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  • C Johnston

Vivian Sylvester: Leader in Serving & Helping


From an early age, Vivian Sylvester understood the value of helping people. Her parents taught her to give her time, talent and possessions to others as naturally as they taught her to talk and tie her shoes.


And the lessons stuck. One in particular: what else can you do? She remembers participating in local food drives, that brought in canned goods for those in need. “My mom would say, what more can we give to people? Everyone needs to be clean, so let’s also donate Ivory soap.” Vivian learned that thinking about the need and doing a little more could mean a real difference to someone.


“If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”

– 1 John 3:17,18


And so another big lesson she learned early: actions speak louder than words.


After busy years of teaching school, raising a family, and working in various jobs, Vivian stepped up her service to others as she was able. She became a regular volunteer at the Olive Branch Fair Trade Store and Missions & More, which is a non-profit arm of her home church, Salem United Methodist Church in Pine Township, PA.


The Olive Branch is located as a storefront in the busy “Wexford flats area” of Route 19 in the North Hills of Pittsburgh. Half of the Olive Branch is a retail store, offering affordably priced one-of-a-kind gifts, jewelry and other items created by impoverished artists from around the world. Supported by fair trade organizations, artisans receive proceeds from the sales to help them live better, healthier lives.


The other half of the store is a gathering place to bring together people for growing, connecting and volunteering together. They use their skills in creating and crafting to make items for those in need. And Vivian is the person behind the beehive of activity that takes place in this half of the Olive Branch. A volunteer herself who puts in full-time hours between working at home and at the Olive Branch, Vivian is the outreach mission coordinator.


“The volunteers here do great work,” she explains. “We have knitters, crocheters, sewers, cutters – all sorts of people with many talents. They each work in their own ways, together, to help others. I sew poorly, but my little role is to come up with ideas as to what we can do together, coordinate with organizations who have a need, and get materials to create what’s needed.”


“Our volunteers thrive as a community and share a common purpose to serve others.”


What do the volunteers create, exactly? Here are some examples …


Purses with washable, reusable sanitary supplies for young girls in Africa. These enable the girls to be in school full time instead of staying at home for a week each month. This continuity in the classroom gives them a better chance to succeed in their academics, breaking the cycle of poverty.


Fidget blankets for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. These are available at the shop, and also given to nursing homes and hospices.


Baby bundles for Afghan refugee families with new or expectant mothers as they’re being resettled. These bundles include a crib blanket, receiving blankets, bibs, wash cloths, hats and burp pads.


Welcome blankets for Afghan refugee families moving into a new area.


Hats and blankets for NICU babies.


Lap blankets and prayer shawls for cancer patients.


Scarves, hats and soap sacks for the homeless.


Hats and scarves as a part of a large coat drive for inner city children.


Baptismal bibs, baby wraps and prayer squares for a chaplain at Children’s Hospital to use when baptizing sick children.


During the pandemic, masks for children in Native American schools across the country.


As the needs change, the projects also change; and the volunteers adapt. But the constant, Vivian says, is the meaningful service and shared community of the volunteers.


“A gift opens the way and ushers the giver into the presence of the great.”

- Proverbs 18:16

There are about 25 volunteers in various capacities serving in Olive Branch’s outreach missions. Right now, they range in age from their 40s through their 80s, but there have been some younger and older. While men have volunteered in the past, currently only women are serving.


“They know each other well,” Vivian explains. “They come together with a common purpose to help others, and end up enjoying each other’s company, learning from each other and building friendships.”


It’s a special place with people doing special work. And the humble woman at the center of the activity, Vivian Sylvester, is the leader who keeps things going.


One woman who has volunteered at the Olive Branch in many capacities, Janet Barlett, describes Vivian as “a woman who has embraced the world both locally and nationally with compassion and love.”


She also says, “The hands and hearts of the sewing teams that Vivian has assembled must be what Mister Rogers meant when he said, ‘Find the helpers.’ From hygiene kits for Haiti, Uganda and Zimbabwe to blankets for seriously ill NICU babies and prayer shawls for cancer patients in our local community, Vivian and her sewing team are helping improve the lives of so many - one stitch at a time.”


“If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”

– Isaiah 58:10


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Thoughts or messages to share about or with Vivian or her volunteers? Leave comments below.


Would you like to make a donation of your time, resources or supplies for sewing, knitting or crocheting to the Olive Branch? Your support is welcomed!


The Olive Branch – www.olivebranchwexfordorg, 724-799-8700


Store Hours – Tuesday-Friday: 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.; Saturday: 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.





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