Even in tough times, inspiring Atlantans march on, motivate

Marika Chasse of Johns Creek helps out at the Southeast distribution site for Samaritan's Purse Operation Christmas Child. More than 2.1 million shoeboxes filled with gifts will be sent to children throughout the world from this location. (Courtesy of Samaritan's Purse Operation Christmas Child)
Marika Chasse of Johns Creek helps out at the Southeast distribution site for Samaritan's Purse Operation Christmas Child. More than 2.1 million shoeboxes filled with gifts will be sent to children throughout the world from this location. (Courtesy of Samaritan's Purse Operation Christmas Child)

Credit: Picasa

Credit: Picasa

A church ministry in Lawrenceville sent needy children from four area elementary schools home for Christmas with new books after its story inspired a $5,000 donation.

A Westminister High School senior ramped up his two-continent effort to create jobs overseas and masks for Atlanta’s homeless after Inspire Atlanta readers learned of his efforts.

And a Facebook page, created by two Sandy Springs residents, to promote small daily acts of kindness has doubled to nearly 19,000 members in 100 countries since being featured in Inspire Atlanta.

A year and a half after the launch of this regular feature, readers are still responding to these stories of remarkable feats — tales of personal achievement, determination, and selfless acts. And they’re asking for more, especially given the times.

They’ve also been inspired to volunteer, donate time, and cheer from the sidelines, mostly without wanting space in the spotlight for themselves.

Today, we update some of their stories.

Marika Chasse, Operation Christmas Child

Life has been “crazy busy” during the past two months for Marika and Mike Chasse of Johns Creek. In November, the Chasses and their friends surpassed their goal and packed 1,200 shoeboxes for Samaritan’s Purse Operation Christmas Child. And through financial donations and fundraising, they’ve paid off the entire endeavor.

“It’s amazing what happens when a group of like-minded people wants to help,” Marika Chasse said.

Boxes filled with toys and other essentials are sent as Christmas gifts worldwide for children who face hardships. The group had extra items and was able to help four other groups pack boxes.

A donor is providing rental storage for supplies, which are collected year-round. The Chasses had been keeping everything in their home.

“The donation of a storage unit has been an incredible blessing and answered prayers,” Marika Chasse said. “It was much needed as the neighborhood and friends ministry has grown over the last six years.”

The group also volunteers at the Operation Christmas Child Atlanta Processing Center. Despite pain and fatigue from a chronic neurological disorder, Marika Chasse delights in sorting and inspecting shoeboxes, preparing them for shipping overseas and into a child’s arms.

To help: fundraise.samaritanspurse.org/Chasse

Read their original Inspire Atlanta story: Johns Creek neighbors pack 1,000 shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child

Chelesa Fearce, a Clayton County student who overcame homelessness to become her high school class valedictorian in 2013, stands in front of the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University. She is working on her doctorate and a medical degree at the Yale School of Medicine. (Michelle McLoughlin for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Chelesa Fearce, a Clayton County student who overcame homelessness to become her high school class valedictorian in 2013, stands in front of the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University. She is working on her doctorate and a medical degree at the Yale School of Medicine. (Michelle McLoughlin for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Chelesa Fearce, Yale med student

Chelesa Fearce, the once homeless high school student from Clayton County, continues to demonstrate she’s unstoppable.

Fearce just finished the fall semester of her second year at Yale University’s School of Medicine and was home in Atlanta for Christmas break.

“I am doing well,” she said recently.

She said she’s still working on her medical degree and hopes also to obtain a doctorate in chemistry.

“There isn’t much new because a lot of things have been shifted back due to COVID,” Fearce said in a recent email exchange.

Most of her classes are online due to the pandemic. “I do still have to go into the hospital to interact with patients once a week,” she said.

Fearce was one of the first people featured in Inspire Atlanta when it launched in summer 2019. She was just getting ready to start Yale at the time.

Fearce was valedictorian of her class at Clayton County’s Charles R. Drew High School in 2013, with a 4.5 grade-point average. Her family was homeless much of the time she was in high school, and Fearce kept up with her studies reading at night by the stove light in extended-stay motels where her family sometimes lived.

Her academic success in high school landed her a full scholarship to Spelman University, where she graduated in 2017 with a Bachelor of Science in biochemistry. She spent the next two years at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, doing research on drugs for neurological and psychiatric disorders.

