One of the most respected non-profits in our area is the Community Assistance Center (CAC), which works to prevent homelessness, alleviate hunger and promote self-sufficiency in Dunwoody and Sandy Springs.
Founded by ten local congregations in 1987 as the Community Action Center, CAC was initially run mainly by volunteers out of a church Scout hut. Tamara Carrera became its part-time CEO in 1997. That year, CAC served 280 families with a $24,000 annual budget. In 2021, CAC helped 5,600 individuals and saved 856 families from eviction, with a total of 24,000 households helped since 1987.
As a former board member, I knew Tamara. When she announced she would retire in 2021, I couldn’t imagine how anyone could fill her shoes. I was wrong.
Her successor, CEO Francis Horton, took over in February 2021, after spending more than 30 years leading international relief programs in some of the poorest countries in the world for the International Mission Board, Baptist Global Response and Samaritan’s Purse. How could a newcomer even with his credentials follow in her footsteps when he was new to the area, had few connections and most of his staff were still working from home?
I recently spoke with him to find out.
“We’re approaching 35 years. We’ve gone from 400 square feet to four operating sites,” he said. “Tamara was a visionary and a good operations person. It was a bit intimidating, but I was a great beneficiary of what she had built.”
He admitted that starting the new job without being able to meet with people in-person had some advantages.
“I didn’t have the advantage of pulling a team together in a room,” he said, “but it was beneficial in that it slowed things down a bit and gave me more time to learn.”
On paper, his international experience had little in common with the local services of CAC. Operating in places with widespread poverty and limited resources, he was accustomed to leading large community development projects to improve water, education, healthcare and farming – including a fish farm in Pakistan.
So how did he end up at CAC?
In 2020, he was recruited for a one-year contract to help launch Send Relief, a domestic and international relief organization headquartered in Alpharetta, sponsored by the International Mission Board and the North American Mission Board.
Near the end of his contract, he began searching for a new opportunity in metro Atlanta and found CAC. With no idea of Tamara’s impending retirement, he volunteered a few times and was impressed. When CAC posted the opening for a new CEO, he knew it was a fit and went for it.
Despite our developed infrastructure, he saw many similarities with people in poorer parts of the world. Pointing out that at least 20,000 people in Sandy Springs and Dunwoody live in poverty, he found the needs of the people served by CAC essentially like those of the people he had served internationally.
“People are people. Their needs are the same everywhere,” he said. “A mother wakes up in Sandy Springs and wonders if she can feed and educate her kids, keep them safe. A woman in Bangladesh has the same concerns, but they look different.”
Though he had done his homework, he’s had some surprises.
“I had already talked to a lot of people, but what I didn’t expect was the level of dedication of the volunteers,” he said. “This year we gave a 25-year volunteer award and five or six 20-year awards.”
In less than two years, Horton has already enriched client services by supporting creation of the Career Center, offering a wide range of services, including mentorship, job placement and training with local business partners and an annual job fair in partnership with local businesses and the City of Sandy Springs. All jobseekers, including those outside Sandy Springs and Dunwoody, are welcome to use Career Center services.
As a non-profit leader for more than 30 years, Horton understands fundraising and gives the credit for CAC’s success in that area to its staff of experienced professionals. Of note is that this year’s Vintage Affair, the first one in-person under his tenure, was the most successful in the event’s history.
CAC operates four locations. Its admissions, counseling, classrooms and Career Center are at its headquarters at 1130 Hightower Trail in Sandy Springs. Its main food pantry, offering everything from fresh produce to staples, and its “Upscale Thrift” store, are at 8607 Roswell Road. Two smaller offices and food pantries are at locations in Dunwoody and South Sandy Springs.