not a hand-out shelter, the men stay on one side of the building, while the women and children stay on the other. 

“I tell them, we don’t mix the gas and the fire together. You go in from that door, they go in from that door. There’s no crossing over. They’ll say, now what’s that going to hurt, we’re just going through the door. No, you get in a habit of doing things, and then you just do it. I tell them if you follow the rules and do as you’re supposed to do, things will be fine,” she said. 

Lee is proud to point out that there have been lots of success stories at the mission. 

“This is a God-sent place,” she said, adding that it means everything to her.

“I wake up thinking about this place. I wasn’t like then when I was going to work,” she said, laughing. “Here, it’s like I’ve got to get here. Sometimes I wonder if it would work if I’m not here. You know, we get that in our minds sometimes. Then I tell myself, yeah, it’s like a church. If you’re not there, it’s still going to go on.” 

Lee finds her work at the mission very fulfilling and says it gives her a great deal of satisfaction. She is a firm believer in giving back and says that everyone should try volunteering. 

“I think most people, I guess, have to work and they never think about time spent helping other people. But there is a great need for volunteers and every little bit helps,” she said. 

Having people in the community who are willing to give back is of utmost importance, Lee says.

“It is very, very important. And once you start, you won’t quit. I promise you that. You get that feeling inside you, and it’s like you just gotta do it. But you have got to start somewhere. Once you get started, you’ll see,” she said.

Her own friends and family doubted that she’d stick with volunteering at the mission. Lee and her husband have three daughters: Sharon McDonald, Lakeicha Lee Waiters and Marinda Lee. All three were skeptical that she’d stick with it, but they’re also grateful that she has found something that she loves.  In addition to the work she does at Open Hearts, Lee takes care of her special needs granddaughter, and says she enjoys fishing and crabbing.

Her daughters still encourage her to get a “sitting job,” but Lee says “no way.”

“I’m done with that. I don’t want to do that anymore,” she said.  She loves the face pace of the days she spends at Open Hearts. There’s no such thing as a typical day for her. 

“I come in with one intention, and I never get to it. There is always someone at the center that needs the attention, whether it’s a resident or a new intake,” she said. 

Although her work is certainly rewarding, it is not without its challenges. Lee says it’s a struggle some days because they don’t always have room for those who request help. It’s especially difficult during the holidays.  

One instance in particular that has made an impression on Lee was the first man that was taken in at the mission. She says he was just passing through, and he only needed a place to stay for a couple of nights, which is not the typical situation at Open Hearts. But after an interview, the man was accepted. He stayed his couple of nights, got his car repaired and was on his way. 

“He was on his way and we thought we’d never hear from him again. Lo and behold, three months later he came back through and he was just talking about how appreciative he was, and oh, it just touched you deep down,” she said. He wanted to give back and he did just that. 

“Sometimes you judge people by looking at them and it’s not really what you see on the outside. You have to really talk to them to really know,” Lee said. “It’s just so rewarding when you see them go away and then come back and be thankful and appreciative of what has been done.”

Lee hopes and dreams that one day the mission will be able to expand and add more family units so that they don’t have to turn away mothers and children. She recalls one mother who came to her recently and said she just wanted stability for her children. Lee wanted desperately to help, but there was just no room for them. 

“That’s my dream for this place. All things are possible, and I hope one day we can build more family units,” she said. “That’s a great need. It’s frustrating, but there’s nothing that you can do. But it’s going to happen one day in the future. I can see it.”

On Jan. 1, Lee became Director of Operations at Open Hearts, following the death of former DOO Lisa Braswell. 

“We are happy to announce that the Open Hearts Community Mission Board of Directors has found a perfect match for this position,” a post on the mission’s Facebook page read. “Although she has volunteered her time every single day since Ms. Lisa’s death in assisting wherever she was needed,  Ms. Brenda will be over our food calendar and supplies and numerous other daily operations of Open Hearts. She was already special to us, having volunteered since the mission opened and then serving on our board up until the time of her employed position. We know that Ms. Lisa is smiling about this news as Brenda was a dear friend to her.  Retirement was nice, we know, but God had other plans for her.” 

Lee says she has learned and grown much during her time at Open Hearts, and that she has learned that every situation and every person is different.

“You can’t say what works for one will work for the other. You can’t judge them. You have to judge each one accordingly. What might work for John won’t work for Jim. You have to take them individually. That’s a challenge sometimes,” she said. 

Lee plans to work at the mission until she just can’t go anymore. 

“I don’t plan on going anywhere. This is my special place,” she said. 

For more information on Open Hearts Community Mission, go online at www.ohcm.org.