"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood …."
Words from a poem fill a large canvas that hangs on a wall in Wendy Sims’ office in Pembroke. The poem is Robert Frosts’ "The Road not Taken," one of the most famous in American literature.
The poem is an inspiration to Sims, coordinator of Bryan County Family Connection since 2007.
"I love that poem because I feel like I always strive to take the road less traveled," Sims said. "It sounds so corny, but it’s the truth. Sometimes, the road that is easiest is not always the one that makes a difference for families and children."
Recently, Sims’ efforts on behalf of families and children earned her recognition as Bryan County’s Favorite Public Servant by Bryan County News readers. At the same time, Bryan County Family Connection was named Bryan County’s Favorite Charity.
Sims learned about the win when she texted another winner to congratulate him. It was that much of a surprise, she said.
"I never expected it, but I think it’s super cool," Sims said. "I love this county, I love the people here, and I love working for the county and the community. I’m honored, and thankful people recognize what we do."
Those who work in social services have long recognized what Sims’ and her "collaborative" do.
It goes beyond work to wrap thousands of Christmas presents for kids through donations to the Bryan County Children fund, which last year provided some 600 kids with gifts. It’s not just the summer lunch program, which Sims runs and in 2016 fed approximately 600-700 kids at 16 sites across the county.
Its her willingness to do whatever it takes to help that wins her fans.
Dave Williams is a program manager for Gateway Behavioral Health Services, which shares room in the building where Sims’ and BCFC operate in North Bryan.
"Wendy is one of the most caring people I have ever known," Williams said. "As a member of the Family Connection community, I’ve worked with her on many projects. She’s very, very caring, especially when it comes to the children in Bryan County. She’s just really devoted to what she does, and you can ask her anything and she’s right there for you."
But Sims almost took a different road.
She wanted to be a lawyer growing up and worked for Atlantic Circuit Superior Court Judge John Harvey from the age of 16 until she was 20, running his law library upstairs in the Bryan County Courthouse.
Harvey, she recalled, was no fan of technology. "He and I used to race to see who could find case law faster, me on the computer or him using books," she said. "Most of the time, he won."
Sims graduated from Bryan County High School in 1999 and went on to Georgia Southern to major in justice studies with the plan on going to law school. She got accepted to a couple of law schools, she said, but decided it wasn’t for her.
"Too many politics," she said. "I didn’t like that."
After graduation from Southern, Sims took a job with Family Connection in 2003 and helped then-BCFC director Tara Jennings, who is now with the Coastal Georgia Indicators Coalition, create a juvenile diversion program for at risk youth.
When Jennings left Family Connection in 2007, Sims was offered the post, which at its core is about connecting various services to the people who need them.
There are more than a dozen agencies that work through the Bryan County Family Connection umbrella, and Sims knows them all.
"I was a natural fit," Sims said. "I’d worked alongside Tara for four or five years, and I knew the ins and outs about Family Connection."
Perhaps that familiarity is due in at least in part to Sims’ background.
She is an nth generation local whose grandmother lived in the Willie community in Liberty County before there was a military base to cut Bryan County in half.
"My grandmother was there before Fort Stewart was," said Sims, whose family felt early the impact the coming of Fort Stewart was to have on Bryan County, and, perhaps just as importantly, on how the two sides are viewed.
"That’s a constant battle," Sims said. "The two ends aren’t that different, because people are people and children are children. As far as Family Connection goes, we really strive to bring the two ends of Bryan County together so people can see they’re really not that different."
But there are differences, from accents to median incomes.
"People all have needs and wants, but some people have the means and ways to obtain them whereas others don’t," Sims said. "We really try to help those who don’t."
Not that it’s that simple. Because of the geographic split between North Bryan and South Bryan - Bryan is only county in the U.S. where you have to leave it to get from one end to the other - government has to provide duplicate services. And Sims is a government employee now that Bryan County has taken over Bryan County Family Connections and its’ approximately $180,000 annual budget - almost $50,000 of which is reimbursed by the state.
