MANATEE -- Helen Dexter, famously known in Palmetto as "Mother Dexter," was stunned one Sunday morning last October when she visited a Palmetto church.
Dexter was one of eight people surreptitiously brought to House of God Church Keith Dominion at 123 17th St. E., to be recognized in the 12th Community Honors program.
"It was a surprise award for me," Dexter said last week with a laugh.
Led by Presiding Elder Ted Tillis and Deaconess Mary Tillis, every third Sunday of October the House of God Church finds a way to lure unwary "do-gooders" to the church to pay them tribute.
The motto of every Community Honors Program is "God's Anointed Hands for Helping Others," Mary Tillis said.
This year, there will be nine honorees, including eight from Palmetto and one from Bradenton. They don't know yet they are the subjects of the 13th Community Honors Program set for 3 p.m. Sunday at the church.
The public is urged to attend, Tillis said.
"I have lived in this community all my life, and when I hear people talking, I am listening for names to come up," Tillis said when asked how honorees are chosen.
Honorees come from different Manatee County locales, but they all have in common the heart to serve their fellow man, Tillis said.
"Some clean houses for people in need," Tillis said. "Some take the elderly or infirm to a doctor's appointment. Some go into homes and help give medicine. Some will have a heart to monitor a diabetic's diet."
Last year's honorees included Elder Yvonnie Times, Agnes Brooks, the Rev. McArthur Sellers, Wilma Stewart, Joyce Dukes, Elder Alton Lilly Sr. and Dexter, Tillis said.
The 77-year-old Dexter was driven by her husband, James Dexter, from Palmetto to Sarasota recently where she felt a strong need to be with longtime friend, Idella Moss. When she was done with her ministering, her daughter, Sherry Larkins, took her home.
"She only eats for me," Dexter said of Moss. "Her daughter and I help feed her. Her faith is very strong. She doesn't take medicine now. She depends on God to heal her."
Dexter bathes Moss, whom she calls "Mother Moss," and sings to her.
"We sing and pray together," Dexter said.
Singing is so intertwined with prayer in Dexter's live that she will often sing during a conversation, even on the phone.
Dexter's passion to do right by others and live her life with integrity are the hallmarks of a Community Honors award winner, Tillis said.
"I did farmwork a lot of my life," said Dexter, who is mother to Carolyn Spencer, Bernitha Copeland, James Dexter II, Mia Madison and Larkin. "You name it, I picked it. I have never been on welfare. I took care of my kids. I had my own children but also many on the outside that I raised. They call me 'Auntie' Helen or 'Momma' Helen."
Larkin says of her mother: "She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hand to the needy. She'll go without so others may have. Her time on the phone is not for gossip but calling friends to donate funds to help bury someone whose family doesn't have insurance, finding shelter for someone who needs a place to live or calling someone, usually the Murrays, to get help for an elderly person who needs a handyman."
For those who need some inspiration, Dexter can be found most Sunday mornings at Pentacostal Church of God, 304 Martin Luther King Ave. E., Bradenton, where she has been a singer in the church choir.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or via Twitter @RichardDymond.