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Assistance League to Mark 40 Years of Partnering on Charitable Programs



The Assistance League of Atlanta this year marks its 40th anniversary of charitable programs in the metro area. Partnering with many schools, hospitals and other nonprofits, the group serves around 50,000 people a year. And since 2016, it’s all been organized at its headquarters in Peachtree Corners.

“The organization is totally volunteer. We have no paid employees,” said Ellen Frank, the chapter’s board president. “When you realize how complex it is, it’s kind of amazing we don’t have a paid executive director or any staff.”

Known for its Attic Treasures thrift shop in Chamblee, the Atlanta group is one of 120 nationwide chapters of the California-based Assistance League. Members of the local chapter — currently numbering around 250 — pay $75 annual dues, of which $25 goes to the national organization for training, support and marketing. All chapters determine their local partnerships, but also participate in the national’s signature program, Operation School Bell, which provides school clothes to students in need.

“As you can imagine, Atlanta, as a major metropolitan area, is a contributor, a major contributor, to our efforts as a national organization,” said Matt Zarcufsky, the mother organization’s executive director. He praised the Atlanta chapter as “a group of very committed volunteers.”

A history of giving

The Assistance League’s roots date to 1890s Los Angeles and charitable work by philanthropists Anne Banning and Ada Edwards Laughlin. In 1919, they formalized their organization as the Assistance League of Southern California. The national version was organized in 1935.

Today, there are chapters in 26 states. The latest stats available, for roughly the year before the COVID-19 pandemic affected operations, showed the chapters collectively served about 1.37 million people and had about 20,000 volunteers.

The Atlanta chapter was formed in October 1982 by a group of 34 women who started with the Operation School Bell program. As a fundraiser, they sold “senior citizens’ crafts,” renting a small building in Chamblee they called the “Mouse House.”

The organization grew over time, and in the late 1990s undertook a $1.3 million capital campaign to build a thrift shop and headquarters. That opened in 2000 at 3534 Broad Street in Chamblee, which remains home to the 13,000-square-foot thrift shop – a major revenue source, according to Frank, as it pulls in about $700,000 a year.

The chapter outgrew that space as well, but had trouble finding property in Chamblee as real estate values rose. In 2016, the organization bought an office building at 6264 Crooked Creek Road in Peachtree Corners as its “Philanthropic Center.”

Programs and partnerships

Operation School Bell remains an anchor program, with students at the local Peachtree Elementary school among the recipients, as well as many DeKalb and Fulton county schools. But the chapter partners on many other programs as well, largely centered on providing some kind of needed goods like clothing and food.

The long list includes hygiene and household items for homeless people in Atlanta’s Gateway Center and Nicholas House; teddy bears for patients in Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta hospitals; work clothing and MARTA cards for women in addiction recovery at Sandy Springs-based Mary Hall Freedom House; special clothing for patients at Atlanta’s Shepherd Center rehabilitation hospital; used books for school kids and scholarships to some metro colleges.
A lot of those programs fulfill needs rooted in such social issues as poverty. The Atlanta chapter does not get involved in addressing such issues directly – “We can’t do everything,” says Frank — and also rarely runs a program itself, instead working with other groups or social workers.

“Actually, all of our programs are partnerships,” said Frank. “We are not dealing with the public on a one-to-one basis except in the thrift shop.”

But it requires a lot of work from Assistance League members, who often hand-pack care packages and other items. Membership is especially popular among retirees, said Frank, herself a former insurance adjuster who joined in 2015.

“I love it because when I retired, I wanted to volunteer, and this particular program gives me a lot of flexibility,” she said. “…There’s always something to do.”

Frank also lived in Peachtree Corners for 27 years before more recently moving to Dunwoody. “I lived there when it was still Norcross. So it was very exciting to see Peachtree Corners become a city in itself,” she said. “And of course, when that happens, a lot of changes happen for the best, especially the new shopping center and the new Town Center.”

Challenges from the pandemic

Like everyone else, the Assistance League has faced dramatic challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic — increased demand for services overall and difficulty in having in-person volunteering. Frank said COVID has brought, “as our national [directors] would call it, the new norm, and the new norm is to be adaptable.”

Zarcufsky said that at the national level, the organization is looking at ways to continue providing goods to people in need in different ways. But it’s also thinking of other ways to serve or operate even the signature school programs.

