Rita Williams-Ellingwood spent part of her holiday season providing meals to families in need, on behalf of her nonprofit called Sunflowers for Sallie, but the seeds of her volunteer support were sown long ago.
Her current journey started after the death of her father in 2007. Distraught, she went on a family trip to see her brother in West Virginia and met a “precious puppy,” Sallie.
Sallie was by her side for 13 years as Williams-Ellingwood met her future husband, Bob, in 2009 and as the couple began volunteering with the Baltimore Washington Power Team, feeding and “adopting” families from Lansdowne Elementary in Baltimore during Christmas. That continued until 2020 when the pandemic forced the group to shut down.
Not only was 2020 a rough year because of the pandemic, but Williams-Ellingwood soon suffered another loss: Sallie.
“For 13 years, this sweet girl filled my life with love, faith, hope, and a sense of purpose,” she said.
When emptiness and despair consumed her thoughts, she turned to a new hobby: gardening. She planted her first sunflower seed in May 2020.
“After a while, I felt lost,” Williams-Ellingwood said. “She was the love of my life, and she brought me so much joy. I just felt this loneliness and emptiness again. Sunflowers represent strength, and it inspired me to do even more.”
Five months later, she was ready for the call. A school counselor had a request. Could Williams-Ellingwood provide food baskets to families?
Williams-Ellingwood did not have the heart to inform the counselor that the Baltimore Washington Power Team had disbanded. She had a thought: “I’ve been wanting to do this, I love to do this, so why not do it on my own?”
She said she would make it happen and Sunflowers for Sallie was born.
Having spent nearly 30 years working for Magruder’s before it closed, Williams-Ellingwood knew many retailers and suppliers who could assist. Giant Food and B Green donated food. She also relied on the support of friends and colleagues she met at her current job as a payroll manager for Blind Industries & Services of Maryland.
The nonprofit made 125 “baskets of hope” for Thanksgiving in 2021, giving families a complete meal with frozen turkeys, rice, beans, yams, gravy, rolls, hot chocolate and more.
With support from the same groups and Girl Scout Troop 1448, Sunflowers for Sallie did even better in 2022, providing 150 baskets of hope. Each meal was wrapped in a cellophane bag and tied with a ribbon.
Some recipients hailed from Baltimore County and Baltimore City, but the majority were from Anne Arundel County.
The nonprofit also “adopted” five families for the holidays by providing toys, clothes, and gift cards for food in addition to groceries.
To identify families in need, Sunflowers for Sallie partnered with Ruth Parker Eason School in Millersville, Serenity Sistas in Annapolis, the Department of Aging and Disabilities, and Lighthouse Church in Glen Burnie.
Of the families served, 21 came from the Ruth Parker Eason community. Known for its special education program, the Millersville-based school serves students from Severna Park, Laurel, Hanover and everywhere in between.
“We have students with everything from severe cerebral palsy in a wheelchair to severe autism,” said school social worker Linda Brice, who also works at Central Special School in Edgewater. “Our parents have a lot of stress, so it’s nice to be able to help them.”
Angel Traynor is the founder and director of Serenity Sistas, which provides recovery housing free from alcohol and drug use. She met Williams-Ellingwood five or six years ago when the Millersville resident and her husband donated about 18 baskets to the Serenity Sistas homes.
“I knew right off the bat she was a good, kind soul,” Traynor said of Williams-Ellingwood.
The two discovered they were “like-minded when it comes to altruistic practices,” Traynor said.
Since then, Serenity Sistas has helped the effort, assembling baskets of hope, adding bows, delivering the baskets to Annapolis residents and adding thoughtful messages like, “This basket is brought to you by a group of community members who care.”
Although Williams-Ellingwood has concentrated most of her team’s efforts around holiday giving, their goal is to grow their gardens throughout the year. They are currently planning for a potential Easter event.
None of her efforts would be possible, she said, without the love and support from volunteers and donors. Together, she sees no limit to their potential.
“With their support, our baskets of hope represent an act of kindness, serving as a source of nourishment to build strength, serving as a symbol of love and a source of inspiration to inspire others — planting seeds to help families in need,” Williams-Ellingwood said.
Learn more about the nonprofit at www.sunflowersforsallie.org or find it on Facebook and Instagram. For more information, call 443-584-6617 or email email@example.com.
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