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.
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.
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 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.
Local Indie Author Day is Coming Back to Gwinnett County Public Library Branches
Gwinnett County Public Library looks forward to celebrating Local Indie Author Day on Saturday, November 4, 2023.
The library invites independent local authors to showcase their works with author talks, readings, book sales and signings each year. This event aims to unite libraries, indie authors and readers throughout our community.
Multiple library branches are hosting author talks or author panels. Participating branches include:
- Buford-Sugar Hill,
- Five Forks,
- Norcross and
Local Indie Author Day will begin at the Duluth Library branch at 2:30 p.m. and features authors Stella Beaver, Chere’ Coen, Tamara Anderson and Cassandra Kempe-Ho.
The Norcross Library branch will host its showcase at 3:30 p.m. with authors Linda Sands and M.W. McKinley.
Check the library’s event calendar for author information and times. All events are free and open to the public. For questions or comments, contact Duﬃe Dixon, Director of Marketing and Communications for Gwinnett County Public Library at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click here to explore more public library events happening in November.
Good Grief: Life After Loss, Part 3
Losing Our Furry Friends
The conclusion of my “Good Grief” series seemed ideal in this issue featuring pets and their people. Paris Hilton lost her beloved chihuahua this year. In a farewell tribute on Instagram, the socialite wrote, “In 23 amazing years, she brought endless love, loyalty, and unforgettable moments to my life.”
Some may not understand — eye rolls may ensue — but fellow pet people know all too well that losing a companion animal is just as heartbreaking as losing a human loved one.
“The pain I feel right now is indescribable,” Hilton posted.
Yet our cultural playbook is devoid of any protocols for those mourning pets. There are no pet obituaries, no official rituals or religious ceremonies to support us through the loss of a fur baby. When such perfectly normal and deep emotions can be considered a mere overreaction by some people in our own tribe, one could argue that losing a pet is even more difficult.
The ultimate interspecies bond
Though domestic companions can be scale or feather-covered too, I spoke to the bereaved owners of the furry variety.
Thousands of years of evolution have led to dogs morphing from the wild wolves they once were into man’s best friend, able to read our emotions and willing to sit, bark, roll over and play dead on command – all to please us. If you’re not a pet owner yourself, you’re sure to have friends with pets.
Max, tennis ball chaser extraordinaire
Long before Matt and Faith Harding had children, they had their dogs, Jazzy and Max, who were part of their lives for over 11 years. Losing them was hard.
“We lost Max and Jazzy within a year of each other. We had to put Jazzy down because she was older and suffering. It was the right thing to do. What made it more difficult with Max was that it was so unexpected,” Matt said.
The Hardings had been treating Max, who suffered from seizures common to Belgian Malinois. They were able to keep the seizures under control for years.
What makes a grown man cry
It was a week like any other. Faith had gone out of town. The kids and Max were left in Matt’s care. Max chased tennis balls in the backyard. There were no warning signs that something was about to go terribly wrong.
Matt found Max in his kennel when he came home one evening. It looked as though he’d had a seizure — like those he’d recovered from many times before. Matt rinsed him off and brought him back inside.
When Matt came downstairs after putting his daughter down for a nap, Max drew his last couple of breaths and passed away. “He waited for me to come back,” Matt said.
Having to call Faith to share the sad news while she was traveling was heartbreaking. “After the initial shock and plenty of tears, you’re stuck with trying to figure out what to do next,” Matt said.
With their baby on one arm and their wailing toddler holding his hand, Matt walked the kids over to the neighbors’ house. The only thing he could utter was, “Please watch them.” Seeing his tear-streaked face, his neighbor took the children without hesitation.
“I had to text her and let her know what was happening. I could not even get words out of my mouth. They were a huge help and very sympathetic to what was happening,” Matt shared.
Maximize the memories
What helped the Hardings most was looking at pictures and reminiscing about their “incredible dog,” Max.
“He loved people. Plenty of people reached out to tell me some of their favorite memories with him and I couldn’t help but smile and laugh at how he left an impression on so many,” Matt said.
