On Thursday mornings at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, you’ll find a group of volunteers in a room packing up bags of food. These volunteers start their day early, packing up all the necessities – proteins, fruits, vegetables – to hand out to those in need over the weekend.
These volunteers are working for the Suthers Center for Christian Outreach, a community organization that offers food assistance, emergency assistance, and more. The food pantry, which now operates out of St. Martin’s, was located in Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church in the 1970s. More than 30 years later, the pantry moved into the Suthers Center, according to the center’s website.
The Suthers Center is named for Father Derwent Suthers, a former priest at St. Martin’s. The center was founded by numerous volunteers, including the previous St. Martin’s Rector John McCard, and arose out of a partnership with three other churches in the area: Brookhaven Christian, Brookhaven First United Methodist, and Oglethorpe Presbyterian.
“He was always primarily concerned with the poor and what the church should be doing for the poor,” said Mary Jo Sibbald, executive director of the Suthers Center.
For years, the Suthers Center was located on Broad Street in Chamblee, operating as a thrift shop that provided clothes, food, emergency assistance, and more to residents in the area. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March of 2020, the Broad Street location was forced to shut down.
“Because of COVID and rising prices for rent, we closed the center in March of 2020,” Sibbald said. “It took us several months until September when we were able to work with our new rector … to get the pantry here.”
Rev. Monica Mainwaring, the rector for St. Martin’s, started at the church in August of 2019, long before COVID-19 changed everything. She said that when the thrift shop initially shut down, everyone thought it would just be for the short term. But eventually, St. Martin’s became the new home for the food pantry.
“At that point, recall [that] society and the government was saying just stay home a couple of weeks,” Mainwaring said. “In September 2020, we were able to reopen with good volunteers and a whole lot of safety protocols.”
The room at St. Martin’s where the food pantry is located is set up and spaced out in a way to keep volunteers as COVID safe as possible. Every Thursday, volunteers drive a van to the Atlanta Community Food Bank to pick up their order and bring it back to the pantry. Other partners, such as Second Helpings Atlanta – a nonprofit that gathers healthy, surplus food from grocery stores and distributes it to those in need – will deliver food to the pantry as well. Bagel Rescue – a nonprofit that takes leftover bagels from restaurants and redistributes them – will stop by on weekends.
On Saturday mornings, volunteers reconvene to hand out food bags from 8-10 a.m. Since the pantry started during the pandemic, everything is done outside in a drive-thru fashion. Lauren Bacon, the director of the food pantry, said even though mask mandates have largely ended, Suthers volunteers are still asked to wear them.
“We decided we’re not running the risk,” Bacon said.
Bacon said that during COVID-19, the Suthers Center saw an uptick of people in need of food services. On average, the Suthers Center might hand out a weekly total of 165 bags feeding two people each, she said. During pandemic heights, the highest they ever got up to was 300 bags a week.
“During that time, a lot of pantries closed,” Bacon said. “So we had to absorb some of that.”
After the food pantry re-opened at St. Martin’s, it took the Suthers Center a little while longer to get back to offering some of their other emergency services. But now, on Saturday mornings while the food pantry is in motion, other volunteers assist walk-up clients with paying phone bills, utilities, or other emergency needs.
“We have an average of, I would say, 15 families we serve every Saturday morning,” Sibbald said. “Those are the walk-ups, and that’s what we hope to get back to.”
Sibbald said she hoped that the Suthers Center would be able to get back to being a one-stop shop in the future, with the food pantry, thrift shop, and emergency services all in one place.
“We like the center and we hope to get back to it,” she said. “Because we like all of our services under one roof.”
Mainwaring said the center is working through questions about what its future looks like, but like Sibbald, a lot of people like the idea of returning to a “one-stop model.” She said one of the key aspects moving forward for the center will be location and making sure people can access the services they need.
“For us, location has been key in order to make sure that clients could access services,” Mainwaring said. “What we found is that yes, there are plenty of people who have needs that are making their way to [St. Martin’s]. We wonder about the people who don’t have vehicles or a way to make use of a vehicle on a Saturday. So there’s still that imagining of, is there a future home for us?”
Correction: a previous version of this article incorrectly named Suthers as the founder of the center. It was named for Suthers, but he did not create it.