The Nicest Place in Georgia: The Dream Center in Augusta
NICEST PLACES IN AMERICA 2020 FINALIST
"Uniting to Serve the Needy"
A non-profit that gives blankets to those who need is emblematic of a town with giving ways.
Linda Gifford knows that healing the deepest wounds can start with the simplest gesture—like giving a kid a fuzzy fleece blanket for her very own.
“If you had seen the smile on that eight-year-old’s face when she got it! She just lit up. It was beautiful,” says Gifford. “The comfort. The love.”
Gifford works at a church-based nonprofit in Augusta called the Dream Center. It offers food, clothes, and all sorts of other support to the region’s needy. One of the center’s many partners is the Project Linus, a national effort whose volunteers sew bright, colorful blankets to cheer and comfort young and old.
The mother and daughter Gifford met at the Dream Center that day didn’t look like they were in trouble. But after Gifford shared a Project Linus blanket, the real story emerged, and the young family was on its way to getting the help it needed.
“She looked so well-dressed. Didn’t look like nothing was going on. But when I gave her daughter that blanket, it all began to come out. That she was homeless, that she needed food,” says Gifford. “So many that come in, they’re not really looking for clothing. They’re not looking for food. They’re looking for conversation. They’re looking for love.”
For Gifford, the COVID-19 crisis has brought new urgency to an old mission. Mother to four adult children, she’d lost her husband unexpectedly and started volunteering at the Dream Center to pull herself out of a “downward spiral.” The work has renewed her spirit, and COVID means it is needed more than ever. “This is my purpose,” she says.
For the volunteers of the Project Linus, COVID-19 has meant renewed support. Augusta’s team of four Project Linus volunteers has grown to 30. Once-modest production goals are soaring. The original target for 2020 was 2,020 blankets, and just six months into the year, the group was almost there.
“Pardon me while I cry a little, but as of today, we have made 1,800 blankets since January,” says Genie Byrd, a Project Linus volunteer in Augusta. “It’s like a fire blazing from person to person. It’s the circle of life.”
Byrd, who retired after 34 years of teaching, started working with the Project Linus over a year ago. She’d moved from Florida to Augusta to be near her grandchildren and wanted to get involved with community efforts, particularly those that helped heal deep-seated racial injustice.
“My heart has always been in helping heal the racial divide,” she says, adding, “everyone loves a blanket.”
Augusta is a city of about 200,000 on the South Carolina border, about two hours’ drive from Atlanta. The region is best known as the home of one of the ultra-exclusive Augusta National Golf Club, but the city itself is a diverse and modestly prosperous place. Still, a quarter of its children, along with many of its elderly, live below the poverty line.
During COVID-19, Augusta has seen a surge of volunteerism, from churches, nonprofits, government agencies and neighborhood groups of all kinds. At the Dream Center, Gifford says, current offerings include food, clothing, and even health care. Donations have been pouring in, including a $5,000 check from the local United Way’s emergency response fund.
“The people in this community are so generous,” says Gifford.
Byrd wants that generosity to last beyond COVID and to tackle the region’s racial problems. To Byrd, the Project Linus blankets are about more than warmth and comfort. They’re a symbol of the trust and hope needed to heal the country’s racial wounds, she says.
“If you are a young Black child and you are handed a blanket that maybe came from a White person, or someone of a different race, you will know that it is from someone who made something for you out of love,” says Byrd. “Years later you may still have that blanket, and maybe you tell your children about it.”
Gifford, who is Black, hopes that by working together to defeat COVID, Augusta—with the example set by the Dream Center—can learn to work together to defeat racism.
“When the pandemic hit, it didn’t care what color you were, and so we were all in this together. That should roll over to the racial thing,” says Gifford. “People should see, we’re all in this together. That conversation shouldn’t be quiet.”
And while that won’t be easy, Gifford says the first step is to open your heart to our neighbors, to earn their trust and draw out their stories, the way the Project Linus blanket opened up the young mother that day. That’s the silver lining to the twin challenges of COVID-19 and the injustice of what happened to George Floyd, Gifford says: Suddenly, people are really listening to each other.
“It made us open our eyes, and to talk. Honestly. And that’s what we need,” says Gifford. “To talk to each other, to listen to each other. If you don’t know, just ask. There’s a story behind every face.”
I have never been more proud of my community. I have seen people come together like I would have never imagined. Through social media we have seen our community help one another like never before. It’s hard to know where to start.
The three social media platforms I have had the most contact with are the Connect Augusta Facebook Page, CSRA Coronavirus Support Facebook Page, and Nextdoor.com. I have always heard that if people know there is a legitimate need they will help. I just have never seen it happen as much or as often as I have during the covid crisis.
I saw a post on one of the sites offering to help others. I liked it and copied it and pasted it. And it took off. Most people messaged me because they wanted to help others or tell me where to find resources to help. That has what has seemed to be the biggest unifying theme through this pandemic is people wanting to help others. There were so many helpers and resources that I had to create a list of who was in what area, the CSRA is a big area. Through my post, I became sort of a clearinghouse. People would message me if they had a need…food, job, diapers, pet food, etc. I would contact one of my helping angels.
A little of what these helping angels did and so much more: donate and offer to buy laptops and tablets for students without computers so they could do virtual learning, repair and update the donated technology so the students could have the computer programs needed to do their virtual schoolwork, donate diapers, blankets, pillows, Easter baskets for kids, help others find jobs, donate pet food, toys, books, furniture, fabric, buttons, thread for masks, and donate food, food, food or money to go buy food…angels would make sure if we knew of a person that was hungry we would get them some food…even if it was late and we had to order them a pizza.
It brought tears to my eyes when I would message one of the helping angels and explain what we needed…and they would immediately respond…happy to help whenever they could.
People are helping others in any way possible. My small band is just a tiny speck of all the people helping others in the area. There are groups making thousands of masks for the hospitals and communities, taking food to children in the rural areas, our YMCA opened for healthcare worker’s childrens. One coach donated his entire stimulus check to help others and inspired others to do the same.
I have also helped with Masks Against COVID-19 for the CSRA (MAC CSRA) facebook page. A medical lab technician started it and it took off. People all over the CSRA have donated, cut, sewed, crocheted, knitted picked up supplies, delivered supplies and masks to help others. Arianna Bartleson writes, “As of 5/15/20 YOU have made and donated:
— 1340 military masks
— 1781 masks + 174 headbands for hospitals
— 758 caps
— 3167 masks 133 face shields, 10 peds masks, 14 door knob turners, 5 headbands and over 200 ear savers for small practices, nursing homes, etc
— 127 for community
— 23 for immunocompromised
“Just think you are the reason why the community is doing ok. You are keeping everyone safe #heroesbehindthemasks
CSRA has always been heaven on earth for us. We knew we loved it here. It is a great place to live, the parks, the lake, the things to do, the restaurants. We found that out when we were transferred out of the CSRA for six years after living here eight years…as soon as we moved we knew we had made a mistake and tried to get back…finally after six years we made it back!!
One of my favorite stories throughout this is how people have paid it forward. One man we first helped with food and blankets was going through a divorce and was basically homeless. Through my network we helped him find some part-time work and he now has opened his own auto business and is helping others.1264