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Diane Lewis, undercover angel, meets youth needs through Fostering Bulloch Hope Chest

Fostering Bulloch Hope Chest is a beacon of hope for the Bulloch County community and surrounding area. But inside, a wellspring of volunteers breathe life, love, and hope into every donation—hundreds already this year—that goes out. And Diane Lewis, local teacher, bus driver, and Hope Chest volunteer, leads the way through her "under the radar" method of meeting the needs of area youth.

The Fostering Bulloch Hope Chest, with its flower-painted exterior and inviting entrance in downtown Statesboro, stands as a beacon of hope for the Bulloch County community and surrounding area.

But inside, another beacon shines: Ms. Diane Lewis.

Diane Lewis (right) poses with Sandra Williams, another Hope Chest volunteer, in front of the Hope Chest.

Lewis is a local teacher, school bus driver, and long-time Hope Chest volunteer. And her dual roles have offered her a unique opportunity: she is able to discreetly meet the needs of hundreds of local youth thanks to her collaboration with Anna Beecher and the Hope Chest.

Lewis is calm and approachable. She has a warm smile and a demeanor that says, “It's ok, you can talk to me,” so it’s not hard to see why hundreds of students each year trust her with their hurts and their needs. She is naturally empathetic, respectful, and nonjudgmental at the core.

“I’ve been working with kids all my life,” Lewis says. She explains, when you work with kids, you get close to them, and they’ll talk to you and tell you what they need. “I try to supply the need, and I try to do it anonymously.”

The front of the Hope Chest in downtown Statesboro.

“My thing is love,” Lewis explains, “The thing is to establish a relationship with people and show them that love covers everything. Because if I can’t help you when you’re down, you won’t need me when you’re up,” she laughs, “If we can't do it in love, let's not do it at all."

Benevolence on the Bus

In the late 1980s, she began driving a school bus, and she noticed things: children with dirty faces or clothes in the mornings, children who were hungry, children without brushed hair or socks, children who needed lotion or a friendly smile.

She never made them feel singled out or picked on, but she was determined to quietly and kindly meet these needs. “I love people, and I love kids, and I want them to have everything that they need to make a difference,” Lewis says.

“I put a box next to my seat,” she began, “A treat box, and it had all kinds of things in it, toiletries, food, little surprises, clean clothes, socks, and I’d say, ‘pick something out,’ or ‘it looks like you had something good for breakfast, let’s clean this up,” and so her helper journey started.

Lewis stands in front of a thank you letter from the Portal Elementary School PTO.

Lewis currently teaches Portal middle and high schoolers, ages 14 to 19, in her school's credit recovery courses, and she still drives a school bus, more than thirty years later.

In her classroom, on her bus, and wherever she goes, she makes a safe place for the community’s young people.

She grew up in the same community where she now teaches, and she remembers being sensitive to the needs of others from an early age, “Making sure the need is met, that’s all I’m trying to do, and if they remember one thing about me, I want them to remember that I showed them love and I was genuine."

Lewis says, “As a child I noticed the needs of others, and my mother told me, ‘it could just as easily be you.’” That early lesson led her to a lifetime of lifting others up through her kindness and compassion.

An Undercover Angel

Discretion and respect for the young people she helps is of utmost importance to Lewis, and she believes it’s the reason so many students are comfortable coming to her.

“I stay undercover, and I try to stay under the radar, because it’s not about me. It’s about meeting the need,” Lewis says. “I don’t have to have accolades about what I do, I just want to get it done,” she goes on.

“Whatever the need is, clothes or sometimes just a hug, help with Christmas, or help with whatever, I try to meet it,” Lewis shares, “Fostering Bulloch has been a great asset to me, allowing me to bless these people, not just in Statesboro but in Portal.” Before she learned about Fostering Bulloch, Lewis was purchasing the items her students and children on the bus needed out of her own pocket. Now she doesn't have to, and it allows her to do even more. 

Her mission to meet youth needs has grown. Her name and number have spread among the young people and families she has helped, and she’s become a cherished resource for the community.

