Sande Wilkinson Recalls Our “Cigar Box Days”

As we celebrate our 35th anniversary, we sat down with Sande Wilkinson, daughter-in-law to Wilkinson Center namesake Ruby Wilkinson, to talk about the earliest days of our mission and her own role in seeding its growth. Some things, like the cigar box where money was kept, have changed. Others have stayed the same, like the transformations that come from bringing hope, dignity and compassion to people in need.

Children Desperate for Food

Wilkinson Center’s mission started with a moment in the pastor’s office at Munger Place United Methodist Church (UMC) on Dallas’ Greenville Avenue. The Rev. Clayton Lewis was shocked to see hungry neighborhood children eating from the church dumpster. He turned to a group of reliable women, which included Sande’s mother-in-law Ruby Wilkinson, to start a grassroots food assistance program. The word spread, people came in droves, and the mission that would become Wilkinson Center was born.

Sande, at the time a young wife and mother, remembers Ruby urging her repeatedly to get involved. “Ruby kept telling me, ‘You’ve got to come see this to understand,’” said Sande. “Then one day I came. I was stunned at the overwhelming need. I thought, I can’t leave these people. I have to be here tomorrow. So, I came tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. It just gets in your blood, in your DNA. Suddenly I found myself there every day.”

And for years, long after Ruby passed away from lymphoma, Sande did come every day, doggedly volunteering for six or more hours, interviewing people in need, taking them through the food pantry, helping them find clothes that fit or connecting them to other resources.

The “Cigar Box Days”

She describes those as “the cigar box days” – when donations were kept in a cigar box, food donations were brought to the pastor’s office in grocery sacks and records were kept in a cardboard box. For many years, programs operated out of Munger Place UMC’s basement.

Sande was among those instrumental in pushing for structure and professional standards that transformed the grassroots church effort into a formal and accountable nonprofit organization – first as the East Dallas Cooperative Parish and then, in her mother-in-law’s honor, as Wilkinson Center. Sande served on the board in the 1980s and 1990s.

Some Things Remain the Same

Wilkinson Center’s reach has grown tremendously, but Sande observed that the reason Wilkinson Center exists is still the same – to serve those in need with dignity and respect.

“Certain people just stay with you. I’ll never forget them,” she said. “I remember interviewing a lovely Hispanic lady who said, ‘There’s a job available, and I know I can get that job if I can just dress appropriately.’ So, I made that my mission. We got her all dressed in a couple of outfits. She got the job as a secretary in a local hospital. I know because she came back to thank us for listening to her.”

The situations that people faced when Sande served as a volunteer back then are, in many ways, unchanged today. Wilkinson Center continues to serve primarily two populations. The first is people in crisis who need a support system – a hand up, not a hand out – while they pull themselves out of adversity. This includes those who unexpectedly lose a job, single parents with insufficient income, individuals in medical crisis and others struggling to get by. The second group are those who will always need some level of compassionate support due to disability, health issues or age.

Just as Ruby passed the baton of service to her daughter-in-law, Sande has given the heavy hands-on work of the Wilkinson Center mission to the next generation. But, she has never wavered in her constant support and service to people in need through Wilkinson Center, and for that we thank her. Her legacy has touched and changed thousands of lives in our community.