WILMINGTON — The new director of Sugartree Ministries fell in love with the Wilmington street ministry 15 years ago when he brought a church youth group to a concert at the nonprofit’s facility, then located on Sugartree Street.
Shortly thereafter, Lee Sandlin began to volunteer there where he saw the working poor along with the rural poor coming through the door. He feels his capacity to understand and have an empathy for people who are poor or broken is due in part to growing up in “abject poverty” within a seriously dysfunctional family.
As a boy, he lived in a converted chicken coop with siding on it.
Since then, he’s done missionary work in Central and South Americas, and has seen a dump pile in Guatemala City where people lived.
The prior director and Sugartree co-founder Allen Willoughby said Sandlin has a real compassion and love for broken people, and for people struggling with addiction and the poor “and all the things that we deal with here. He’s just a perfect fit.”
Willoughby, 65, has semi-retired, and will stay on as a pastor. Sugartree opened in 1997 as a safe place for the broken, homeless, addicted, poor and hungry. They are offered hope in Jesus by Sugartree Ministries, along with 20-plus local churches whose members provide volunteers and support.
Sugartree serves six hot meals a week, distributes groceries to about 150 families weekly, has two recovery meetings per week for those dealing with addiction, holds a worship night on Mondays, has an evening coffee house, and opens a drop-in shelter for men each night.
The Sugartree Ministry Center is located on East Main Street, just west of Buckley Brothers.
Sandlin, 42, was born and reared in Lebanon, Ohio, and has a background as a Fellowship of Praise youth pastor. And he is physically strong: He holds two world records for power lifting, and still lifts six days a week.
When, at 18, he knelt at an altar and accepted Jesus, “the miracle that happened first is my anger was taken away,” he said.
“I had a lot of anger. I was a powder keg,” recalls Sandlin.
He holds an associate’s degree in Christian ministry, and currently is working on a bachelor’s in Christian counseling, specializing in the problem of drug dependency.
Sandlin said when he started volunteering at Sugartree, people experiencing poverty were what he saw most. But more recently, there have been a lot more people suffering from drug addiction coming to Sugartree.
“We have a lot of homeless young people who are drug-addicted,” he said, while Willoughby, seated nearby, echoed, “Lots.”
Sandlin noted that the purpose of Sugartree Ministries is to “love the hurt, the broken, the lost,” and that wherever lost and broken people congregate, there will be others who believe “that somehow some of the ills in the community are caused by the fact that we are here. The reality is you don’t blame the hospital for sick people coming to the hospital. We give them an opportunity to get better, to heal; and we try to love them and serve them the way Jesus did.”
Sandlin said he wants Sugartree to become more of a bridge so that people coming there who are poor or broken are more likely to obtain employment, and those who are addicted are more likely to get rehabilitated into the workforce.
“Because until they become self-sufficient, they’ll never have that self-worth they need, and feel like they’re a valued member of society,” he said.
When he went to Wilmington College’s cardboard city activity that raises awareness of homelessness, one thing Sandlin told the students is they have to see the people, not the problems.
“You have to see people — you have to see that they have stories, they have hurts, they have people who have crushed them, they have failures, but they’re never too far gone for Jesus to save them,” he said.
Similarly, he said he would love to have more volunteer meal servers go into the dining area and interact with the people face-to-face and get to know them, hearing their stories and learning where they are coming from.
He wants residents to know they don’t have to wait until they sink to rock bottom before seeking help at Sugartree. If you’ve lost your job, you can come to Your Father’s Kitchen and eat a hot meal or get groceries, in effect saving on money to pay bills and help one’s family.
Sandlin said, “I am in awe every day I come in here with the number of people in our community who love people. We run on the inspiration and love of Jesus, but also the giving of the community.”
Reach Gary Huffenberger at 937-556-5768.