“So we’re looking at opportunities to not just be charitable and provide goods, but looking at ways we can participate and engage with students in other ways like tutoring,” he said.
The local chapter had a big pivot to make with the thrift shop, which was closed for a while, then reopened with pandemic precautions. An online version was launched on eBay as well and has been a success, Frank said. In fact, she said, the shop is keeping pace with pre-COVID sales despite the turmoil.

The organization also has some changes in programs like a literacy week coming in February to Peachtree Elementary. Instead of some traditional face-to-face programming, the Assistance League is providing students with a bag containing a book, a Beanie Baby doll and some food items. The bag will encourage students to try “reading with a friend” — meaning the Beanie Baby.

The latest wave of the pandemic also affected the chapter’s plan to invite neighbors to get to know the organization through tours of the Peachtree Corners headquarters. A January tour was canceled, but the group hopes to get that rolling later this year, and also has a grant committee always seeking donations.

“And we’re always looking for members,” said Frank. “We’d love to have people come and see what we do, and you make new good friends.”

For more information, see assistanceleague.org/atlanta.

John Ruch is a journalist with SaportaReport and Buckhead.com in metro Atlanta. His freelance work has appeared in such publications as the Washington Post and the Seattle Times. In his spare time, he writes fantasy novels.

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BRACK: Peachtree Corners to lose Peterbrooke Chocolatier



Scottt Gottuso and Geoffrey Wilson.
Scottt Gottuso and Geoffrey Wilson. Photo provided.

Peachtree Corners will soon lose one of its most iconic, popular and tasty businesses.

Peterbrooke Chocolatier, run by Geoffrey Wilson and Scott Gottuso, has been told by Peachtree Forum landlords, North American Properties and Nuveen Real Estate, that its lease will not be renewed. The last day of business will be July 25.

Meanwhile, Peachtree Forum is getting several new stores. They include Kendra Scott, Sucre, and The NOW Massage. Previously announced were Alloy Personal Training, Cookie Fix, Gallery Anderson Smith, Giulia, Lovesac, Nando’s Peri-Peri and Stretchlab. Wilson adds: “We are not in their big picture.”

Wilson has operated Peterbrooke at the Peachtree Forum for 14 years and Gottuso has been there nine years. They have made the chocolatier profitable and doubled sales. Wilson says: “We turned it around through community involvement and made relationships. We worked with the schools, gave donations, did a lot in the community, and made a difference. We produce most everything we sell in the shop, so it’s labor intensive. We make European-style chocolate treats from scratch from the very best ingredients, package it, make gift baskets, and also sell a lot of gelato.”

Key items include truffles, hand-made caramels, cherry cordials, chocolate-covered cookies and pretzels and strawberries hand-dipped in their own blend of chocolates. (They are all good!) One of Wilson’s and Gottuso’s most iconic products is chocolate popcorn. Once you try it, regular popcorn is tasteless. “We sell a lot of it.” Wilson adds: “Gelato sales have carried us in the summertime, since there are not many chocolate holidays in the summer.”

Peterbrooke now has five employees, and would like to have 10, but it is difficult to hire people with the skills in chocolatiering. A key part of its business is corporate companies, such as Delta Air Lines and Capital Insight. The Peachtree Corners’ Peterbrooke has corporate customers as far away as Cleveland, Ohio.

The operators were surprised when the Forum owners did not renew its five year lease. “The big decisions were made in Charlotte or Cincinnati, not locally,” Wilson feels. “We were no longer in their big picture. They want new and glitzy, shiny, fancy and trendy.”

The operators plan to start their own chocolate company, to be called “Scoffrey,” and initially sell online, plus have pop-up locations during holidays, and possibly have a booth in other merchants’ stores on occasions.

“Whatever we do would look different. We might rent a space somewhere close by so that people can still have the good chocolate experience with us, but we won’t have a regular audience walking by.”

Another element: the price of chocolate futures has spiked this year, with a bad crop production year. Wilson says: “That is key to our business and a huge cost increase. That doesn’t help.”

Wilson adds that the forced closing of the Peterbrooke location “is something like the death of a friend. But you go to the funeral and to the wake, and in six months or a year, It won’t be so bad.”

