Avid thrift shoppers visiting the Community Assistance Center’s Sandy Springs boutique would be surprised about what goes on behind the scenes.
As busy volunteers take in donated clothing and other items for the selling floor, more workers receive thousands of pounds of bread, fruits and vegetables in another area. That’s for the pantry, in another part of the building where CAC clients shop for food.
It’s a successful operation for the center that assists 5,600 people in financial need living in Sandy Springs and Dunwoody.
CAC’s “Building Hope” capital campaign of $2.4 million helped the organization to buy an additional building last June. They moved into the rent-to-own space in 2016, expanding on its office located a few miles away on Hightower Trail. Staff at that location continues to interview prospective clients and run special programs, says Debbie Olson, store manager.
“The thrift store was 900 square feet in the other building,” she adds. “To be on Roswell Road now where 36,000 cars drive by every day is huge.
“While our clients can shop here for free, the more the public is aware of us and can shop here the better. The income that comes to CAC is able to pay someone’s rent or utility bill.”
In addition to a wide variety of apparel, such items as jewelry, books and furniture are sold at the boutique. As donations come in through the side of the building, volunteers called “treasure hunters” sort and arrange them like any stockroom at a shopping mall. The volunteers decide what to keep and give away to other organizations.
“They [place clothing on hangars] that’s in season that can be priced,” Olson says. “We keep others for the winter season. Our standards are very high. We want everyone to have the best shopping experience that they can. We’re almost a consignment store at thrift store prices.”
The Community Assistance Center’s hundreds of rotating volunteers are an integral part of its success.
Back in 2006, when volunteer Marion Rivers joined CAC, the organization was a year into its capital campaign to purchase the building on Hightower Trail in order to accommodate its growing client administration, food pantry and thrift shop.
“This new building is dramatic,” says Rivers, who assists with sorting thousands of pounds of food that CAC receives from such places as Publix and Trader Joe’s.
Food donations, alone, require lifting and moving items from here to there, stocking and organizing.
“We can now see what we are doing,” Rivers adds. “In the other building we were in the basement. We couldn’t see what we were doing. Here it’s bright. It’s comfortable. It’s airy. It’s easy to get in and out of.”
On any given day, the food pantry is likely to receive 1,000 pounds of food from one market, 200 pounds of bread from another.
“[Atlanta] Jewish Academy is renovating its kitchen and just brought everything in its freezer,” says Gail Pennington, food pantry manager. “We get thousands of pounds of food per day,”
The spacious food receiving and sorting area has 10 freezers and five refrigerators for short-term holding and storage. Items are labeled according to when they came in and when they will go to the food pantry.
“We are able to do things in a methodical way,” Rivers says. “It’s a staging area. The food we got today, we do not use yet. We are preparing for tomorrow’s client.”
The food pantry has 50-60 visiting families per day. After being interviewed at the Hightower Trail offices, clients receive vouchers for food and clothing to shop in the boutique and mini-market.
“Clients can select whatever they want and need for their family,” Olson says. “There is a formula for pounds. It’s all based on family size. So you can pick up so many pounds of items per family.”
To stock the pantry, members of food rescue organization Second Helpings Atlanta pick up food from supermarkets and deliver them to the Sandy Springs nonprofit. The Community Assistance Center also has a major winter holiday food drive, as well as a Food ‘n’ Fun Challenge in the spring, in which corporations, churches and local organizations donate food items.
“We’re able to collect the equivalent of 50,000 pounds of food in May to help keep the shelves full for the summer,” Olson says.
Public donations of every kind are always welcome. The food pantry runs low on canned fruits, canned meats, baby diapers and formula.
“Food scarcity is an issue in Sandy Springs and Dunwoody,” Olson says. “People have food, they just don’t have enough food. About 80 percent of the people we serve are telling us they have to skip a meal per day.
“We reach 5,000 people, but 15 percent of Sandy Springs’ population is 15,000 people. So part of this expansion allows us to expand our reach and get assistance to all of those who need it. We are neighbors helping neighbors.”
Community Assistance Center volunteers often work three-hour shifts, sometime more and sometimes less. Volunteers range in age from teenagers to retirees. Some are parent and child duos. Former clients have returned to volunteer also.
CAC’s summer lunch program provided families with a month’s supply of brown bag meals for their children. Each bag contained five meals plus a snack.
Staff and volunteers filled 700 backpacks for students returning to school this year.
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