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Community

It Takes a Community

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NCM Tacos + Tour Event
Photos by George Hunter

Neighborhood Cooperative Ministries shows how local nonprofits work together to better the lives of at-risk families.

A few years ago, Neighborhood Cooperative Ministries (NCM) acquired a complex to further the mission of helping neighbors who sincerely want to break their cycle of poverty and regain financial independence. To remind the community of its expanded facilities and partnerships with other nonprofits, NCM invited the community to an event called Tacos + Tours.

NCM Tacos + Tour Event
Neighborhood Cooperative Ministries

Stakeholders were informed about ways they could continue their support while munching on tantalizing Latin cuisine. Afterwards, guests were shown the improvements and processes NCM has devised to help those in need.

Ryan Jones, director of community development, kicked off things by explaining why he retired from his career in banking to begin the journey of helping improve the lives of people who were hungry, homeless, jobless and lacking some of life’s basic necessities.

“I realized today that it’s my two-year anniversary here,” he said. “The man is in the room who, kind of, led me on the journey to retire as a banker.” 

He motioned to Randy Redner, who had been the president of the Community Foundation at the time and now is working at Rainbow Village.

“One of the things that stood out to me as I was doing my discernment and making my career change was ‘where could I make the most impact?’” said Jones.

He shared statistics about the pockets of poverty in the community. Then the various partners talked about how they work together to improve the lives of at-risk families in Gwinnett County.

Community helping community

“We’re now a county of more than a million people. We expect to have another 500,000 in the next 20 years,” said Jones. “The poverty rate has doubled, and the vast majority of that poverty is right here in our surrounding area.”

According to the United Way’s child well-being index, 45% of southwest Gwinnett’s children are living below the poverty line. That adds up to more than 11,000 kids.

NCM Tacos + Tour Event
NCM Tacos + Tour Event

Lack of affordable housing is also a big issue in this area. “A lot of times, we have families that are living in extended stay hotels and paying more money to live there than I pay for my house,” said Jones. “What these families are facing, a lot of times, is a cycle of poverty. They’re forced to make choices between their basic needs. ‘Am I going to feed my kids healthy food or am I going to pay for transportation to get to work? Am I going to pay for my medical bills?’”

Jones added that this cycle of poverty creates low grades in school, high unemployment rates and many other negative effects.

Even though the area boasts some of the toniest homes, high incomes and high levels of education, there are pockets of poverty similar to those near Clarkson, where refugees are given solace, or west of Mercedes Benz Stadium, where homelessness and addiction are high.

Better Work Gwinnett

Luisa Beeco, a program manager for Better Work Gwinnett, part of the Georgia Center for Opportunity, (GCO) explained that GCO focuses on family work and education.

“Our goal is removing barriers, and we do it in many ways so that every person, no matter their race, past mistakes or the circumstances of their birth, can have access to quality education, fulfilling work and a healthy family life,” she said. “We have people who are working on research and policy and working on trying to keep families together.”

One way to keep families together is by making sure the adults have jobs. That’s where the Better Work program comes in.

“It’s not like a staffing agency — it’s different,” she said. “I would call it a referral program.”

Better Work has partnered with multiple employers in the area that have agreed to reach out to job candidates within 3 business days for an interview or a conversation to be able to go through their process.

“We have people go through our portal. It takes five minutes. They can do it on their phone,” said Becco. 

Once the applicant signs up, Better Work has a 30- to 60-minute conversation to understand where they fit in the work world. They assess the barriers to work — transportation, childcare, etc. Instead of creating more programs, Better Work connects clients to existing resources such GED classes and English language classes.

Next Generation Focus

Rachel Mannino, a recent UGA grad, is one of the after-school program directors of Next Generation Focus, a nonprofit afterschool program that meets Monday through Thursday, 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. at Norcross First United Methodist Church.

“We also have locations at Discovery High School and Summerour Middle School, and we also meet virtually,” she said. “We provide out of school tutoring for our youngest scholars. That provides year-round academic support, enrichment activities, character education and life skills development for under-resourced and vulnerable youth and their families.”

She explained that since its inception, the mission has been to provide high quality educational and developmental opportunities to impact underserved communities. Students from kindergarten through 12th grade receive assistance in all subjects, including English language classes. There are even English language classes for parents.

Rainbow Village

Rainbow Village is the largest transitional housing nonprofit in Gwinnett County. It was founded by Christ Church in 1991 and used to be a bunch of scattered homes. It is now a 2.5 acre campus in Duluth.

“We can handle 30 homeless families at a time. Those families can stay with us for up to two years. We are not a quick fix program,” said Redner. “This is not a rapid rehousing program, because that just keeps rehousing them again and again. That doesn’t really help families.”

Redner explained that Rainbow Village is working to expanding so it can help more than 30 families at a time. “We have over 2,000 homeless kids in our school system,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do and we’re working hard to expand.”

He said that when he was the CEO of the Community Foundation, he saw that there are six great cooperative ministries across the county that were created 30 years ago by very future thinking leaders.