In the 2019-2020 school year, Fearce was vice president of Yale’s Medical Student Council.

Read her original Inspire Atlanta story: Homeless valedictorian from Atlanta is at Yale University

Portrait of Jon Saulson with some of his woodworking creations he made in the basement of his Snellville home. When Dr. Saulson retired as an educator, he got into woodworking making toys, puzzles, games, figurines and art out of wood. Numerous people and groups wanted him to do craft shows with them, but it turned his joy into "work." So for the past 10 years, he has donated loads of his creations to several people and agencies that might need them for the children and families they serve. In return, he gets the pure joy, satisfaction, a sense of making others happy. (Phil Skinner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Portrait of Jon Saulson with some of his woodworking creations he made in the basement of his Snellville home. When Dr. Saulson retired as an educator, he got into woodworking making toys, puzzles, games, figurines and art out of wood. Numerous people and groups wanted him to do craft shows with them, but it turned his joy into "work." So for the past 10 years, he has donated loads of his creations to several people and agencies that might need them for the children and families they serve. In return, he gets the pure joy, satisfaction, a sense of making others happy. (Phil Skinner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Jon Saulson, woodworking artist with a giving spirit

Retired educator Jon Saulson of Snellville heard from people all over the country when Inspire Atlanta wrote about his passion for wood-working and giving away his creations in November.

His former co-workers at Gwinnett Public Schools, Oglethorpe University and Mercer University reached out, and so did friends and fraternity brothers from the University of Florida.

People all over the state also offered to send money, saying they realize that woodworking is expensive and they wanted to help. He politely turned them down.

Saulson doesn’t accept money for toys and other creations he makes from wood, even special orders. His reward, he said, is the smiles he sees when he gives his woodworking projects to charities, a child, or someone he meets on the street or at the dentist.

Saulson has transformed the basement of his Snellville home into a workshop, where he puts his woodworking skills to use, creating mostly one-of-a-kind toys and gifts — animals, puzzles, games and figurines. At last count, he had more than 2,300 works in wood ready to distribute this year.

He is happy to take requests from individuals and organizations.

Reach him at yesiwoodbyjon@aol.com.

Read his original Inspire Atlanta story: Retired educator finds ‘pure joy and satisfaction’ in making wood creations for others

Portrait of Patsy Bryan with her daughter, Dr. Charity Bryan, an associate professor at Kennesaw State University at the Marietta Square in Marietta. Patsy Bryan of Marietta founded the nonprofit 10 Women of Hope to give financial assistance to single moms in Cobb County. As a single mom herself, Bryan knows the struggles they face. She often took on extra jobs to make ends meet. (Phil Skinner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Portrait of Patsy Bryan with her daughter, Dr. Charity Bryan, an associate professor at Kennesaw State University at the Marietta Square in Marietta. Patsy Bryan of Marietta founded the nonprofit 10 Women of Hope to give financial assistance to single moms in Cobb County. As a single mom herself, Bryan knows the struggles they face. She often took on extra jobs to make ends meet. (Phil Skinner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Patsy Bryan, 10 Women of Hope

Patsy Bryan of Marietta said she is grateful to be featured in the Inspire Atlanta column in January because it gave her nonprofit more exposure and a boost in fundraising.

“We have had many additional donors as a result of the article, including a wonderful gentleman in New Jersey who has become a monthly donor,” she said.

Ten Women of Hope provides one-time financial help to stable, single-parent families in Cobb County who have a critical need. Bryan founded it because she, too, was once a single parent trying to make it on her own.

“While 2020 has been a challenging year in so many ways, we continue to serve single parents in the Cobb County area through the generous support of those in the metro Atlanta community and beyond,” Bryan said.

“Inspire Atlanta is always an uplifting read, and it is refreshing to read about all of the good things that are occurring in our local communities.”

To help: 10womenofhope.org

Read her original Inspire Atlanta story: Single mom determined to help others raising kids alone

High school senior Azeez Ishaqui donates reusable face masks to the Atlanta Mission, and meets President and CEO Jim Reese. (Courtesy of Azeez Ishaqui)
High school senior Azeez Ishaqui donates reusable face masks to the Atlanta Mission, and meets President and CEO Jim Reese. (Courtesy of Azeez Ishaqui)

Azeez Ishaqui, student helping the poor in two continents

Azeez Ishaqui has seen his India project take off since being in Inspire Atlanta. He’s gotten the attention of additional donors, a global economic development group, and a news magazine.

