Real People: Head of Buckhead nonprofit sees needy in city’s wealthiest enclave
By H.M. Cauley
Helen Cunningham’s job as the executive director of the Buckhead Christian Ministry means implementing the 25-year-old nonprofit’s main mission: to meet the emergency needs of food and shelter for the area’s needy. After 10 years on the job, she finds it’s still a task that occasionally raises eyebrows of those who wonder what constitutes “needy” in the city’s wealthiest enclave.
“That question is still out there,” said Cunningham. “But the need is still there. Among the wealthy, wonderful homes of Buckhead are the apartments for the workers: the people who are the gardeners, the baristas, the janitor in your office building, and they are in need.”
Cunningham makes her point by sharing the story of a volunteer who worked with a woman looking for assistance. After talking for some time, the volunteer was surprised when the woman asked, “How is your son?”
“The volunteer was startled and asked how the woman knew her son,” said Cuningham. “And the woman told her, ‘I work in the bakery where you bring him every day after school for cookies.’ People come to BCM every day who work at the airport, major restaurants, even Delta who are at the end of their means, right here in Buckhead. Most are low-income, hourly workers or workers whose jobs have become part-time. They’re working, but not enough, and having a hard time finding work.”
A veteran social worker, Cunningham came to BCM after relocating to Atlanta from St. Louis. Under her leadership, BCM expanded its service area beyond Buckhead and into 15 ZIP codes from Doraville to Fulton Industrial Boulevard. A new building on Piedmont Road was opened, and programs on financial literacy and money management were created to help clients become self-sufficient. Last month, 20 households that participated in the money seminar retired a collective debt total of $60,000.
Cunningham has also built stronger connections between organizations, neighborhoods and churches.
“We now have three times as many donors and twice as many volunteers as when I started,” she said. “We have about 320 active volunteers who work with clients, man our help line, coach and teach.”
The budget has doubled in her decade to its current $1.7 million, with another $500,000 of donated food, clothing and services. Last year, BCM received a $1 million grant to start an endowment that will provide a solid footing for the organization’s future.
“One of the first jobs I had here was to build a new building, and to me, it was symbolic of growing a ministry that can serve more people and have more volunteers,” said Cunningham. “Part of my journey has been to create the footprint we want to have in Atlanta. I’m lucky to be part of an organization that is so open to looking for ways to be hopeful for the future, that says, ‘If you can think of a solution, we can figure out a way to implement it.’ Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?”
Information about BCM is online at buckheadchristianministry.org; 404-239-0058.
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