“When you add all those cooperative ministries together, we see 100,000 people a year; 10% of our population will go through our cooperative ministry,” Redner said. 

Rainbow Village sees a 90% success rate in helping families break the cycle of poverty. So, the charities started a pilot program in January where one or two social workers were embedded at other nonprofit organizations.

“We’re working side by side to take a look at that and learn how nonprofits can work closer together,” said Redner.

The NCM tour

Intake at NCM begins in the front lobby where clients are screened to make sure they are eligible for services.  “Here they tell a little bit of their story, their background, a little bit of what’s going on,” said Jenny Ortega of NCM. 

After being processed, they meet with caseworkers. “Once they come back to us, the options include clothing, food, hotel, rent and utilities,” added Ortega.

The complex also has space for those who just need a little extra help, such as once-a-month food distribution to stretch the grocery budget or clothes for back to school or job interviews, as well as assistance with utilities or finding work.

“We talk to them about all the various different ministries that we have here,” said Ortega. “It’s not just financial; there are also spiritual ministries,” she said.

And there are English classes and healthcare sessions where clients can get blood pressure checks and talk to someone about medical assistance and/or prescriptions assistance.

During COVID, NCM offered a drive-through pantry, but now clients can enter the expanded food facility with more space for cold and frozen foods. Healthy snacks are offered during tutoring sessions.

The changes at NCM are focused on helping families become independent and stand on their own. With the newly formed partnerships, all involved pray that the years ahead see more at-risk families becoming stable and able to give back to the organizations so they can help other families.

By the numbers

11,018 children face hunger in NCM’s service area.

256 individuals were served by NCM in 2022.

336,439 pounds of food was distributed by NCM in 2022.

41 families were served by Rainbow Village in 2022.

274 individuals were connected to jobs and services by Better Work Gwinnett in 2022.

450 to 500 students are served virtually and in person by Next Generation Focus.

28% of Norcross residents spend more than half of their income for rent.

119 billion pounds of food are wasted in the U.S. each year.

Arlinda Smith Broady is part of the Boomerang Generation of Blacks that moved back to the South after their ancestors moved North. With approximately three decades of journalism experience (she doesn't look it), she's worked in tiny, minority-based newsrooms to major metropolitans. At every endeavor she brings professionalism, passion, pluck, and the desire to spread the news to the people.

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City Government

City’s First Employee Steps Down

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At a City Council meeting on April 23, Diana Wheeler was recognized for more than 12 years of dedicated service to the city.
Diana Wheeler on stage at Town Center // Photos by Tracey Rice

Diana Wheeler starts her own consulting business

When a city is established, there’s a lot to do to get it going. One of the most important decisions is hiring effective staff. Diana Wheeler was one of those qualified employees who helped turn Peachtree Corners into the community it is today. She’s also credited with being the city’s first hire.

“I worked in Alpharetta for about 20 years as a community development director, and I decided that it was time to try something new and different, something I hadn’t done before. I was going to start up my own consulting business,” said Wheeler.

She was only a few days into her new career when the city of Peachtree Corners called.

“They said, ‘Hey, we’d like you to come and help us out. We’re starting up a new city, and we don’t really have any planners. We need a community development department,” said Wheeler.

So, she went back into city government work and put off starting her business.

Years of service

“I was the only employee for a while,” she said. “There were a lot of interesting times, and there were opportunities I’ve never had before, like setting up all of their programs and systems at the beginning.”

At a City Council meeting on April 23, Wheeler was recognized for more than 12 years of dedicated service to the city.

“A lot of things were accomplished, and after 12 years, I thought, well, you know, I still want that one last sort of professional challenge that I hadn’t ever done before, which was to go out on my own and take advantage of the connections that I’ve made over the years and work on projects that were of interest to me,” she said.

She let the city leadership know that it was time for that change and that she’d be making that change at the end of April.

“Diana’s daily presence was profoundly valued by her colleagues, who benefitted from her expertise, leadership, and perhaps most importantly, her composure in the face of the numerous challenges that the Peachtree Corners city government has encountered during her tenure,” read a statement from the city.

Don’t call it a retirement

As the community development director, Wheeler wore a lot of hats, metaphorically speaking.

“When I was community development director, I had four divisions: the building department, which issues permits and performs inspections; code enforcement, which basically enforces the city’s regulations in commercial and residential areas; planning and zoning, which does all the public hearings and all the zoning research work, and when we added the Town Center, we added special events,” she said. “It’s just a lot of different things. And the city has a very limited number of employees. So, everybody does multiple tasks.”

But she hasn’t entirely left the city. Through the end of the year, she’ll be coordinating the special events at the Town Center.

“We’ve got an incredible lineup. We have all sorts of really cool concerts …  and we’re also introducing a night market, which is like a farmer’s market,” she said.

The market will take place on the second Saturday of the month and will have about 14 different vendors selling produce, homemade products, and other items.

“We’re going to have a talent competition this year,” she said. “It’s called Peachtree Corners Has Talent, and we’re asking people to submit YouTube videos, and there are prizes for winners.”

