Gwinnett nonprofit ‘bridging the gap’ by helping teens explore careers, donating food and supplies

Kevin Freeman (left) and Leonard Russell (right) look at eye glasses while visiting First Class Eye Care in Duluth so they can learn about optometry. They were there as part of the "Bridging the Gap" program through nonprofit Gwinnett Chatt Outreach. Ryan Cox founded the nonprofit last year that mostly donates food and other supplies and furthers community relations with the police. But the "Bridging the Gap" program takes groups of high school students around to different businesses around Gwinnett County to show them different career opportunities. 
PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
Kevin Freeman (left) and Leonard Russell (right) look at eye glasses while visiting First Class Eye Care in Duluth so they can learn about optometry. They were there as part of the "Bridging the Gap" program through nonprofit Gwinnett Chatt Outreach. Ryan Cox founded the nonprofit last year that mostly donates food and other supplies and furthers community relations with the police. But the "Bridging the Gap" program takes groups of high school students around to different businesses around Gwinnett County to show them different career opportunities. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Kevin Freeman, a sophomore at Paul Duke STEM High School in Norcross, feels pressured to choose a career. At only 16 years old, he’s still unsure what he wants to do, but he enjoys traveling and being creative.

“I’ve been asked since 12 what I want to do,” Freeman said. “Growing up, I want to do this thing, but then people keep criticizing me to do another thing. From personal experience, people want you to figure it out so you can always stick on that plan.”

Ryan Cox, founder of nonprofit Gwinnett Chatt Outreach, hopes to take some of this pressure off teenagers like Freeman. As part of his “Bridging the Gap” program, Cox takes local high schoolers and young adults to businesses in their own backyard to explore career options.

On Thursday, Cox took Freeman and Leonard Russell, a 21-year-old who attended Brookwood High School, to First Class Eye Care in Duluth to learn about optometry as a potential career. Cox’s wife, LaShanta, served as a test patient for the day, getting a contact prescription while staff explained the process and took questions from the group.

“We’re connecting Gwinnett teenagers with Gwinnett businesses,” Ryan Cox said. “We bring the teenagers in and allow them to see what it’s like to work in different industries, exposing them to career options they may not have thought about.”

Kevin Freeman, Ryan Cox, Leonard Russell & LaShanta Cox (left to right) listen to Thasin Wahid explain an eye test machine at First Class Eye Care in Duluth. Ryan Cox founded the nonprofit Gwinnett Chatt Outreach last year that mostly donates food and other supplies and furthers community relations with the police. But one of its programs is called "Bridging the Gap," where he takes a group of high school students around to different businesses around Gwinnett County to show them different career opportunities. 
PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
Kevin Freeman, Ryan Cox, Leonard Russell & LaShanta Cox (left to right) listen to Thasin Wahid explain an eye test machine at First Class Eye Care in Duluth. Ryan Cox founded the nonprofit Gwinnett Chatt Outreach last year that mostly donates food and other supplies and furthers community relations with the police. But one of its programs is called "Bridging the Gap," where he takes a group of high school students around to different businesses around Gwinnett County to show them different career opportunities. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Besides help from his wife and occasional volunteers, Cox largely runs and self-funds the nonprofit by himself from his Dacula home, relying on donations and merchandise sales. He kicked off the nonprofit’s efforts in February last year, donating food and other supplies and holding events to further community relations with law enforcement, in addition to the “Bridging the Gap” program.

Many people assume the “Chatt” part of the nonprofit’s name is a reference to the Chattahoochee River, Cox said, but it’s actually an homage to his hometown of Chattanooga.

Growing up in the eastern area of the Tennessee town, Cox was bused to school 45 minutes away. He noticed the nice lifestyles of his peers, whose parents worked as engineers at a nuclear plant and drove expensive cars. He aspired to live in an affluent neighborhood one day, but with a mission to give back to the less fortunate, he said.

Cox moved to metro Atlanta to attend Le Cordon Bleu’s culinary college in Tucker. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he left his most recent culinary job as a chef at a medical college in Suwanee. He had an option to return to work, but instead put all his energy into his nonprofit.

While shopping at Home Depot, Cox encountered a woman who couldn’t afford a box fan. He paid for it, giving him the idea to donate 100 box fans and water to people during an event at Lawrenceville City Hall. It only took him a little over an hour to hand them all out, he said.

A few weeks ago, Cox delivered more than 100 boxes of baby supplies to Gwinnett families in need. He personally delivered about 50 of them, with five volunteers delivering the rest.

So far, Cox has taken six groups of high schoolers to different businesses as part of his program. The businesses sponsor the students, paying for their visit, lunch and T-shirt. He currently lets five or six high schoolers sign up for each day, but he hopes to take anywhere from 10-15 students once the days of social distancing are gone.

Paul Duke STEM High School student Kevin Freeman (left) struggles to see through special glasses while Ryan Cox watches at First Class Eye Care in Duluth. Ryan Cox founded the nonprofit Gwinnett Chatt Outreach last year that mostly donates food and other supplies and furthers community relations with the police. But one of its programs is called "Bridging the Gap," where he takes teenagers and young adults around to different businesses around Gwinnett County to show them different career opportunities. 
PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
Paul Duke STEM High School student Kevin Freeman (left) struggles to see through special glasses while Ryan Cox watches at First Class Eye Care in Duluth. Ryan Cox founded the nonprofit Gwinnett Chatt Outreach last year that mostly donates food and other supplies and furthers community relations with the police. But one of its programs is called "Bridging the Gap," where he takes teenagers and young adults around to different businesses around Gwinnett County to show them different career opportunities. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

As a father of twin 8-year-olds, Cox said he makes sure to teach them the importance of giving back to their community. It’s not uncommon to see his boy and girl help out at donations, he said.

“It’s amazing that they get to see their dad in that light,” LaShanta Cox said. “They get to learn from him the importance of community and serving, (like) we talk about in our home. They understand it, but the fact they can witness him doing it, I’m hoping that it’ll be a characteristic they keep and take with them.”

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