The Westminster High School senior is raising money to pay people in India to make reusable face masks, which he donates to the homeless in Atlanta. He now has about $2,500 in a GoFundMe account.

For years, Azeez has purchased carts and sewing machines so the poor in India can earn a living.

Due to the article, published in September, Azeez said the International Fund for Economic Development donated $1,000 to his India project. They loved his idea and put his information on their social media.

Through that contact, Khabar Magazine reached out to Azeez and will publish an article he wrote for its February edition. Azeez said he is continuing his project and wants to take it to another level. He’s even asked for a meeting with Gov. Brian Kemp.

“I am proud to say that I would not have received this much recognition for my work if it was not for the Inspire column,” Azeez said.

To help: gofundme.com/f/maskdonationtothepoor

Read his original Inspire Atlanta story: Westminster student helps the poor on two continents

Drew and Valerie Matthews stand on the porch of their Ormewood home with their John Lennon "Love" art display they put up to cheer up their neighbors. They started their first of six different art displays during the first week of the pandemic quarantine in early April. They are donating their first display, featuring the "Mona Lisa," to the Atlanta History Center for a project on the pandemic. (Phil Skinner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Drew and Valerie Matthews stand on the porch of their Ormewood home with their John Lennon "Love" art display they put up to cheer up their neighbors. They started their first of six different art displays during the first week of the pandemic quarantine in early April. They are donating their first display, featuring the "Mona Lisa," to the Atlanta History Center for a project on the pandemic. (Phil Skinner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Drew Matthews, porch artist

Drew Matthews put some of his energy during the pandemic into something to raise the spirits of his neighbors in intown Atlanta’s Ormewood Park.

Matthews created a series of festive porch designs that paid homage to Elvis, Bob Marley, David Bowie and other legends.

One day, after Matthews’ story appeared in Inspire Atlanta in August, a young woman came to the house to see his brightly colored porch creations.

She said she loved his porch décor, especially the tribute to Marley. She had been by before and snapped a picture of the porch for a friend, who is a huge Marley fan and battling cancer in a Jacksonville, Florida, hospital, she told Matthews.

He told her the Marley porch looked better back in the spring and offered to email her a photo. Matthews said that’s when he learned he was talking to Shannon Allman, widow of the legendary Georgia rocker Gregg Alman. That was an unexpected treat for Matthews, a big Allman Brothers fan.

“Not only was the project a boost for the neighborhood but our spirits as well,” he said.

Read his original Inspire Atlanta story: Ormewood Park resident creates porch art to lift community’s spirits

Raven Raines of Alpharetta celebrated her fifth birthday, Dec. 10, 2020. Born with a severe congenital heart disorder, Raven has had six open-heart surgeries, as well as multiple other surgeries and hospitalizations in her short life. (Courtesy of the Raines family)
Raven Raines of Alpharetta celebrated her fifth birthday, Dec. 10, 2020. Born with a severe congenital heart disorder, Raven has had six open-heart surgeries, as well as multiple other surgeries and hospitalizations in her short life. (Courtesy of the Raines family)

Credit: Picasa

Credit: Picasa

Raven Raines, the young girl with a fragile heart

When Diane Hawk Gustafson read the Inspire article last month about Raven Raines, who was born with a congenital heart condition, she said, “It brings joy to my heart. This little girl is a miracle.”

“Having the AJC do a focus feature on her gives others a feel-good opportunity to root for this child who has accomplished so much in her young life,” she said.

Gustafson is a friend of the family, having grown up with Raven’s grandmother, Nell Estes. Raven, who turned 5 on Dec. 10, wasn’t given much chance to survive. She’s endured six open-heart surgeries, the first when she was days old.

The Raineses reside in Alpharetta, and the community rallied around them, providing emotional and financial support through the multiple hospitalizations. Estes said the needs are still significant because of the complex, numerous medical issues, but “Raven’s determination and loving spirit continue to fuel her progress.”

The Raineses still live with extended family because of Raven’s particular needs but have a goal of getting their own home in the next two years.

Gustafson said, “Raven has a special light inside her and a determination to succeed against all odds. I am thankful to know her.”

