Don Cheeks is a quiet man. He is soft-spoken and reserved, and the people who know him well say he doesn’t like to toot his own horn.
Founder of local nonprofit The Gifting Tree Foundation, Cheeks has been involved with or supported many organizations, including the American Red Cross, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital and Disabled American Veterans, the local Area Churches Together Serving (ACTS), the Connie Maxwell Children’s Home and more.
Cheeks, 76, made it clear that his motivation for working with nonprofits comes from a passion for helping other people – not for publicity.
“I’m a pretty private person. I don’t go around patting myself on the back and stuff like that. I try to stay in the background,” Cheeks said.
Nevertheless, many people in Aiken know Cheeks for his business savvy, community involvement and acts of kindness – and his wife and friends were happy to talk about him on his behalf.
“He’s the most humble individual I’ve ever met,” Annie Cheeks, Don’s wife, said.
“Don is the epitome of a servant leader … He inspires others to make a difference by working so hard himself,” Lyddie Hansen, board member of The Gifting Tree, said.
“He gives himself quietly, and then he’s like a magnet for other people to give,” Betty Ryberg, a fellow prolific Aiken fundraiser, said.
“He brings people together. People want to be on Don Cheeks’ team,” Suzanne Jackson, executive director of ACTS, said.
The story of Cheeks and The Gifting Tree begins right here in Aiken.
Before he became the prominent local philanthropist he is today, Cheeks was a kid growing up in Aiken. He attended Graniteville High School and played baseball.
Cheeks’ role model was his grandfather, who he called Pop. Cheeks said his grandfather was a very giving and caring person, and he taught him the value of saving and other important lessons.
“One of his favorite statements was, ‘You only come into the world with your name, and you only leave it with your name. It’s what you do in between that matters,’” Cheeks said. “I try to live by that motto.”
Cheeks started working at Southeastern Tool Company in 1964. Later, starting in 1980, he ran the company’s operations, and he bought the company in 1985.
Today, Cheeks remains the owner of Southeastern Tool Company, which won the 2011 Small Business of the Year award from the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce. His son, Lee Cheeks, became president of the company this year.
In his wood-paneled office, Cheeks has pictures and memorabilia hung on the walls and decorating his desk. There are South Carolina Gamecocks posters, items from St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and, most prominently, photos of his family.
Cheeks has two daughters, one son and six grandchildren. One of those grandchildren is the reason he became a devoted spectator of the Special Olympics.
He said his oldest granddaughter participates in the program, so cheering her on in the Special Olympics is near and dear to his heart.
Cheeks met his wife, Annie, 16 years ago in Columbia. Ten years later, the pair got engaged.
“We met tailgating,” Annie said. “And literally, from that moment, we ... have been together ever since.”
Annie is the treasurer for The Gifting Tree, and the couple does a lot of charity work together. One tradition the pair does every year is cook and donate 25 turkeys and 25 hams every Thanksgiving and Christmas to families, some of whom might not have anything to eat at all.
“It doesn’t sound like fun, but it’s very rewarding to do it and see the expressions on people’s faces on how thankful they are,” Don Cheeks said.
Cheeks has had many rewarding experiences while doing nonprofit work, and he shared one memory that continues to touch his heart.
After a flood devastated the town of Nichols, South Carolina, Cheeks ran a relief effort to deliver supplies to the area. He encountered a homeless man while he collected money for donations.
“He motioned for me, and he said, ‘Are you taking up money?’ I said, 'Yes sir.' And he said, ‘Hold out your hand,’ and he put a penny in it,” Cheeks said. “That touched me. He did what he could do. Something like that really touches you.”
For more than 20 years, Cheeks worked with the American Red Cross. He served as the chairman of the board at the Aiken office for the organization until he founded The Gifting Tree in 2018.
It was at the Red Cross that Cheeks met Jackson, who continues to work with him through their work at The Giving Tree and ACTS respectively. Jackson said they met more than 12 years ago.
“That’s when I realized how giving he is,” Jackson said. “He is very concerned about people’s well-being. Service is just a very natural side of him. He’s also extremely generous, not only with his time, but he’s very generous with his resources. What I’ve loved is I’ve continued to be able to work with Don and Annie.”
Jackson said Cheeks is an astute businessman and leader who has an ability to bring people together, and he acts as a role model for putting other people before himself. She also said he has a great sense of humor and a soft heart for children.
One of the causes Cheeks has supported with ACTS is the organization’s annual utility fund that provides fans or heaters for people who need them. The Gifting Tree donated $5,000 to the fund in 2019.
Hansen, now a board member at The Gifting Tree, also met Cheeks while working with the American Red Cross. She said they have been friends for more than a dozen years.
When Cheeks decided to leave the Red Cross to start The Gifting Tree, many of his friends came with him. Hansen said the new organization was a direct result of Cheeks’ vision.
“Most of us took that leap of faith with Don to open a new organization because we believed in Don. We knew that with his leadership, we could make a difference,” Hansen said.
The Gifting Tree has donated funds to several organizations and individual people since its founding. Recently, in May 2020, the organization gave a man $2,000 after he returned home from the hospital due to a terminal illness and needed help paying for his rent and utilities.
Another donation that month was to Aiken Rotary Club’s scholarship program, which Ryberg leads. Ryberg said the program was planning to award one scholarship to a high school senior whose life was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“[Annie Cheeks] said, ‘Don and I would like to give you a check for the graduates, because we know how hard it is this year,’” Ryberg said.
Originally, The Gifting Tree was planning to donate $5,000. However, after the Rotary Club members read the applications, they ended up finding two equally deserving high school seniors. Ryberg said the scholarship committee had read the two students’ applications until they wept.
Hansen, also a Rotary Club member, said she called Cheeks to explain that the fund needed another $2,300 to award a second student.
“I said, 'Do you think the [Gifting Tree] board would consider a second donation?' And he said, ‘Sugar, tell you what. You get Betty to write it up, and if they say no, I’ll personally make it up,’” Hansen said.
Ultimately, The Gifting Tree donated $7,300 to the fund, and two students received scholarships.
Back in March, The Gifting Tree held its second Oyster Roast. Cheeks said the event raised more than $80,000, and the money was given to Aiken Life Services, Graniteville Elementary School, Greendale Elementary School and others.
Two of the biggest sponsors of the last Oyster Roast were Southeastern Tool Company and Don and Annie Cheeks. But others in Aiken stepped up to support the event as well, and Ryberg said the event was sold out.
Ryberg said she asked people around the event how they got there, and many of them said they heard Don Cheeks was running it.
“Isn’t that a great way to be,” Ryberg said, “that all you have to do is say this quiet name that sometimes people have never had an interactive relationship with, but by golly, they do know that the money goes from this oyster roast right to the entity, and nothing in between that does the managing of the money.”
For Cheeks, the Aiken community has been supportive of his efforts to help others, both in and outside of the annual Oyster Roast.
“Aiken’s a very friendly town. Aiken’s a very giving town. I’m fortunate to have a lot of contacts that, any time I’m in need, I call them and they send the money to us. I’ve been very fortunate in that way," Cheeks said.
Cheeks’ advice for people interested in volunteerism is simple: Have a passion for helping others. Be passionate about what you’re doing, and be ready to put in some hard work.