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Pastor John Sanders’ Journey: Lifting Clay County residents out of homelessness

By Kylie Cordell For Clay Today
Posted 11/30/22

FLEMING ISLAND – From a young age, Pastor John Sanders envisioned ways to enhance the lives of those in need. Growing up in Penney Farms more than 40 years ago, he was inspired by leaders in his …

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Pastor John Sanders’ Journey: Lifting Clay County residents out of homelessness


FLEMING ISLAND – From a young age, Pastor John Sanders envisioned ways to enhance the lives of those in need. Growing up in Penney Farms more than 40 years ago, he was inspired by leaders in his community.

“The people in the community always helped people there. When someone got sick, down the street, around the corner, it didn’t matter where they were; they would bring food and take it to that person. They took care of them,” Sanders said.

“Reverend Haymon was our pastor, but he wasn’t just a pastor. He was the leader of our community. He would call community meetings for all the people in the families in the church, and on one particular day, he said, ‘We’re going to clean up the community.’ All the men and women got together and cleaned lot after lot. Growing up, I was watching this, so when I became a young adult, I said, ‘Man, what can I do?’ I think that’s one reason I do what I do right now,” Sanders said.

Sanders’ initiative to help those in need started in 2014 after establishing True Vine Fellowship church.

“My whole thing was doing outreach in the community,” he said. “Not so much having church inside the walls – we have to go outside the walls and reach people that way.”

Sanders ministers to Duval and Clay County every Sunday morning with He Said Go Ministry.

“We go downtown and minister to serve our more than 50 homeless people that we feed and clothe in Duval. Then we come back to Green Cove about 10:30 (a.m.), and we start again.”

True Vine Fellowship Church is the foundation for the work he is doing now. The first initiative to aid those in need was a clothes closet Sanders set up after starting True Vine Fellowship in 2014. The True-ly Di-Vine Treasures Clothes Closet is at Celebration Church on 806 Oak St. in Green Cove Springs has since provided meals, temporary housing, second-hand clothes and other necessities to people experiencing homelessness, including Jay Armstrong.

“I was under that bridge for two and a half years,” Armstrong said.

After seeking warmth at a local laundromat, Armstrong saw a flyer for True Vine Fellowship Church.

“So I ended up calling and seeing where his church was,” he said. “I went to his church service for a while, and he got me back on my feet.” Armstrong is now a homeowner in Green Cove Springs. His story has inspired many to designate low-income, affordable housing in Clay County, including Mayor Matt Johnson.

“City council stands fully behind what Pastor John is doing to create visibility for low-income housing,” Johnson said. “We are zoning more affordable housing in the county. We recognize that affordable housing and rent prices are a big problem in Clay County.”

Lack of public transportation, facilities and affordable housing can be among the many challenges that many experiencing homelessness face. According to the Homeless Shelters Directory, more than 1,600 people are without stable housing in Clay County.

“It’s about a year or two to get on a list for low-income housing,” said Executive Secretary of the Vinyard Transitional Center, Joseph Smith.

Without access to affordable housing, many are sleeping under bridges, in the woods or behind abandoned buildings as a last resort. Currently, Green Cove Springs does not have a homeless shelter. Sanders points out that some organizations may help for a day or two, but many people need long-term assistance. That’s how the idea for the Vineyard Transitional Center formed.

The center partnered with other local organizations, government agencies and churches in Clay County to open a transitional shelter, which will break ground early next year. It took about two years to find the right property, and with the help of former City Council member, Van Royal, and others, the center now has a home at 518 Pine St. in Green Cove Springs.

The shelter will house 16 men with their own living space and kitchen.

“We were looking for a building to house people for 30 to 90 days to get back on their feet, rent-free,” said Sanders.

The program provides counseling, life skills training, job training and vocational assistance. Sanders hopes to help people prepare for interviews and form relationships with local businesses for “second chance job placement.” The program also extends to those transitioning out of jail.

“When people get out of jail, they don’t have anywhere to go, so it’s so important that people have a place to stay when they get out,” Smith said. “Additionally, it’s hard to get a job with men having a record. It could be something they did when they were 18 or 19 years old; even if they’ve never had trouble 10 or 12 years later, they can’t get hired.”

Smith said that without stable housing or the chance to work, many revert to their old ways as a means of self-preservation.

“Our thing is to get in with employers to give folks coming out of the system a second chance. We need second-chance employers. That’s our goal,” he said.

Sanders created a resource team to build connections and move the project forward.

“We’ve had a lot of people that have helped us over the years,” Sanders said. “We have an advisory board of Van Royal, Sheriff Michelle Cook and many different people who are all in with the Vineyard. It will be the first transitional center in Clay County to house people just out of jail or anyone who needs help to get back on their feet,” Sanders said.

“It’s a holistic second chance,” Cook said. “There’s a lot of good programs out there that do a lot of good work, but this is truly going to be a holistic approach for inmates transitioning out of jail and into the community.”

For Sanders and Smith, helping people in their time of need is more than a project. It’s a passion.

“Wherever we’re needed, we’re going to go,” Smith said.

However, tackling the issue of homelessness in Clay County is a community effort.

“We need all people to be a part of it. It’s bigger than any of us,” Smith said. “We want this to take hold of the community and the community to take hold of it.”

Sanders agreed.

“God always opens our door for us,” he said. “He always sends unexpected people. But it will take a little over 1 million dollars to build this building. We’re asking if you want to donate; you can go to the site and know it is going to a good cause.”

To donate, go to the Vineyard Transitional Center website or check out their Facebook Page.

“We want to thank everyone here for your support and their time, especially Director of Finance Rebecca M. Van De’water, Administrator Director Rhonda Ali, Director of Community Outreach Archa Tarfa, and Chaplain David Jackson. We thank all our wonderful volunteers and local business community,” Sanders said.