Photography by Carly May

“Business!” cried the ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business.” So said a  remorseful Jacob Marley in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Although we won’t be enjoying productions of the classic tale onstage this holiday season, we can take inspiration from a group of East Dallas neighbors who have taken Marley’s sentiment to heart.   

They are known as “Support Sand Branch — Poorest Community in Dallas County.” The founder of the group is neighbor Nancy Thomas, who heard about Sand Branch some 24 years ago when she asked who in Dallas needed help the most. Since then, Thomas and her team have spent countless hours providing basic necessities to them.

Indeed, conditions at this small, isolated, unincorporated community in southeast Dallas are poor. Founded in 1878 by a former slave and other freedmen, the population has dwindled from about 500 to 80 families, all of whom are well below the federal minimum poverty level. Dusty streets are dotted with crumbling frame houses and mobile homes, most in dire need of repairs.  Many structures are abandoned and left to ruin, choked with weeds and trash. The community has no running water, sanitation or trash pickup. Water wells they once relied upon have dried up or were contaminated back in the 1980s.  They now rely on donated water and food.

How could this be? It’s a complicated — and, yes, fair — question, one without an easy answer. Dig deeply enough into Sand Branch’s history and one will find multiple and ongoing attempts to bring a municipal water system to the area. To date, those attempts have all reached a dead-end for various reasons.

The group of East Dallas neighbors, who have come to love the Sand Branch residents, care not at all about the politics and have one purpose only: to provide basic needs for their fellow human beings.

Now a retired judge, Thomas was a sophomore at Baylor University when she became discouraged by the increasing commercialism and materialism of the holidays. Stores promoting expensive gifts and lavish Santa displays “got to me,” she says.

“One day, I walked into a department store to buy a present for my parents,” Thomas says. “I turned around, walked back out and called my church, asking if they had any families that needed help.”

For Thomas, this began a tradition of adopting families in need during the holidays. Soon she was joined in her efforts by LuAnn and Mark Shank and others in the neighborhood. Longtime volunteer Barbara Clay appreciates the diverse support they’ve received from East Dallas.

“We have donors and volunteers from all walks of life, ages and faiths: Jewish, Christian, Catholic,” Clay says.

The group accepts donations year -round, with a focus on the holiday season. Each December, in coordination with 90-year-old Sand Branch resident Juanita Bean, they deliver a U-Haul full of food. Residents embrace their arrival, although they were a bit wary at first.

“They are always very thankful and grateful for anything we bring, but they were a little shy at first,” volunteer Roseanne Mills says. “The icebreaker is when we encourage them to help us unload.”   

Thomas adds, “We have fun laughing together and teasing each other.”

Sand Branch resident Shirley Bryant says, “God  has united us all as one family. It is overwhelming and breathtaking. We love them and thank God for them every day. There are not enough words to express our gratitude.”

Neighbor Mindy Fagin began volunteering about 15 years ago with her husband and daughters.

“As a Jew, one of our basic tenets is the concept of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world,” she says.

But she expresses frustration. Speaking for herself and not the group, she adds, “To me, Sand Branch is a living reminder that people who are poor, Black and elderly get overlooked by their government.”   

Although the group normally focuses on the holidays, Fagin became worried about Sand Branch when the pandemic began. Through her synagogue, Fagin helped collect and deliver masks, hand sanitizer, bleach and other hygiene items they might need. Fagin sees the annual food and hygiene drives as critically important short-term solutions.

“The long-term goal is much more difficult due to money and logistics,” she says. “Speaking only for myself, I believe running water and sanitation is a human right.”

She suggests that those who are interested should do research on the community and on possible solutions.

Volunteer Mark Shank sums up Sand Branch as “people who are struggling, but who seem to have love in their hearts and are looking for a hand up, not a handout.”

And Bean, beloved by all the volunteers, is grateful for the help.

“God has blessed us with our friends,” she says. “They have fed us for so many years. We don’t know what we would have done without them. We thank them from the bottom of our hearts.”