When you learn Mary Baxter is a pastor, it's not surprising to hear she's willing to reach out to those in need, whether those needs are small or large.
For example, Baxter, the leader of Greater Life Ministries in Cary, has been a therapeutic foster parent for children with emotional needs. She later adopted two of the children when their mother went to jail so they wouldn't enter the foster care system.
"I've been known to take a lot of people in," she says. "I believe that true love and nurturing can cause anyone to change."
Now, some of those she's helped are giving back to Baxter, who's in need of a little assistance of her own.
Terry Davis, one of the church's outreach coordinators, says the church is collecting toys, furniture, food and household items for area families, as they usually do at this time of year. But this year, they're also collecting things for Baxter and her family of seven.
Baxter and her family have been displaced from their home, thanks to damage done to her house by a contractor. They're living in a hotel because the roof on her house is wide open, covered only with a tarp, which doesn't help the mold and mildew situation that already existed. Her family includes her two adult children, her daughter's two children and Baxter's two adopted children. The four children are 10 to 13.
Baxter's the type of person to downplay the challenges she and her family are facing, saying her priority is still to help the community like she has since 1996, when she became the congregation's pastor. The church's efforts run year-round. They collect and distribute food, clothing, mattresses and money for people's utility bills. At Thanksgiving, they prepare meals. At Christmas, they collect toys, which will be distributed the Sunday before Christmas.
"My compassion first is to, of course, help the other people," says Baxter who is 60.
But Davis wants to help Baxter. Baxter has done too much for her to face these issues on her own.
"To be honest, I was one of the ones to come to church, and she took me in," Davis said. "She's helping me out to get me on my feet."
Plus, Davis knows Baxter worries about the state of their church. The congregation has been temporarily displaced, too. In June, a tree fell on the building they leased on Chapel Hill Road, near downtown Cary.
Westwood Baptist Church heard about their situation and has shared their space on High Street with the 30 to 50 members, a situation that's gone well by all accounts. They even had a combined service last month called "Sharing our Bounty," where members from both congregations - Westwood has nearly 1,000 members - brought baskets for those in need.
"Whatever she's got going on right now, she's doing what she can," Davis said of Baxter.
Baxter said she hired a contractor to repair her house's roof. After he tore everything out, including the kitchen cabinets and floors, she learned he had been arrested in Wake County. Further research showed he has a history of scamming people such as Baxter. An Internet search shows several complaints in New Jersey, including some affected by Hurricane Sandy.
In the meantime, rain poured into Baxter's house, causing mold. Her grandson has chronic asthma and couldn't live there.
She's run into problems with her insurance company about getting her house fixed, but she's not getting far.
At this point, after describing the mess her house is in, she acknowledges that her situation is "sort of heavy."
"I have to have a really strong faith in God," she says. "Hold on and know he doesn't make mistakes. Eventually, I'm coming through all this."
She's comforted, she says, by how people have opened their arms to her, and not just the Westwood Baptist congregants. Her church members have helped her in other times of trouble, and they're rallying around her again.
And that's what Davis wants for the woman who has transformed her. Davis first heard Baxter preach three years ago and felt touched by her testimony. Davis returned to the church and felt Baxter's unconditional love. It's just what Davis needed at the time.
"I had low self-esteem. ... I was lost," said Davis, who is 43 and grew up in the Chavis Heights community in Raleigh. "She embraced us with the love of God. That got me to where I'm at."
Baxter assures Davis everything will work out for both her and the church. As long as people get what they need, everything will be OK, Baxter tells Davis.
But when she hears Davis say how much she's grown and changed, just by knowing her, Baxter says, "That makes everything I've been through worth it."