Her day begins around 4am, “Every morning the first thing I do is check my phone to see if anyone has reached out with a need.” Kids come to her, they text her, they tell her what they need. She makes bags of basic necessities before school, or if the needs are for shoes or clothes, she makes contact with Anna Beecher of the Hope Chest to get the necessary items. She has woken up to as many as 30 people reaching out for help, some days it's just one or two, she says. 

From buttons to boutonnieres, Lewis’ dedication is limitless

In one story, she noticed a young man in her class struggling. “I came to him one day and said, ‘I have a few things that I think would be great for you. I understand if you don’t want them, but there’s some pretty cool stuff there.’” She told him where to find the bag and casually suggested that he come at lunch and see what he liked and what fit.

“He told me later, ‘I really like everything but my favorite pair of pants doesn’t have a button,’ I told him, ‘We can fix that,’ and worked with the Home Economics teacher to fix the button.” He was in awe, and proudly wore his new clothes to school the next day, Lewis shared.

“I don’t draw attention to the students I am helping,” Lewis is adamant. She packages up the items she’s collected for them and finds an inconspicuous place to put them—whether it’s deodorant, a change of clothes, sanitary products, or something else—she privately lets the student know where their items are, and she dedicates herself to being as discreet as possible.

The Hope Chest volunteer crew on February 15, 2024.

The school has started a closet with many of the types of items Lewis receives requests for the most, deodorant, toiletries, hygiene products especially, but it extends to prom dresses, prom shoes, tuxes and accessories during prom season. She even keeps some of the items in a barn at her home so that students who don’t feel comfortable contacting her at school can come by.

“Along with helping most Saturdays, this past year on Christmas Day for a fire burn out, and holidays, she picks up and takes [prom supplies] to schools, she works hard at prom season to make sure that every student in need has a nice outfit or gown/prom shoes. She also takes clothes, coats and blankets to the Portal Community. On her winter break she was getting it done at the Hope Chest,” Anna Beecher wrote of Lewis in a recent Facebook post.

The Hope Chest

The Hope Chest provides free clothing, toys, and housewares to children in foster care, fire victims, and those who are struggling through hardships.

They gave over 400 school bags packed with supplies to area students and provided more than 450 children with toys Christmas 2023. The volunteers worked nonstop, 31 straight days, from Thanksgiving to December 25th in order to bless the children and families in the community during the holidays. Every family with children receives toys, and the volunteers treat each call as an opportunity to spread love and "Hope" from the Hope Chest. 

Hope Chest volunteer Pat Collins manages toy and kitchen donations.

So far in 2024, they have served approximately 15 family burn out victims (7 in one month) and more than 500 children and local residents with emergency clothing, necessities, and comforting reminders of a community that cares. Since January they have also helped roughly 70 foster children and 40 newborn babies or expecting mothers. 

Of course, the Hope Chest's success is a labor of love by many.

It takes a wellspring of volunteers to breathe hope and life into the Hope Chest each day, starting well before dawn when Dwight Miller makes his first round to check the donations box. Before long each volunteer joins the lively crew to organize, fold, shelf, pull, assign, and the list of tasks continues. "We are a family of volunteers," Lewis says. 

Volunteers Susan Taylor, Beverly Lanier, and Dwight Miller.

They also collaborate with organizations, like the Statesboro Service League, which handles the deliveries of donations to local school counselors. The Hope Chest works closely with the schools and with other nonprofit organizations to meet local needs. 

While it takes a tremendous amount of time, effort, and coordination to keep the Hope Chest running, Beecher and the volunteers are in good spirits, and it is clear that they understand the importance of their work. Beecher also awards the "Golden Hanger" to a volunteer each week, and they finds ways to encourage each other and laugh together through bags and boxes. 

Fostering Bulloch's biggest needs are for pots, pans, casserole dishes, and kitchenwares, as well as men’s underwear in all sizes and women’s underwear in sizes 5 and 6. For donations to Diane Lewis' students, especially miniature toiletry items, you can email her at [email protected]

Donations can be placed in the Fostering Bulloch donation box at 102 Elm Street in Statesboro, and their Facebook page is always up to date, announcing either their own needs or those of surrounding nonprofit organizations.