Conversely, Matt viewed the act of putting away the dog beds, bowls and toys as an admission that Max was now just a memory. “I couldn’t bring myself to do it,” Matt confided.
“The loss of Max is still hard to think about. Faith and I budget. We have a line item for Max. We were doing the budget a couple of nights ago and couldn’t bring ourselves to remove him as a line item,” Matt said. “Thank you for letting me share our story.”
Before Sandra Hutto and her siblings could spread their parents’ ashes, she was faced with the sudden death of her 11-year-old Doberman, Rio.
Three losses in rapid succession were a hard knock-back for Hutto. She is grateful for supportive friends and being able to process her grief with the help of her husband Mark, a psychiatrist.
According to Hutto, sharing stories about her parents was as helpful in dealing with her loss as it was funny. “There were things I didn’t know. It was fascinating,” she said. “Family stories are important. Apparently, my mother was kind of a floozy,” she laughed.
Her aunt had shared about her mother misleading a boy to spend a day at the lake. When he asked her out, she claimed to have gotten a headache from all the sun. But later, she called another boy about going to a movie.
Hutto advised, “You have shared stories and individual stories. You can let that isolate you or bring you closer. You could say, “That wasn’t my experience, I’m shutting it out,” but it lets you know more about your parents. They have stories from before you were born.”
Dad and the Doberman Pinscher
Before her father’s passing, Hutto and her husband took her dad on a road trip to Wyoming, along with Rio, in their 1993 Bluebird Wanderlodge to visit her sister. Unsure how her father would take to such a big dog, she was pleased when they bonded.
“He fell in love with her. Rio would get up in the middle of the night to lay down next to him. I joked with dad, “You know daddy, we do keep the dog.””
After he died, people said, “That trip was great for him. He never stopped talking about how much fun he had.” That was heartwarming,” Hutto said.
She danced on the sand
An American Kennel Club purebred dog, Rio’s registered name is, She Dances on the Sand, after the Duran Duran song.
Bred in Germany to be the intimidating protectors of tax collectors, Dobermans are strong, intelligent dogs, able to attack on command. Rio didn’t exactly fit the bill. Terrified of a neighborhood Yorkie, she’d watch him as she cowered behind Hutto.
Her tail was docked but she had natural, floppy ears. She wasn’t steely-looking, but she did have a big bark. “Mostly she would try to convince people that she was neglected. She was a drama queen; such a good, funny dog,” Hutto said.
Rio passed almost exactly the same way their previous Doberman, Jet had. (Jet was named after the Paul McCartney and Wings song.) Though Rio had a longer life, Hutto expressed the common sentiment among pet-owners: it’s never long enough.
Rio had received a clean bill of health and a rabies shot that day. By the evening, she was restless and wouldn’t settle in her bed. Mark had gone out.
“She got up and started walking around. She walked into our dining room, went around the table, her back feet collapsed from under her. She struggled to get up. She howled a couple of times and she was gone,” Hutto said.
Hutto believes cardiac arrhythmia killed both Jet and Rio. Heart issues are common in Dobermans, partly because of breeding and because they’re deep-chested dogs.
“Not again!” Hutto remembers shrieking as she witnessed Rio’s passing. Jet had passed away in the same manner, but she was with Mark. The swift but horrible departure allows for the only consolation, “at least she didn’t suffer.”
A Dobie’s departure
After the ordeal of burying 70-pound Jet in the rain, the Huttos decided to have Rio cremated. They were pleased with Deceased Pet Care, Inc. in Chamblee.
“They were kind, empathetic and respectful. They knew we were in pain. They took good care of her, made a point to tell us that they cremate each dog individually, and gave us her paw print in clay,” Hutto recounted.
“Peachtree Forest is the neighborhood to live in if you want to come back as a dog. People here love their dogs. They’ll greet your dog — and then they’ll say hi to you,” Hutto chuckled. When neighbors learned about Rio’s passing, some sent sympathy cards.
Hutto was almost thankful for a sprained knee shielding her for a while from the inevitable moment she takes her first walk alone and people will ask, “Where’s Rio?”
