Edward Henderson III, a civic leader with Hands on Atlanta’s Discovery Program, catches up with kindergartners Taylor Gresham, left, Darrion Jackson, Princeton Donald and Tylar Walker. (Jenni Girtman / Atlanta Event Photography)

Volunteering for a year of hands-on leadership

Story by Anya Martin. Photos by Jenni Girtman.

Last Oct. 6, for the annual Hands on Atlanta day of service, thousands of volunteers participated in service projects supporting 50 schools and nonprofits, such as building a playground, planting trees and working with seniors. The organization has been pairing service-minded Atlantans with area nonprofits since 1989.

However, some smaller nonprofits have needs that cannot be addressed in one day and often lack sufficient staff to recruit volunteers to accomplish their missions, says Elaine Hudson, nonprofit services associate director for Hands on Atlanta. To address that challenge, Hands on Atlanta developed the Civic Leader program in 2012 with a grant from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation. Hands on Atlanta trains the leaders from a pool of civic-minded applicants who undergo a rigorous screening and interview process.

“These individuals donate a year of their life to service and service leadership — that’s a huge commitment,” Hudson says, “It gives me hope for our society and our future.”

The civic leaders assist 13 nonprofits and also coordinate Hands on Atlanta “Discovery,” twice-monthly Saturday morning science-based enrichment for low-income students at 11 Atlanta, Fulton County and DeKalb County public schools.

We talked to three of the 20 dynamic Hands On Atlanta leaders who served from October 2017 through September 2018, to learn about how they wanted to help out.

Janetha Middleton, Project Open Hand

“Gracefully Giving” and social networking go hand in hand for Janetha Middleton.

When she posts on her “Gracefully Giving” Facebook page, her “At Your Favorite Southern Belle” Instagram or at iamgracefullybroken.com, Middleton doesn’t just show off her latest Lilly Pulitzer maxi-dress. For the past year, she has been using these sites to recruit volunteers and chronicle her own service experiences for Project Open Hand, a nonprofit that provides nutritious meals to seniors and the critically ill.

“I arrive at 9 a.m. and check in the volunteers, assign routes and make sure they have everything in the cooler that’s needed,” says Middleton, who works as pro bono and corporate responsibility assistant in the Atlanta office of law firm Eversheds Sutherland LLP.

At age 25, Middleton is one of the youngest people to serve as a Hands On Atlanta Civic Leader. But she has been volunteering since age 16, when she helped organize a Charleston forum on preventing gun violence as a member of the Mayor’s Youth Committee. She moved to Atlanta to attend Spelman College and started volunteering for Hands on Atlanta after she graduated in 2015. She applied to be a Civic Leader because she wanted to build her leadership skills while serving her community.

One of her favorite moments as a Civic Leader was recruiting a mother who brought along her 5-year-old daughter to deliver meals. “It was moving to see her civically engaging her daughter at such a young age,” Middleton says. “And also when her child is the first person someone who hasn’t had a visitor in over a week is going to see, that’s very meaningful.”

Middleton plans to continue supporting Project Open Hand as a volunteer and also volunteers with the Hands on Atlanta Discovery program.

Edward Henderson III, Discovery

Every other Saturday in Scott Elementary’s Discovery program, an average of 25-30 students took part in such activities as coding, robotics and drawing basic geometric shapes on iPads, with a mid-morning recess break.

Except one little boy kept misbehaving — throwing books and kicking chairs. The volunteer leading the session called on civic leader Edward Henderson III for help. He quizzed the fidgety second grader about whether he was having a disagreement with the other kids or if he didn’t enjoy the activities. Then Henderson offered the boy an orange and a sandwich.

“He only wanted half the sandwich but then he was back to normal,” Henderson says. “He was just hungry — that’s all it was.”

Henderson learned early about the connection between meals and educational performance while volunteering at age 12. He helped his grandmother Constance Ratliff serve lunch to inner city children who attended St. James Apostolic Faith Church in Baltimore, where Ratliff was pastor. That experience, as well as the inspiration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., planted the seeds for a life that makes time for community service, Henderson says. His day job is senior vice president for Operation Hope, a nonprofit provider of financial literacy and economic empowerment programs in the United States and North Africa.

He found Hands On Atlanta’s Discovery Program to be an ideal fit given his 17 years work experience in the technology sector. The volunteers he supervised included AmeriCorps staff as well as college students and corporate volunteers.

“If we don’t invest in children’s education, they will be left behind,” Henderson says. “You can make a difference in a child’s life.”

After his term ended, Henderson split his “civic duty” between Hands on Atlanta’s Discovery program and political service on the Executive Committee for State of Georgia Strategy Committee.

Beverly Nance, InCommunity

Beverly Nance kicked off her year as civic leader for InCommunity on 2017’s Hands on Atlanta Day. She supervised a group of about 50 volunteers to clean, paint and install a new wheelchair ramp and handrails, rehabilitating the nonprofit’s Roswell location, one of several Atlanta-area residences for adults with disabilities. InCommunity also provides day programs and other community-based assistance.

“It’s really important for [InCommunity] houses to look just as good as their neighbors’ houses and fit into the community,” Nance says. “It’s important to have [the residents] matter in their community and be out in that community.”

Stepping up to be a Civic Leader was the perfect fit for Nance, who wanted something fulfilling to do with her spare time when she retired as a mail processor with the US Postal Service. Her 25-year-old daughter Tylar is autistic, and Nance, author of the nonfiction book “Take Care: Caring for Yourself While Caring for Others,” wanted to give something back after all the support she has received.

However, she had ranked InCommunity as her third choice for a leadership commitment because of fear it would be too “emotional,” since her daughter might one day need to live in such a home. Instead, the experience gave her hope and a new perspective on the concept of autistic adults in group housing.

“It turned out to be a really heartwarming and fun project for me, and the people I’ve met are fantastic,” Nance says.

Most of her monthly leader activities were similar home renovations, but the last two involved playing Bingo with members of InCommunity’s Our Place day program. Nance’s favorite memory was when three vans arrived to help with a rehab effort, carrying 15 members of Strawbridge United Methodist Church in Kingwood, Texas.

“I thought, wow, they traveled all that way to beautify this home!” says Nance, who continues to volunteer with InCommunity and with Hands on Atlanta.

Hands on Atlanta, 600 Means St., Suite 100. 404-979-2800. handsonatlanta.org

Insider tip

Not sure what nonprofit is a good fit for you? Hands on Atlanta has an online quiz to find volunteer projects using keywords, as well as a calendar to identify them by date. Visit handsonatlanta.org.

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