To help: gofundme.com/f/RNRheart

Read her original Inspire Atlanta story: Young girl battling congenital health issues captures hearts in Alpharetta

Four elementary schools in Lawrenceville were excited to receive books for their students from the First Book Club 165 of Lawrenceville First Baptist Church. Pictured are: Senior Pastor Inman Houston, standing in the truck, receiving a box from Logan Ferrell, student ministry director. Associate Pastor Radu Calibu is in front. (Courtesy of Vicki Aiken)
Four elementary schools in Lawrenceville were excited to receive books for their students from the First Book Club 165 of Lawrenceville First Baptist Church. Pictured are: Senior Pastor Inman Houston, standing in the truck, receiving a box from Logan Ferrell, student ministry director. Associate Pastor Radu Calibu is in front. (Courtesy of Vicki Aiken)

Credit: Picasa

Credit: Picasa

Vicki Aiken, book donations to schools and jails

An Inspire article about a book ministry of the Lawrenceville First Baptist Church brought in more book donations and helped secure a $5,000 Walton EMC grant to purchase new children’s books.

First Book Club 165 gave children in grades K-3 in four Lawrenceville-area schools new books to keep as their own and take home over their winter holiday, said director Vicki Aiken.

“We have never been able to give children new books before or been able to give them books in December. What a blessing,” she said.

Aiken said they have received numerous adult book donations and have given about 3,000 more books to the Gwinnett County Jail since the article came out in May.

“People have been so nice dropping books off by the church. We have met such sweet people,” Aiken added.

Over the past three years, First Book Club 165 has given away more than 150,000 books to more than 10,000 children in neighboring elementary schools serving low-income families.

To help: email bookclub165@gmail.com

Read her original Inspire Atlanta story: Church gives away books to delight of young students

Rich McGuinness and Pat Fiorello created an “Unleashing Kindness” Facebook group. (Phil Skinner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Rich McGuinness and Pat Fiorello created an “Unleashing Kindness” Facebook group. (Phil Skinner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Unleashing Kindness, Atlanta website with international appeal

In a year of record challenges, more people are turning to Unleashing Kindness, an Atlanta-based Facebook page with members around the world.

Inspire Atlanta put the spotlight on Unleashing Kindness, the work of Sandy Springs residents Rich McGuiness and Pat Fiorello, in October 2019. At that time, the group’s Facebook page, which was launched in April 2017, had 12,000 members in 99 countries.

Within a month, the page, which encourages its members to commit to doing small, random acts of kindness, had 3,000 new members. Today, it has 18,900, an increase of more than 50% in 14 months.

How did it get started? McGuiness said he was entering the post office one day and stopped to hold the door for an older woman who was bent over and walking with a cane. He said he thought nothing of it. But she stopped in her tracks and said: “I want you to know that’s the nicest thing to happen to me in a very long time.”

From his cellphone in the post office parking lot, McGuiness called Fiorello, a friend and fellow art lover. They talked about what could be done to encourage even small acts of kindness. And from there, they put together the Facebook page Unleashing Kindness.

Check it out at: Unleashing Kindness | Facebook

Read our original Inspire Atlanta on their efforts: Sandy Springs man’s commitment to kindness attracts thousands

Executive director Camille Gaffron talks about Villa International. For years, volunteers have stepped up to raise money so these doctors, researchers and medical students can stay at deeply discounted rates, some for as long as a year. (Phil Skinner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Executive director Camille Gaffron talks about Villa International. For years, volunteers have stepped up to raise money so these doctors, researchers and medical students can stay at deeply discounted rates, some for as long as a year. (Phil Skinner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Villa International, Clifton Road’s hidden gem

People raised their hands to volunteer after reading in Inspire Atlanta late last February about Villa International, a home-away-from-home for medical workers and students from around the world who are temporarily assigned to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or Emory University’s Rollins School of Medicine.

Then the magnitude of the pandemic came into focus, and those volunteers had to be turned away for safety’s sake, said Camille Gaffron, Villa International’s executive director.

Access to the building on Atlanta’s busy Clifton Road is limited to the villa’s guests and staff.

“With seven of our guests now involved in COVID research, our guests and staff understand and support our precautions,” she said in a recent email. “We miss our volunteers greatly and look forward to brighter days when we can welcome them and our newly interested volunteers to Villa.”