“I’ll probably bawl in the street,” she predicted.
Able to better prepare for losing her parents, Hutto remarked that her grief journey is different for Rio because it was so sudden. “It was a shock and harder in some ways. It’s important to talk about it so people see you can get through it,” she said.
When they’re ready, the Huttos plan to get another Doberman. “I’m going to name her Roxanne. You’re not going to be able to help yourself when you call her. You’re going to have to do the song,” she said.
Paw prints on our hearts
Pets are not “just animals,” as some may be tempted to say when we lose them. For those who form strong bonds with our four-legged friends, they become part of our favorite routines, our protégés, our sweetest companions, delighting us daily with joy and unconditional affection; they become family.
If the emotional connections we can form with pets are virtually indistinguishable from those we form with people, it stands to reason that pet bereavement can be on par with the grief we experience for our cherished, human loved ones. Let’s remember to be kind to those grieving the loss of their pets.
Teen Cancer Survivor Aims to Raise Funds for Research
When Lex Stolle was 10 years old, he started behaving in ways that weren’t like the energetic pre-teen.
“There were a lot of things that just weren’t right, like I wasn’t eating well. I was losing a lot of weight; I had fluid in my lungs. There were just so many problems that ultimately did lead to my diagnosis,” he said referring to high risk acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALS.
The medical team initially told Stolle’s family that there would be three and a half years of intense chemotherapy. At that time, they didn’t have a complete diagnosis.
“Additionally, I would have 10 months of going in every week, taking lots of shots and pills,” he said. “And then if I ever had a fever, I would have to stay in the hospital for days, weeks or even months.”
However, updated research allowed Stolle to have a year cut off his chemotherapy.
“In total, I took over 2,000 chemotherapy pills. I had about 36 spinal taps, which is where they stick a needle in my spine to send chemo to my brain. …I spent over 50 nights in the hospital. I missed 163 days of school and my fifth-grade year,” he lamented — but doesn’t feel sorry for himself.
Ask him how he’s doing now.
“I’m awesome! I finished treatment in January of 2022. I’m a year and a half out of treatment and I’m feeling a lot better. I still go in every few months, and then I’ll have to go in every year for, I think, the rest of my life,” he said. “And I’ve started to get back into the shape that I was in — but it’s still hard to be a teenager.”
Paying the blessings forward
Stolle’s cancer journey began in 2019. Now at 14 years old, he wants to do what he can to keep the deadly disease from other kids.
“I have always had a passion for helping others, and especially with my cancer, I know what it’s like to be put through everything I went through. I don’t want any kid to have to suffer, let alone someone younger,” he said. “So I decided to do this project last year just for Peachtree Corners.”
He’s talking about his brainchild, Cancer Cards.
“Seeing so many kids go through what I did really got to me, and I felt the urge to make a difference. That’s how the idea for Cancer Cards came about. …They’re about the size of a credit card and they hold special discounts (between 15% off meals to free appetizers) for 9 to 12 local businesses.”
This year, he’s gone beyond Peachtree Corners to include cards exclusive to Milton/Alpharetta, Marietta, Buckhead and Athens. The cards are $25 each and the money raised goes to the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta — the same place where Stolle received his treatment.
“We are so proud and honored to have Lex Stolle’s support of the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta,” said Lydia Stinson of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Foundation. “After three long years of undergoing chemotherapy treatment, Lex was inspired to give back to help kids like him, and he has been determined to give back to Children’s in so many ways.”
The lengths that Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta went to keep his spirits up — therapy dogs, clowns, etc. — made many of his worse days some of his best, Stolle said.
“I raised around $500 last year, but this year, I’m hoping to raise a little over $90,000,” he added.
Stolle hopes the funds can help wipe out childhood cancers. “I want one day for my grandkids to not even have to think about getting cancer, or if they do get cancer, that it can be a very easy treatment,” he said.
Cancer cards are on sale now and are active through May 25, 2024. They can be purchased online at cancercard.net.
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