Volunteer honors late husband by helping the poor

Carolyn Cleckley bags canned goods recently at the food pantry of Our Lady of the Valley Outreach Center in Gloverville. (Miscellany/Christina Lee Knauss)

Carolyn Cleckley bags canned goods recently at the food pantry of Our Lady of the Valley Outreach Center in Gloverville. (Miscellany/Christina Lee Knauss)GLOVERVILLE—Carolyn Cleckley begins every morning with a simple prayer.

“I say, ‘Lord, this is a new day and whatever you have in store for me, I’ll do to the best of my ability,’” she said in a recent interview.

Members of the community around Our Lady of the Valley Church will tell you the 79-year-old works constantly to fulfill that simple promise.

A lifelong resident of Horse Creek Valley, Cleckley is a regular presence at the small church and Our Lady of the Valley Outreach Center.

Three days a week, she gives out food at the center’s emergency pantry. Her blue Chevrolet truck is a familiar sight on local roads, because on the second Saturday of each month, she helps with a food distribution and delivery program for people who are ill or have no transportation.

She also makes regular trips to an Aiken food bank and to stores in nearby North Augusta to pick up supplies and donations.

During the week, Cleckley arrives at the church by 7 a.m. to prepare it for daily Mass. On Saturdays and Sundays, she greets parishioners arriving for the liturgy, then takes the Eucharist to the homebound. She is also a member of the parish bereavement committee.

If you drive by the church in spring or summer, she might be seen  on a riding mower. Cleckley helps maintain the church campus and the land around the small convent on the property.

“I love my work,” she said. “Whatever the sisters need me to do, I will do.”

In July, her years of dedication brought a special honor. The Daughters of Charity, who serve at Our Lady of the Valley, made Cleckley an affiliate member.

Sister Claire Debes, provincial supervisor for the order, came from their motherhouse in Maryland for the ceremony, which drew a large crowd of family and friends.

Cleckley wears a small cross-shaped pin on her shirt collar that symbolizes her new status. She proudly shows it to people who ask and said the honor has changed her life.

“I feel like I can communicate better with people now, that I can get through to them better now,” she said.

Affiliate ceremonies are often done in Maryland, but Cleckley asked that hers be held in the church because it means so much to her. It has been her source of inspiration for more than 50 years.

Cleckley grew up in a small blue house just down the road and was raised United Methodist. She was introduced to Catholicism when she attended youth and Scouting events at Our Lady of the Valley. The programs were organized by the Sisters of Christian Doctrine, who first came to the area in the late 1940s.

Cleckley converted to Catholicism at age 21.

She married and, like many people in the Valley, worked in the textile industry. Cleckley was an engraver at the Clearwater Finishing Plant until it closed in the early 1980s.

On a recent afternoon, she pointed out the hollow shell of her former employer, one of several shuttered mills that dot the landscape. The area has not recovered fully from the loss of textile jobs, which drove many of the people Cleckley now serves into poverty.

When she’s not at the church, the hard-working woman is with her family. She has three children, nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Her daughter, Anne, lives with her. Cleckley also is devoted to her pets — four cats and a dog.

She was always an active volunteer at Our Lady of the Valley during her 32-year marriage to Ronald Cleckley, but her daily dedication is the result of a promise she made to her husband shortly before he died in 2005.

“I told him I was going to dedicate the rest of my life to doing the Lord’s work and serving the poor,” she said. “I’ve always had a feeling for the poor and wanted to help people.”

Love for her work shows in everything Cleckley does. She laughs with parish workers and volunteers as she bags food in the emergency pantry, and offers smiles or words of encouragement as she helps people load food into their cars.

Cleckley’s service is also well-known by workers at area grocery stores, who often call her about donations. On a recent Wednesday morning, a woman from Bi-Lo in North Augusta phoned about overstocked dishes that she thought someone might be able to use. Cleckley finished her shift at the emergency pantry, and climbed into her truck to pick them up. On the way back, her cell phone rang. It was another parish volunteer, who called about preparing a food delivery for a man suffering from cancer.

“The people you give these things to are so appreciative, it makes your heart go out to them,” Cleckley said. “You see some sad things, but I guess I’m cut out for it.”