Have a comment?  Send to: elliott@elliottbrack

Written by Elliott Brack

This material is presented with permission from Elliott Brack’s GwinnettForum, an online site published Tuesdays and Fridays. To become better informed about Gwinnett, subscribe (at no cost) at GwinnettForum

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The Transformative Trail: Dr. Sunit Singhal’s Journey to Wellness



The highest peak in Tanzania also known as the “roof of Africa" // Photos courtesy of Dr. Sunit Singhal

For more than two decades, Dr. Sunit Singhal has been a member of the Peachtree Corners community. In February 2001, he opened Suburban Medical Center, making a significant contribution to community healthcare. Under his leadership, the medical center has expanded, notably by introducing Suburban Med Spa next door.

A 1988 graduate of the University College of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, India, Dr. Singhal furthered his expertise in the United States, completing his residency in Internal Medicine at Harlem Hospital Center in New York.

An awakening at the Grand Canyon

A few years ago, the 60-year-old physician had an eye-opening moment about his own health. Most of his life was spent being overweight, which he accepted and managed the best he could.

“It’s not a secret that I was overweight. Anyone could see it; it’s how I was my whole life,” said Dr. Singhal.

The pivotal moment for Dr. Singhal was his attempt to join friends on a hike at the Grand Canyon a few years back. Despite his determination, Dr. Singhal was unprepared for the hike’s demands.

“I thought, okay, I will meet my friends one-third of the way down the canyon from the opposite end. That way, I can keep up with them towards the end of the hike,” he shared.

The trek up Mount Kilimanjaro

Even starting much later, Dr. Singhal struggled greatly with the hike. He experienced knee pain, breathlessness, and exhaustion. His struggle not only slowed him down but also his friends, who had been hiking for an additional 12 hours before he joined them.

The ordeal ended in the middle of a cold night, leading to a physically taxing recovery period that left Dr. Singhal sore for days.

Despite the arduous experience at the Grand Canyon, Dr. Singhal didn’t retire his hiking boots. Feeling motivated to conquer the obstacle, he began walking long miles with friends to get into shape.

A few months later, the call of the canyon echoed again, and friends proposed a new challenge: hiking from the South Rim to the river and back. While less daunting than their previous endeavor, the task was intimidating.

“This time, I was able to make the hike without holding anyone back,” he shared. Dr. Singhal already saw the difference his efforts were making.

His triumphs over physical and mental barriers were clear and exciting. Dr. Singhal’s return to the canyon increased his resilience and personal growth.

Conquering Kilimanjaro: a test of determination

Following a series of hikes through the Grand Canyon as his health improved, Dr. Singhal and his hiking group set their sights on Mount Kilimanjaro. They regularly engaged in 10-mile hikes each week to prepare for the trek.

(left to right) Singhal, Kashish, Vani and Mahender Gupta.

“It was never on our minds to simply skip or cut the hike short because we didn’t feel like it that day,” Dr. Singhal said. Even family members occasionally joined, keeping pace with the senior group with varying success.

When the time arrived for their Kilimanjaro quest, they needed to identify the number of days their group would need to complete it.

“There are different levels you can choose for hikes. If you are very athletic, the 5-day hike is for you. It goes all the way up to 9 days if you need to go slowly,” Dr. Singhal explained.

The friends chose the six-day option. It seemed like a good balance of their confidence in their fitness coupled with a conservative approach. Yet, they completed the ascent in five days.

“We couldn’t believe we finished at such a quick pace. We weren’t straining ourselves to do it. It was the natural pace we wanted to go, and we finished with the group we viewed as the most fit and athletic.”

Mount Everest on the horizon

The hiking group isn’t resting on their laurels, though. The crew continues to meet and train for their next goal, climbing Mount Everest.

“There’s a lottery to be accepted to climb. We entered and are hoping to be selected for a hike this fall,” Dr. Singhal shared. When asked if he felt intimidated about this potential hike, he confidently replied, “No, not really.”

The team of friends will hear this summer if they are selected to climb.

Health and hope

Dr. Singhal’s health journey is the perfect example of the potential for change at any stage of life. It also highlights the importance of self-care, perseverance and pursuing one’s goals, regardless of the starting point.

His patients can rest easily. He isn’t walking away from his practice for the mountains full-time. Dr. Singhal is committed to his practice and patients. He firmly believes and displays that personal improvement and professional dedication can coexist harmoniously.

