Anguished over the death of her mother, Claire Waters, and worried about taking over her clothing ministry, Sandy Waters-Holley one day randomly opened her Bible.
It fell to Isaiah, chapter 58 (New Century version). Sandy started reading at verse 7:
“Share your food with the hungry and bring poor, homeless people into your own homes. When you see someone who has no clothes, give him yours and don’t refuse to help your own relatives.”
Sandy already practiced that, having worked alongside her mother since the founding of Project Help in 1984. The duo had led the effort to provide clothing to thousands of needy families in Columbus at its Christmas-season giveaways.
But now it was 2005, and Claire had just died at age 82. Sandy was resisting the call she felt to take sole responsibility for her mother’s ministry. She was waking up from nightmares in which people were banging on windows and demanding things from her.
She prayed that God would help her. And that day in the Bible, just two verses from where Sandy began reading, Isaiah 58:9 seemed to provide the answer: “Then you will call out, and the Lord will answer. You will cry out, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’”
She took that to mean she should keep Project Help going.
Fifteen years later, Sandy, 70, continues to lead the ministry, organizing donations from companies, rounding up volunteers all year long to sort clothes as they come in, and inspiring many around her with her dedication and selflessness.
“I learned a lot from Sandy, seeing how she gave so much of herself,” said Cathy Stevenson, a longtime friend and a Project Help volunteer. “She got me doing that myself. She really brings out the good in all of us.”
Sandy’s husband, John, said, “She’s just a kind, caring, loving person who wants to help people.” The two have been married for 36 years and live on the North Side. Sandy is stepmother to John’s two grown children, and the couple has three granddaughters.
Sandy’s passion for giving is not limited to Project Help. She was a teacher and guidance counselor in the Columbus City Schools for 37 years and devoted herself to helping children navigate the many pitfalls of the Linden neighborhood.
That’s where Sandy grew up as the oldest of five children and where she spent most of her career.
At Hamilton Elementary School (now Hamilton STEM Academy), Sandy took a particular interest in teaching kids how to avoid violence and handle their emotions in more constructive ways. Many of them were growing up without a parent, saddled with poverty and surrounded by crime. “I listen a lot,” she said. “They need someone to listen to them, because these kids’ lives are at stake.”
She started an after-school program called Just Us Girls, through which she would help the older girls at Hamilton (it went up to sixth grade) deal with everything from hygiene to homework.
“Sandy really took an interest in those young ladies, over and beyond what her job description said to do,” said resident Linda Willis, the Hamilton principal at the time. “She had a strong, strong influence on the children.”
Willis remains friends with Sandy and said she is amazed how often she will run into former Hamilton students around town, and how many will mention “Mrs. Holley.” Some of them say they still keep in touch with her.
One of those students is Clarissa Cox. She met Waters-Holley when she was in third grade at Hamilton. She and her younger brother were being raised by a single mother who worked long hours, and her brother was having anger issues.
“(Sandy) helped him cope, and I first connected to her through that,” Cox said.
Later, Cox joined Just Us Girls and said it had a profound effect on her life. “I can’t thank her enough,” Cox said. “She built up my strength and confidence at such a young age.”
Cox was sad when she moved on to middle school, figuring she wouldn’t hear from Sandy again. But Sandy stopped by her house to check on her as she grew up, called on birthdays, and eventually became someone who Cox—now 33, married and living in Gahanna—calls “my second mother.”
Still, Sandy says that her “heartstrings are tied to Project Help.” It was her mother, Sandy said, who instilled into her the ministry’s mantra of serving people with dignity and grace.
“You’re a servant,” Sandy said. “You’re not dishing out a handout to them. That makes this different. It’s not just a giveaway; it’s a ministry. You do it with service, and you do it with love.”
It’s not easy. The group works out of a shabby storefront on the back side of the largely abandoned Great Western Shopping Center on the Hilltop.
The dated, crowded rooms where clothes are stored and sorted lack air conditioning, making a recent gathering a challenge on a hot, sticky summer day.
But both Sandy and her volunteers cite numerous stories of the effect the giveaways have on their visitors and the joy they get from helping others.
Karen Gott met Sandy about 30 years ago through their church, New Covenant Believers’ Church on the Northeast Side, and has been a longtime volunteer with Project Help.
“Her goal with every giveaway is, she wants (clients) to feel special,” Gott said. “I’ve seen how she’s touched people’s hearts to the point where she had them in tears as she talked to them. It’s just amazing to see.”
And she can’t stop giving.
Sandy retired from the school system in 2010, but at the request of an administrator, she came back to Hamilton in 2016 as a part-time consultant, focusing on violence awareness with fifth- and sixth-graders.
She also helps care for a 91-year-old aunt, and often helps her siblings and friends by running errands, escorting them to appointments or just taking them to lunch.
It has been a challenge in recent years as Sandy has battled sciatica, a lower-back nerve condition that causes pain in her legs.
“At times it has been visibly obvious how tired she is, but you can’t tell her to stop, because she will not stop,” Gott said.
Her husband concurs: ”Sandy is strong-willed. She’s got her set goals, and she’s going to do what she’s going to do.”
It goes back to her mother’s teachings and the calling she felt that day when she read the Bible: the calling to continue to serve the less fortunate, selflessly and compassionately.
“We’re not here to look down on you; we’re here to lift you up,” Sandy said, “and a lot has come from that philosophy.”