Pensacola Pastor Sylvia Tisdale would have been overjoyed by the $98 donation that a group of children gathered from their chores and piggybacks to support the Epps Christian Center.
But she said she is "still trying to process" how that donation has since multiplied into $35,000 and counting for the Pensacola organization that works to feed the hungry.
Pensacola native Emily Ley, founder of the Simplified Planner organizational tool now being sold nationwide by major retailers such as Target, Walmart and Amazon, wanted to find a way to help her children experience service first-hand.
The annual effort by the Epps Christian Center to provide Thanksgiving meals to more than 600 families in Pensacola was a perfect opportunity, and Ley and her 10-year-old and two 6-year-olds helped hand out meals at the center Nov. 20.
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Both Ley and her children felt moved by the experience, so much that the children decided to pool their money from chores — coming up with a total of $98 — and Ley pitched in $1,000 from her company Simplified to give to the center.
But then Ley found herself wide awake, staring at the ceiling at 3 a.m. Nov. 22 and wondering what she could do to support Tisdale long-term.
"There's one thing that she told me while we were there. She said that feeding people and giving them a full tummy, it just makes them know that they're cared for," Ley said. "She says, 'If you show up at my door and say you're hungry, I will feed you. That is it.' I just thought that was really cool."
Ley thought back to watching Tisdale prepare meals in the tight quarters of the soup kitchen, lined with more than 30 slow cookers to prepare meals to feed hundreds because she only has one oven at the facility.
She thought of the center's $1,000 monthly mortgage payment and how without that albatross, the money could be used to feed more people.
She thought of the fresh food that got dropped off at the center that Tisdale scrambled to distribute because she did not have the number of climate-controlled coolers needed for the food to be stored.
And then Ley hatched a plan.
Since Ley launched the Simplified brand in 2011, she has cultivated what she calls the "Simplified Sisterhood," a group of women who have connected online through the brand. With her personal and company accounts combined, Ley has an online Instagram audience inching close to 600,000.
She decided to appeal to all of her followers virtually, writing a post describing the many ways Tisdale would benefit from any donation someone could give.
"I said, 'I'm going to lunch with her at noon, let's just see what kind of money we could raise and I will surprise her with that news at lunch,'" Ley said.
She attached a link to her Venmo account, where anyone who felt compelled could transfer funds that would be given to Tisdale.
By time she woke up a few hours later at 7 a.m., Ley's email was flooded with donations that had been deposited into her account, totaling almost $9,000.
Overcome with emotion, she realized she would be able to help Tisdale afford one of the two storage units the center desperately needed. She was content, but donations kept coming.
By the time the two women were scheduled to meet for a lunch at Waffle House that afternoon, Ley told Tisdale that donations from strangers around the world had raised $25,000.
During the next week, another $10,000 trickled in, reaching about $35,000 by Friday morning.
Ley's followers are now fully committed to the cause. With two coolers checked off the list, they are now trying to raise enough to also pay off the $50,000 mortgage payment and have set their new goal at $66,000.
Tisdale said she was not only amazed by the thousands of people who felt compelled to give, but that Ley believed in her ministry enough to ask them on her behalf.
"I'm overwhelmed that Emily saw something in me and in what we do to be led to say, 'I'm gonna help her,'" Tisdale said.
Tisdale said the mortgage payment being paid off would not only cause that stress to disappear, but that money could stretch further in feeding more people.
"The mortgage being paid off would mean we'll always have meat to go along with the food boxes. We'll have a wholesome box we can give people," Tisdale said.
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The Epps Christian Center is named after Pensacola Pastor Sylvia Tisdale's mother
The Epps Christian Center is named after Tisdale's mother and pay homage to her legacy. Even with the 12 children her mother chose to raise and feed, Tisdale said their home always took in kids from the streets who had nothing to eat.
Now Tisdale has taken her mother's challenge on herself. With the location of the center just a 14-minute walk away from the county's main jail, she said that oftentimes, she is the first person someone sees after they are released and search for a hot meal as they start over.
Even when Tisdale's shoestring budget for the kitchen has been at its tightest, the Pensacola community has always rallied together to make ends meet.
"I always make a plea that I don't have food, and people always come to the rescue. I've been down to not having anything, I make a plea to the community and the community starts bringing it in. They've always helped me," Tisdale said. "People in Pensacola rally around me, just like Emily did, and I'm able to continue on."
Those looking to donate toward Ley's fundraiser to pay off the Epps Christian Center’s mortgage can donate at venmo.com/u/emilyley.
This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Emily Ley and Simplified Planner fans raise $35,000 for Epps Christian Center