For nearly 50 years, church organizations, civic groups, foundations and private donors have been helping to fund the nonprofit, 33-room Villa International, sometimes referred to by guests as the “Little U.N.”

The guests are charged well-below market rates and can stay for months, depending on their work with the CDC or Emory.

One of the most positive results of the retelling of Villa International’s story by Inspire Atlanta was that it raised public awareness of the facility, which is not visible off busy Clifton Road near Emory.

“Since the article appeared, CDC and Emory folks suddenly see Villa now and put the information together with the property,” Gaffron said.

Read about it at villainternational.org: Villa International | Where The World Comes Home

Read our original Inspire Atlanta on Villa International: Churches, donors help fund Atlanta’s ‘Little U.N.’ born from tragedy

Client Service Manager Phenixx Adams (left) talks with Executive Director Megan Anderson at the Furniture Bank of Metro Atlanta. (Phil Skinner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Client Service Manager Phenixx Adams (left) talks with Executive Director Megan Anderson at the Furniture Bank of Metro Atlanta. (Phil Skinner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Furniture Bank of Metro Atlanta

Executive Director Megan Anderson said the nonprofit saw an increase in financial and furniture donations after being featured in Inspire Atlanta in the spring.

The organization provides basic secondhand home furnishings, like beds, tables and chairs, to families in need. Anderson said this year was especially challenging for those with fewer resources.

“Eating at home every night is harder when you don’t have chairs to sit on and a kitchen table to eat around. Online school is harder when you have to do your work on the floor,” she said.

“Because of the article, we had more individuals contacting us to donate furniture, money and their time to help our clients,” Anderson continued. “From a mattress to $20, every little bit from the community helps us make a house a home.”

To help: furniturebankatlanta.org/donate/

Portrait of Chad Foster with his service dog, Sarge, in his Marietta home. He is a blind man who is a successful business person, who skis downhill and who recently gave a motivational speech at his graduation from Harvard Business School’s leadership program. (Phil Skinner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Portrait of Chad Foster with his service dog, Sarge, in his Marietta home. He is a blind man who is a successful business person, who skis downhill and who recently gave a motivational speech at his graduation from Harvard Business School’s leadership program. (Phil Skinner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Chad Foster, blind at 20

Chad Foster said pre-orders for his upcoming book, “Blind Ambition: How to Go From Victim to Visionary,” started rolling in after his story was featured in Inspire Atlanta last February. Friends, colleagues, and parents from his children’s schools also reached out with well wishes. One of those friends is now filming the trailer for his book.

Foster, a Marietta businessman and married father of two, went blind at 20 from retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic and degenerative eye disease.

“Imagine emerging from that experience seeing everything more clear,” he says. “I don’t have to imagine that. That’s the story of my life.”

He said he hopes through his book, readers can cultivate resilience in their own lives and emerge from 2020 stronger than they were.

Read his original Inspire Atlanta story: Happy because he’s blind

Portrait of Gwendale Boyd-Willis near her Forest Park home. She had a felony conviction 15 years ago, but since then has turned her life around and is now a chaplain. Pro bono legal services through the Georgia Justice Project helped her get a full pardon in August. (Phil Skinner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Portrait of Gwendale Boyd-Willis near her Forest Park home. She had a felony conviction 15 years ago, but since then has turned her life around and is now a chaplain. Pro bono legal services through the Georgia Justice Project helped her get a full pardon in August. (Phil Skinner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Gwendale Boyd-Willis, pardoned

Atlanta chaplain Gwendale Boyd-Willis said she’s heard encouraging words from many after her story of being pardoned for a past felony was published in November.

“I have had many people reach out and share with me how my story has touched their lives, and others not even knowing what I went through and even being incarcerated,” Boyd-Willis said.

Working with an attorney through the Georgia Justice Project, Boyd-Willis was given a full pardon for a 2005 conviction, where she served time for making purchases with a bank card found at an ATM.

Boyd-Willis said she made it “a top priority to overcome the ugly reputation” that followed her for 15 years. She went on to earn three college degrees and certification as a chaplain through a program with Emory University.

Her thanks go to the Georgia Justice Project, attorney Michael Davis, and Bob Jackson, executive director of the Re-Entry Coalition of Carrollton, for helping her move beyond her past.

Read her original Inspire Atlanta story: After 15 years, Atlanta chaplain has redemption

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