The Community Assistance Center cut the ribbon May 1 on an expanded facility – including a larger, customer-friendly food pantry — that the nonprofit says will increase its mission of preventing homelessness and hunger in Dunwoody and Sandy Springs.

And there’s more expansion to come for the 30-year-old organization, as a long-awaited satellite office in southern Sandy Springs is expected to open in about a month. Advocates say that is all crucial help in a time of growing suburban poverty.

Tamara Carrera, chief executive officer of the Community Assistance Center, and Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul cut the ribbon on the expanded CAC facility at 8607 Roswell Road May 1. (John Ruch)

“This is a dream come true,” said Tamara Carrera, the CAC’s chief executive officer, during the grand opening of the expanding facility at 8607 Roswell Road in Sandy Springs. Since 2016, the address has been known for housing the CAC Boutique, a thrift store that is a major funding stream, but the building is much larger than it appears from the street and includes the newly expanded, 14,000-square-foot facilities in the rear.

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul said the facility will be a “great beacon and icon of the community” as he joined Carrera in cutting the ribbon on a door above which is painted novelist Amelia Barr’s quote, “Kindness is always fashionable, and always welcome.”

Goods on the shelves in the CAC’s new market-style food pantry. (John Ruch)

“It’s all about the community,” Paul said of his city’s volunteer efforts, including “the least, lost and left behind in our community, in some cases.”

Rabbi Ron Segal of Sandy Springs’ Temple Sinai and Rev. Dan Brown of Dunwoody United Methodist Church gave prayers focused on the equality of all people and the responsibility of serving others in need.

Segal praised the CAC’s work as “sacred efforts” in the “pursuit of justice” and hoped it will “inspire us to change the structures that make others hunger.”

Brown prayed that, “In days to come, may this become a one of the symbols of justice… that is rolling down like a river.”

Milton Little Jr., president of the United Way of Greater Atlanta, gives the keynote speech at the CAC opening. (John Ruch)

Milton Little Jr., president of the United Way of Greater Atlanta, gave a keynote speech in which he noted the challenge of suburban poverty. He said many people think of poverty as confined to Atlanta’s Westside, but that they should “think about little pockets here in Sandy Springs.”

Little said he considered Segal’s prayer to be the real keynote address. He also alluded to Paul’s comments, saying that “not all of the people served by the CAC are the least, lost and forgotten. They are in front of us every day” – as “essential workers” who still don’t make enough money or coworkers who may not voice their challenges.

“So not everybody who comes through this door is invisible to us… We just don’t know their story,” Little said.

Little praised the CAC’s work as an opportunity to remember the importance of service. He said in a political era focused on pride in “tribe” that “it is easy to forget there are compassionate people who believe that they are responsible for each other.”

A 30-year history

Originally called the Community Action Commission, the CAC was founded in 1987 as a project of the Sandy Springs Ministerial Association, a group of area church leaders. Its first office was a room provided by Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church. Within a year, it expanded service into the Dunwoody area.

One of the new storage areas that greatly increases the CAC’s ability to handle food, clothing and furniture donations. (John Ruch)

In 2005, after a previous capital campaign, the CAC moved into its current headquarters at 1130 Hightower Trail in northern Sandy Springs. Among its new programs there was the CAC Boutique.

In 2016, the CAC got a rent-to-buy deal on a former construction company office building nearby at 8607 Roswell Road. The CAC Boutique moved into the house-like front while work began to construct the food pantry and other back-end facilities for the thrift store.

The buildout was performed by Sandy Springs-based Choate Construction, whose vice president for interior work, Steve Soteres, recently won a City Council seat and now heads a city task force studying ways to “revitalize” that same corridor of Roswell Road. Other local officials in attendance were Dunwoody City Councilmember Lynn Deutsch and Sandy Springs City Councilmembers John Paulson and Jody Reichel.

Pam Jones, the CAC’s development manager, discusses the new food pantry market with guests on a tour. (John Ruch)

An important part of the expansion for customers and clients is the new food pantry, designed like a mini market with food items properly organized on shelves and with shopping carts for those stocking up. The store-like environment is intended to treat those who use the pantry with dignity and to reduce food waste by allowing customers to make personal choices of items. The new pantry opened in March.

The larger facility allows a greater acceptance of donated food, clothing and even furniture. CAC officials said the organization recently provided furniture to three families who lost their homes to fire.

The expansion frees up space in the Hightower Trail building, where the CAC intends to expand adult education and career training programs. The goal is to move beyond helping those in immediate risk of homelessness and into a holistic program of self-sufficiency.

The facility includes a new food donation loading area. (John Ruch)

The CAC has more expansion in mind. The start is the soon-to-open satellite office at 120 Northwood Drive, Suite 234, in Sandy Springs, a shopping center spot near the I-285/Roswell Road interchange donated by Buckhead’s Holy Spirit Catholic Church. The CAC is looking for a similar satellite space somewhere in Dunwoody.

It’s all part of a $2.4 million capital campaign launched in 2016 that has raised about $1.8 million so far, according to CAC Board President John Jokerst, who is also an executive at the development company Carter.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are available in the food pantry market. (John Ruch)

The need for services

The need for services is large. The CAC says that in 2017, it served 5,348 individuals from 2,212 households, many of them with children.

Of those clients, 75 percent had been employed in the past 180 days—46 percent of them full-time. At least 61 percent of client households had incomes of about $24,000 a year or less—equivalent to earning about $11 an hour or less.

Some other CAC statistics from 2017:

Rent and utility payment assistance: Nearly $232,000 to 704 households

Holiday gifts for children: 1,320

Food pantry: An average of 1,500 visits a month from 500 to 800 households. It handles 50,000 pounds of food a month and had taken in 600 pounds of food the morning of the ribbon-cutting.

Clothing: About 3,000 clients received clothing worth a total of about $70,000. In the Boutique, the CAC sold about $100,000 in clothing to the public.

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John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.