But the cultural and social differences between North Bryan and South Bryan are also sometimes challenging.
The former is more rural and less densely populated, and pockets of poverty have existed for generations with little change. South Bryan is fast growing, suburban and transient, and despite considerable pockets of wealth it too has areas where poverty is real.
Sims wants everyone to have a seat at the table, she said.
"I really want to see us move past all that so we can be one county," she said. "People on both ends need access to the same services."
But don’t ask her list those services in order of priority, because she won’t tell you of one that is bigger than others.
"I just feel there are so many we need to be cognizant of," Sims said. "Access to mental health is an ongoing concern, because so many things are affected by that. I know our government leaders are concerned about growth, but that’s a double edged sword, it’s a good thing and a bad thing. The more people that come, the more services we have to have in place for the people who will need those services."
Lisa Brewer is a regional coordinator for Family Connections and works out of Wayne County. She said she couldn’t think of a better person to be named Bryan County’s Favorite Public Servant.
"She is most deserving," Brewer said. "Wendy is very assertive and aggressive in serving the families and children in Bryan County. She works nonstop to improve the outcomes of children here in Bryan County."
"Wendy serves the region well, she’s a great peer for other coordinators, and she’s always looking for ways to improve supports and services for families and children here in Bryan County," she said. "Wendy’s very involved in the juvenile court justice system, she cares deeply about juveniles."
Earlier this month, Sims met with three kids who "are not in school because their parents don’t think it’s important," she said.
Those children are ages 7, 8 and 9. And their parents don’t make them attend school.
So far in 2017, Sims’ organization has gotten referrals for 25 such children who aren’t attending school because they’re parents don’t make them.
"It’s an issue that we see and we’re working with the school system to try and alleviate the problem," Sims said. "People have to be taught the value of an education."
Daughter of a teacher
Sims’ herself might never have dreamed of not going to school, or if she did, she may have kept it to herself.
Her mother, Iris Sims, is a longtime teacher who retired a few years ago and now works part time at Lanier Primary teaching gifted students.
"She’s strong, and she taught me how to be strong," Sims said of her mother. "She taught me how to be kind. She’s very soft hearted. I also feel like she taught me to be independent, though whether she always liked that or not, I don’t know, because I was always a very independent child. But she taught me to be true to myself and she instilled in me a love for helping others."
Judge Harvey, who passed away in 2009, is another who has left an enduring mark on Sims.
"I loved him so much," she said. "He taught me a lot not only about the law, but about doing my best."
And Sims looks up to her sister, Devin, who "always says the right thing and does the right thing," she said.
"I try to emulate her kindness," Sims said. "She’s a lot kinder than me. She has a great heart."
Williams believes that phrase "great heart" applies to Sims, as well.
"She does everything with a cheerful smile, and even though she gets rushed she never says ‘I don’t have time for you,’" he said. "I really appreciate what she does. She’s a great find for Bryan County."
Bryan County Commission Chairman Carter Infinger agreed.
"Wendy is an exceptional employee," Infinger said. "She takes pride in what she does and she is great at what she does. Bryan County is lucky to have her."
Not long ago, Sims was caught off guard when a mother called her up and asked if her daughter could shadow her for a day. That took Sims by surprise because, as she put it, "nobody dreams of Family Connections being the kind of job where someone wants to come shadow you," Sims said.
As for what Sims’ does, it’s pretty simple in theory.
"I am a coordinator. I coordinate and I connect folks with resources, and connect agencies together," she said. "As coordinators, we bring everybody to the table to talk about youth, families and children in Bryan County. We then do whatever it takes to meet the needs of those families."
The girl shadowed Sims for a week, Sims said, and seemed to enjoy the experience.
Perhaps she spent the time taking a road not many take, just like Sims’ favorite poem says.
That poem ends like this:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Sims appreciates that.
"Struggling to take the road that’s harder but truly makes a difference," Sims said. "That’s what we do at Bryan County Family Connections every day, try to make a difference. I know that sounds so corny. But it’s the truth."