Retiring director grew North Fulton charity from ‘bare-bones’ business operation

Tamara Carrera started as a volunteer at Community Assistance Center and was hired as director four years later. According the organization, she increased the charity’s operating budget from $24,000 when she arrived 23 years ago, to $5 million this year.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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Tamara Carrera started as a volunteer at Community Assistance Center and was hired as director four years later. According the organization, she increased the charity’s operating budget from $24,000 when she arrived 23 years ago, to $5 million this year. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Shortly after the start of the pandemic, Tamara Carrera and the nonprofit she leads, Community Assistance Center, began negotiating with apartment complexes to forgive late rent payments to help people stay in their homes. In May, Carrera went before the Sandy Springs City Council to advocate for families in need and asking for financial help from city leaders.

Newly out of work, many residents with previously comfortable incomes had already gone through their savings, she told the council. Former clients who had found steady work years ago were returning for assistance. And there were the medically fragile to consider, Carrera said.

“We’re busy and we’re moving as fast as we can,” she said. “We really, really appreciate all the support of the city. Obviously we would not be able to do what we do without the support of the community giving the support to families that need it.”

That night, Sandy Springs City Council approved a $100,000 grant to the Community Assistance Center.

Carrera said they were racing then — and are still today — to keep up with the needs of people suffering.

It may be the busiest, most demanding year yet for Community Assistance Center, but it is also the last for Carrera, who is retire early next year after 23 years as its director.

The Community Assistance Center (CAC) provides food and financial assistance to people experiencing hardship. In her work as executive director, Carrera’s commitment to the more than 3,400 families CAC serves in Sandy Springs and Dunwoody has been clear to city leaders and residents.

“She was a dream to work with,” said Sharon Kraun, Sandy Springs communication director. “Because she understood the concerns that she was hearing in the community and the population that she was serving.”

“There are a lot of stories you take home with you,” Carrera said recently. “Stories where you did well and were able to change things for a family. Or stories where you tried and helped a little but not enough.”

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In 2018, Community Assistance Center volunteers Mort Epstein, center, and Lori Proctor, right, helped customer Alexander Boguslavskiy check out at the food pantry on Roswell Road in Sandy Springs (JASON GETZ/SPECIAL TO THE AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz

In 2018, Community Assistance Center volunteers Mort Epstein, center, and Lori Proctor, right, helped customer Alexander Boguslavskiy check out at the food pantry on Roswell Road in Sandy Springs  (JASON GETZ/SPECIAL TO THE AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz

Combined ShapeCaption
In 2018, Community Assistance Center volunteers Mort Epstein, center, and Lori Proctor, right, helped customer Alexander Boguslavskiy check out at the food pantry on Roswell Road in Sandy Springs (JASON GETZ/SPECIAL TO THE AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Since it was formed by clergy from 10 faith organizations in 1987, CAC has assisted nearly 20,000 families in Sandy Springs and Dunwoody.

This year, CAC has received $3.5 million in donations and grants from private organizations, the federal government, Fulton and DeKalb counties and Sandy Springs and Dunwoody, as well as in-kind donations worth $1.5 million, CAC Communications Director Kristen Ristino said. The overall budget increased by about $2 million in 2020 due to the pandemic, she added.

The funds have helped CAC allot $2,500 to each needy family during the pandemic. Carrera said the set amount allows the nonprofit to help more families. According to the organization, during her years as director Carrera increased the charity’s operating budget from $24,000 to $5 million this year.

Motivated to make a difference

Carrera was born in Ecuador and came to the U.S. at age 17 to pursue a degree in biology at Manhattanville College in New York, and said she considered medical school but student loans for foreign students were hard to come by. Instead, Carrera decide to obtain an MBA in nonprofit management.

“I didn’t want a regular MBA because I do not get motivated by money,” she said. “My motivation is making a difference, making a change.” Carrera and her husband Carlos Diaz moved to Atlanta with their family in 1991.

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Tamara Carrera (left), longtime CEO of the Community Assistance Center speaks with Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul (right) as she updates him on the progress of the center in Sandy Springs. The city has provided grants to CAC during the pandemic. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Tamara Carrera (left), longtime CEO of the Community Assistance Center speaks with Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul (right) as she updates him on the progress of the center in Sandy Springs. The city has provided grants to CAC during the pandemic.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Tamara Carrera (left), longtime CEO of the Community Assistance Center speaks with Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul (right) as she updates him on the progress of the center in Sandy Springs. The city has provided grants to CAC during the pandemic. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

CAC was a bare-bones operation when the now East Cobb resident started as executive director six years later, said former board president Laura DeLong. Offices were located in an outbuilding on the grounds of Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church. Meetings were held in a room where clothing donations were hung on racks all around them, DeLong said.

“We had no staff at that point,” DeLong said. “It was an all-volunteer effort except for her being with us.

Today, more than two decades later, the charity has four buildings, including a thrift boutique, a10,000-square-foot hub that houses a mini-market food pantry for clients, plus a spacious food receiving and sorting area with 10 freezers and five refrigerators.

Carrera said the charity has grown organically, but also by tracking trends and economic reasons why people have moved into hardship. She saw an influx of people move into the Atlanta area after the 1996 Olympic Games, as well as Sandy Springs and Dunwoody because of service jobs at restaurants and hotels.

“As time goes by, we are seeing people with higher incomes because what little nest egg that they were able to create has eroded,” Carrera said of people seeking help this year.

Carrera’s peers say her love and dedication to her work has been a major influence on CAC’s growth and relationships in the community.

“There were several occasions where we would be in a staff meeting and there would be stories of clients and their plight.” CAC Development Director Pam Jones said. “Just the concern and care and emotions spoke to me. Here you have a brilliant operations manager and to have that human emotion come through, relating with empathy to (each) family and their plight.”

Carrera set a new standard of having clients choose their own groceries in the mini-market rather than handing out pre-packaged meals and other items, board member Nancy Berger said.

When she retires, Carrera plans to move to Washington D.C. with her husband . Carrera admits one of the most satisfying aspects of her time at CAC has been creating core values of compassion, respect and honesty.

“It would really take a lot to erase that,” she said. “The whole energy of making a difference. It’s organic. You feel like you’re making something good. We’re not just sitting idle and not doing something.”