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The Button Tin
By Denise K. Spencer / March 11, 2010

On March 10 and 11, 2010, the South Carolina Association of Nonprofit Organizations (SCANPO) held its annual conference on Hilton Head Island.  As a co-chair for the conference planning committee, I was offered the opportunity to provide a brief "welcome" for the more than 430 nonprofit leaders from around the state.  I did so, and enough folks asked me for a copy of my words that I've resurrected them here to make their access to them simple. 

About a year and a half ago, I was going through some boxes still unopened from my move to the Lowcountry in the summer of 2006.  My thought was that in these difficult economic times, there may be things better placed in the hands of others than stored unused in my garage.   Dog-eared paperback books, an extra set of knives, as well as curtains and blankets no longer needed—these things and more went into boxes to be dropped off for charity. But an old coffee can caught my attention and caused me to spend time in quiet reflection—it was my button tin. 

How many of you had a button tin—or jar—or box--in your household?  A button tin had many uses.  It was, first and foremost, a recycling effort.  Buttons were snipped from shirts and blouses, dresses and coats before the worn items were discarded or cut up for quilts or rags.  Whenever we made a new outfit, we went first to Mother’s button tin.  Dolls got dresses made of leftover fabrics and reused buttons.  I learned to count, and to find matching items, and to sew from the treasures in the tin.  I made sock puppets with button eyes, and make-believe earrings with tape and buttons.  My grandmother had such a tin.  My mother had one.  And I have one.  I suspect I may be part of the last generation that would find value in such things.  But as I fingered the multicolored fasteners, memories came flooding back.  There were buttons that looked like daisies from one of my school dresses that Mother had made.   There was the one large green button which sat at the neck of a wool sheath dress—my main “special occasion” outfit when I was in high school.  There were buttons that looked like jewels which I had cut from my mother’s 13th birthday party dress, and I begged her for them before the frock finally went into the burn barrel.  Buttons representing my daughter’s baby bonnet, her first bib overalls, and her first dance were there. 

When I was considering how to welcome you, the nonprofit leadership in the State of South Carolina, my thoughts rested on the button tin.  In many ways, YOU are the fasteners, the embellishments and the collective keepers of our history, our current quality of life, and our future.  The nonprofit framework which you’ve had a role in developing, keeps us all “buttoned up tight” against the elements.  In these times, the elements I’m speaking of include a struggling economy, increased governmental rules and regulations, and a state filled with communities that have mounting and changing needs.  As you travel around the State, you realize that there is never a day that goes by that you don’t see something that has been touched by the nonprofit sector, and therefore by all of you, in a way that makes it more beautiful.  A smiling high school or college graduate, an artistic endeavor, a child protected, food delivered instead of destroyed, a life saved--these embellishments enrich us all, and you are all a critical part of that. 

You are also creating the living history of our times; you provide guidance, recall for us how we got to where we are, and encourage us to hold that proud past sacred—in our own button tin of sorts.  These difficult times require that we use all resources at our disposal.  We need all our creativity, all our positive forward action and all the lessons of our past, to provide protection in the storms that are upon us.  We need YOU.  We need your leadership, your assistance, your resources, and your kind thoughts.  We need you to be the best you can be, and this SCANPO Conference is one of the ways that you improve yourselves and your organizations.  We want to be able to pass this button tin on to the next generation and the next, offering structure, beauty, and memories on which to continue to strengthen and build our wonderful State. 

Welcome to Hilton Head Island, thank you for sharing your valuable time with us, and as you leave us and head back to your important work, and button up against the difficult winds to come, remember all your new friends and the lessons you take from here. 

Denise K. Spencer

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Community Foundation of the Lowcountry

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P.O. Box 23019
Hilton Head Island,
South Carolina 29925

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