“I want my patients to know that I am equally dedicated to being here for them and their own health journeys.” When he’s not hitting the trails, Dr. Singhal can be found spending time with his family in Duluth or at his practice in Peachtree Corners.

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Local Youngsters Learn Life Lessons Through Community Service



Images courtesy of Young Men’s Service League

What started 20 years ago with two Texas moms looking for ways to get their sons involved in community service projects while spending quality time together turned into the Young Men’s Service League (YSML).

The national organization has dozens of chapters in 20 states, including Georgia.

Peachtree Corners mom, Heather Fleming, heard of a chapter in the northeast part of metro Atlanta, but it was pretty much at capacity.

“The way the chapters work is each class can only have around 30 boys,” she said.

“The more people you have in your chapter, the harder it might be for people to get hours in and just managing that number of people [can be difficult],” she added.

Taking matters into her own hands

Fleming partnered with another mom whose son couldn’t get into the chapter either to start their own.

“She was determined that she wanted her boys to be able to have this experience,” said Fleming.

“Our chapter started with a full ninth-grade class , and then the tenth-grade class was a little bit smaller, with around 20 boys,” she added.

Even though it’s a good way for public school students to earn community service hours, most of the participants attend private schools that don’t have that requirement.

They do it to do good in the community and to have fun hanging out with their moms.

“The whole point is that we only have four years left before our sons go off to whatever their next step is after they graduate from high school,” said Fleming.

“It’s just to have that quality time together, serving the community and then also to give them the opportunity to hear from speakers they would not ever necessarily have access to,” she added.

Preparing the next generation

Fleming’s son Luke graduates next year and he’s found fulfillment in YMSL.

“It has been fun serving our community with many of my friends and their moms. I have also learned a lot from the various speakers we have had over the years,” said Luke. One of my favorite speakers was Tyler Hannel, who spoke about how to be a better version of yourself.”

There are many charities that need volunteers, and many align with the skills and interests of the young men.

“My most memorable experiences were serving with BlazeSports at their annual Big Peach Slam basketball tournament the last two years,” said Luke.

“Watching kids my age play basketball from a wheelchair was so inspiring. I am thankful for an organization like BlazeSports that gives kids and adults with disabilities a way to still compete in a variety of sporting events,” he stated.

Tracey Shell and her son, Carson, have similar views.

“Our first year was last year, so I didn’t know about this organization when my older son was in high school,” said Shell. “They learn about things like life skills and leadership, … but the real heart of the organization is volunteering in your community and learning about local philanthropy.”

Each YMSL chapter works with a certain number of nonprofits each year—usually nearby. Although this chapter is called the John’s Creek Young Men Service League, it has members from Peachtree Corners, Norcross, Berkeley Lake, Alpharetta and John’s Creek.

YMSL donates time and energy, not money

Every year, each chapter does what it calls the ultimate gift. This time around, the Johns Creek chapter went farther outside its boundaries and helped the Atlanta Music Project (AMP). It’s a nonprofit organization founded in 2010 to provide tuition-free world-class music training and performance opportunities in under-resourced communities.

In October, AMP presented its first event, which brought together its entire community of performers for an afternoon of music and fellowship. The AMP Experience took place at Pullman Yards and featured performances from past and present students, with about 500 participants in total.

To pull off such a feat, AMP needed many volunteer ushers and stage crew. That’s where Johns Creek YMSL stepped in, with nearly 80 local YMSL volunteers who gave 246 service hours. Mom and son volunteers loaded instruments, set up and cleaned up, served as parking lot attendants and greeters and supported social media outreach.

Both Fleming and Shell have seen their boys grow and mature and are proud of the young men they are becoming.

“They become more aware of the different nonprofits and philanthropy that are just right in our own backyard that they might not have known about,” said Shell.

Fleming echoed that sentiment. Her older son Andrew is a sophomore at Clemson University, and she’s seen him carry the lessons learned at YMSL into his daily life by being actively involved with service projects in his fraternity and a mission trip over Spring Break.

“He definitely has a heart for helping others, which … is the ultimate goal. When they’re not living at home, and I’m not necessarily making them serve, they want to do this on their own in college and beyond,” she said.

For more information, visit ymsljohnscreek.org.

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