Additionally, there’s a children’s festival and one for the canines in the new dog park.

“On December 4, we’re going to have the huge holiday glow event, which is our big holiday gala at the town center with a concert and Santa and all sorts of stuff for kids to do and a sing-along and lots of free hot chocolate and cookies and things like that,” she said.

Wheeler is unsure if she’ll continue working as a consultant with the city beyond December, but she’s excited about her next chapter. Her consulting business is focused on special projects.

A new journey as a consultant

“In communities where they have a limited staff but would like to take on a project, for example, the city of Jasper and the city of Milton have two different areas where they have projects that they would like to take on, but they don’t have the staff resources,” she said.

That’s where she’ll come in.

“They hire people sort of as a side project to work just on that project. And those are the sort of things that I would do,” she said. “I get to focus on a specific project and don’t deal with the day-to-day things.”

Wheeler said she likes that she gets to choose what she wants to work on and use her skills and experience to the fullest.

Highlights of Wheeler’s career with the city of Peachtree Corners:

  • She laid the groundwork for the establishment of Peachtree Corners’ inaugural City Hall.
  • She was instrumental in the development of the Holcomb Bridge Corridor Urban Redevelopment Plan, Livable Centers Initiative, Innovation Hub Master Plan, Winters Chapel Road Corridor Study and conceptual planning for the Multi-Use Trail network.
  • She established and nurtured the Arts Council, created the Arts & Culture Master Plan, and promoted other public art initiatives, bringing the residents enriching cultural experiences, artistic expression and a sense of community pride.
  • She played a pivotal role in the establishment and ongoing support of the Peachtree Corners Planning Commission, Zoning Board of Appeals, Downtown Development Authority, Redevelopment Authority, Arts Council, and Green Committee.
  • She played a crucial role in securing the city’s Green Community Certification and its Tree City USA recognition.
  • She spearheaded the implementation of the city’s initial zoning laws and led the Code Enforcement, Building and Permitting and Planning and Zoning Departments.
  • She pioneered the city’s first Comprehensive Land Use Plan.
  • She played a key role in launching Special Service Districts, contributing significantly to their initiation and success.
  • She Diana guided Town Green and Town Center initiatives.
  • She organized and managed Peachtree Corners’ special events.

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Community

Rooted Interiors Unveils Largest Transformation Project Yet for a Family in Need

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Grandfather's bedroom before and after // photos courtesy of Rooted Interiors

Rooted Interiors, a new non-profit organization dedicated to transforming lives through design, has announced the completion of its largest transformation project to date.

With a commitment to providing complete interiors to individuals and families emerging from homelessness, Rooted Interiors continues to make a profound impact on communities, one home at a time.

The latest project marks a significant milestone for Rooted Interiors as it demonstrates the organization’s unwavering dedication to creating havens where families can plant roots and thrive.

Through meticulous planning, collaboration and the support of generous donors and volunteers, Rooted Interiors has successfully transformed a once hopeless space into a warm and welcoming home for a deserving family.

At the heart of this project is a single mother, accompanied by her two children and her father, who found themselves in dire circumstances after the mother fled from an abusive partner, forcing them to seek refuge at the Family Promise shelter in Athens, Ga.

Upon securing a new home, however, their relief was short-lived as they found themselves in a space devoid of warmth and lacking the essentials of a home.

With no furniture besides a dining room table, no washer and dryer and a malfunctioning fridge, their daily struggles persisted for three long months.

But Rooted Interiors didn’t just redesign the family’s space, they filled it with love and hope.

Through this project, the organization transformed the family’s house into a sanctuary, addressing not only their physical needs but also their emotional well-being. From carefully selected furniture to thoughtful décor choices, every detail was curated to create a space that felt like home.

“We are thrilled to unveil our latest project, which represents our continued commitment to serving those in need,” said Kristina McCalla, Founder and Executive Director of Rooted Interiors.

“Our Rooted in Renewal Program not only revitalizes physical spaces but also renews hope and stability for the family who calls this house their home,” she added.

Rooted Interiors offers a lifeline to families in need, empowering them to thrive and succeed in their journey towards independence.

“This journey is not just about creating aesthetically pleasing interiors; it’s about using the language of design to uplift and restore,” said Kristina McCalla, also Lead Interior Designer at Rooted Interiors.

“Rooted in faith and love, each project is a testament to the belief that everyone, regardless of their circumstances, deserves a place that reflects their humanity and worth. By providing a thoughtfully designed and fully furnished home, we aim to empower families to thrive and succeed in their journey towards independence,” she explained.

As Rooted Interiors continues its mission to fully furnish homes for those emerging from homelessness, this project serves as a testament to the organization’s impact and the generosity of its supporters.

Through ongoing partnerships and community engagement, the organization remains committed to building brighter futures for individuals and families in need. For more information about Rooted Interiors and how you can support their mission, visit rootedinteriors.org.

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Business

BRACK: Peachtree Corners to lose Peterbrooke Chocolatier

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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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