Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Clyde and Sandra Strickland are perhaps Gwinnett County's most active philanthropists. The couple said all of their decisions are faith-based, and that they love "helping other people help themselves."
LAWRENCEVILLE -- Not long ago, she'll admit, Sandra Strickland wasn't entirely sure what the word "philanthropy" meant. When folks started calling her and husband Clyde philanthropists, she finally got around to looking up the textbook definition.
It seemed about right.
"I had always looked at giving as being a good steward and helping God," she said recently at the couple's spacious but modest Lawrenceville home. "After I read about it and had gotten to know a little bit about it, I thought, 'well, we've been doing that all of our lives.'"
Both Stricklands came from "humble beginnings" in the mountains of North Carolina, marrying in 1963 with about $500 and a whole lot of faith between them. Both worked in a textile mill, bringing home about $5,500 a year.
Back then they tithed what they could to their Episcopal church and helped out friends in need.
Said Clyde: "Philanthropy doesn't start at a million dollars. Philanthropy starts with one dollar from the heart."
And it did. Nowadays, though, it's much, much more.
Over the last decade or so, the Stricklands have become perhaps Gwinnett County's most active philanthropists. In the last few years alone they've written monstrous checks to Gwinnett Medical Center ($1 million for its construction and development of open heart services), the Hope Clinic ($890,000 for a new home to better serve indigent Gwinnettians in need of health care) and Rainbow Village (at least $250,000 for the Duluth community that shelters homeless families).
They've built Habitat for Humanity houses and helped with construction on three separate Gwinnett churches — both financially and physically. There's a half-acre park near the downtown Lawrenceville housing projects named after them.
Their goal, of course, is to help people. But it's also to encourage people, to hopefully show everyone else the difference even a dollar can make.
"The average person, he can't give away a lot of money," Clyde Strickland said. "But he can make just as much difference."'You share what you have'Metro Waterproofing is a company you may have never heard of, but it's everywhere.
Clyde Strickland's uber-successful business offers a number of waterproofing-related services, the intricacies of which are hard to describe succinctly. To get an understanding of its success however, you need only the names of a few current clients listed on its website: the University of Georgia, Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, AT&T, MARTA, the Georgia World Congress Center and Coca-Cola are several local examples.
Strickland built Metro Waterproofing from the ground up after moving to the Atlanta area in the '60s. A fire destroyed everything in 1986, and he built it again. Even in today's economic climate, the company is hiring people.
The secret, Strickland says, is to "make decisions based on what's right." That and a lot of hard work.
"I was always a perfectionist," he said.
Strickland and his wife ("I love this old girl") will balk at telling you exactly what they're worth, but you need only look at the magnitude of their charitable donations, and a Bible verse Sandra always keeps nearby, to get a glimpse.
"It's Deuteronomy 16:17," Sandra said. "It says, 'Each of you must bring a gift in proportion to the way the Lord your God has blesses you.' You share what you have."
That they have.
The Stricklands $1 million contribution toward Gwinnett Medical Center's Heart and Vascular Center (which is scheduled to start seeing patients in January) gave a heartfelt push toward eliminating Gwinnett's title as the nation's largest county without such a facility.
Their massive donation to the Hope Clinic enabled it to move to its new building on Langley Drive a year ago this week.
"It's the difference of being able to have enough space to fulfill our mission and also have a place that's clean and bright that the patients enjoy being at," executive director Pam Martin said. "Their donation put us in a position to be able to not pay $8,000 a month in rent."
Just a few months ago, the Stricklands -- long supporters of the American Cancer Society, but never contributors to Relay for Life -- donated the $88,000 needed to keep Gwinnett's Relay No. 1 in the world for a 10th straight year.
It was more about sending a message to the rest of the country, and hope throughout Gwinnett, than "winning" again, ACS' area executive director Bill Manson said.
"Generosity is just their middle name in my mind," Manson said. "They are incredibly spiritual folks."
Choosing where to distribute their philanthropy isn't easy, but the Stricklands said they leave it up to God.
"We pray about every dollar we give," Clyde Strickland said. "It doesn't matter if it's to help a family pay their house note, or to help start (open heart) at Gwinnett Medical. We pray over it, we ask for God's direction in terms of what it would do to help other people."
The couple likes to give to causes that help people help themselves. And they do it with a pure joy. Clyde often begins to tear up when talking about "doing God's work."
"They truly believe and they truly live in such a way as to give all things with love," Martin said. "If you're going to do it, do it with love."
'We've got to leap out'
For years, the Stricklands gave of their time and money with little fanfare, almost no public recognition. That was the way they liked it.
When they decided to make their mighty contribution to GMC's open heart initiative, however, they made the choice to go public.
"I was kind of holding him back, I was like, 'Clyde, we've got to do this secretively,'" Sandra said. "And he said, 'Well, if we're going to make a difference and have other people give, then we've got to step out, we've got to leap out.'"
That's the thing about the Stricklands -- some may see the press they get from their many philanthropic endeavors as the result of a fame-hungry couple, one somehow bragging about how much money they have. In reality, not so much.
It's more out of hope that it will inspire others to give.
"Each person can give something ... it really doesn't matter the size of the gift," Clyde Strickland said. "It's that you give the gift form the heart to help somebody else."
The couple still does plenty that people don't hear about, too. They try to help keep food pantries full, and are working on a scholarship to help people get their GEDs. They often mentor young couples regarding their finances and help several other struggling families a year, the latter anonymously and both with a hope that it will be paid forward.
"Each one of us can bless somebody," Sandra Strickland said. "Today."