Inspiring Okeechobee: Swinfords live a life of service

OKEECHOBEE — Many people do good deeds occasionally. They may donate money once in a while to a worthy cause or volunteer to help feed the homeless on Thanksgiving every year. Maybe they give all their old clothes to the local mission and feel like they have really sacrificed, but how many people do you know who have dedicated every day of their lives for 23 years to serving others? Bruce and Mary Anne Swinford are those people.

Bruce and Mary Anne Swinford, Big Lake Mission

Mary Anne was born in Erie, Pa., but was adopted out and raised on a farm in Allegheny, Pa where she attended a little country church. She said she became the church piano player at the age of nine, and she can remember two overseas missionaries coming to the church one Sunday to visit. She remembers playing music as everyone was leaving the church and tears were streaming down her face. Afterward, the missionaries wanted to meet her. She told them she wanted to be a missionary, but she knew she didn’t want to go overseas. At that time, she had never heard of home missionaries, and she just went on with her life.

Mary Anne has been in Okeechobee since 1971 when friends talked her into moving here, and Bruce has been here since 1985 when his friends talked him into giving Okeechobee a try after a heart attack and a back surgery made it obvious he needed a change. They met through their sons, fell in love and were married.

In 1995, when Mary Thomas, who had run Park Street Mission and organized an annual Christmas toy drive for many years, decided to go overseas to the mission field, Mary Anne’s daughter Pam mentioned that it was a shame there would be no toy drive for Christmas for the first time in years. Mary Anne’s heart was burdened for the kids who would not be getting anything for Christmas, and she told Bruce she felt like God was calling them to do something. She said Bruce has always been a giver so it was not a problem for him at all. He was ready, willing, and able. That first Christmas, they helped 150 children. They named their mission the Big Lake Mission.

Soon they felt God wanted them to feed the hungry. They started with sack lunches, but Mary Anne just never felt good about that. She wanted people to have a hot lunch, and she loves to cook, so she started cooking hot meals six days a week. They have cut back to four days a week now though.

For the first five years, Bruce drove a semi truck in order to finance the mission until they felt they could prove to the town they could be trusted and were responsible. When donations began coming in, he was able to sell the truck and stay home to work full-time in the mission. The mission is a non-profit with no paid employees, including Bruce and Mary Anne. The mission survives completely on donations from the community, and any time they have any excess supplies, they share with other charities. In 2017, the Big Lake Mission was nominated for the Champions of Hope award at the Florida Faith Symposium, and they won third place in the Jewels of the Treasure Coast awards.

Bruce and Mary Anne estimate they helped more than 15,000 people in Okeechobee in one way or another each and every year. Their brochure lists some of the ways they help the residents of Okeechobee:

• Hot meals;
• Referrals to other agencies;
• Providing small household items;
• Clothes closet;
• Personal hygiene items;
• Help victims with burned out homes;
• Bibles (English and Spanish);
• Thanksgiving baskets;
• Christmas baskets;
• Annual toy give away;
• Winter blankets, jackets and sweaters.

Making sure every child has a good Christmas is very important to Bruce and Mary Anne.

They hold the Christmas Toy Drive each year in the hope that there will be enough gifts for every child to receive three or four. Mary Anne said a lot of people forget that teenagers need gifts too. Everyone donates for the cute little toddler, but the 14-year-old big sister needs to feel loved too. Call Bruce Swinford 863-697-6433 for more information.

They will also be doing their 24th annual Toy Run on Dec. 1, starting at the Brahman Theater at 8 a.m. This is a bike run co-sponsored by the mission along with Reno’s Motorcycle Service and Cypress Hut Eagle Riders. They ride for three hours, and all money raised goes toward the toy drive. Last year they had about 55 bikes participate and about 75 riders. Call Roy Reno 863-634-2275 for more information.

When asked why he does all this work for no pay and sometimes no thanks, Bruce replied, “I just enjoy helping people. Ain’t nobody on earth can tell me to quit.”

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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