When the world began to split at the seams, Alicia Philipp, the longtime director of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, was in a vineyard in Sao Pedro do Sul, Portugal, visiting family. From her vantage point, the deadly coronavirus, already tearing through Europe, was a real, if not necessarily immediate, threat to America.
About that time, in Atlanta, the United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Milton J. Little Jr. felt the rending, too. As president of the powerhouse nonprofit, he had begun internal conversations on the virus. But nothing had moved much past the talk stage.
All that changed within days. What had been a nebulous overseas menace became a hometown catastrophe. Schools closed. Businesses shuttered. The economy struggled. And caught in the crosshairs of the crisis were the most fragile in Atlanta: the sick, the elderly, the poor, the homeless, the underserved.
From that first split, though, in the first half of March, Atlanta’s philanthropic community coalesced with unprecedented focus and ferocity. Little worked the phones from his kitchen table. Philipp WhatsApp-ed back to Atlanta while walking her daughter’s vineyard, wrestling with a five-hour time difference. On March 17, the two organizations launched the Greater Atlanta COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund which, in about a week after its formation, already had generated more than $17 million in donations from local corporations and deep-pocketed charitable foundations. By March 26, the first few grants already were out.
Barely two weeks had passed since the pandemic first hit home.
“That never happens in the world of philanthropy, right?” Philipp says. “There were so many [needs] that were so immediate. It wasn’t like it slowly built up. It happened, like, whammy. The response needed to be equally immediate.”
By early May, more than $25 million had been raised, and 320 local nonprofits—from more than 600 that applied—had directly benefited.
“I think the community responded both extraordinarily and unsurprisingly well,” Little says. “People recognized the severity of the impact this was likely to have and saw some real threats. Kids who needed to find a way to be able to continue their education when school went online. Families needing to be able to put food on the table. And to address the kinds of financial challenges that just came up like a kind of tidal wave and really risked sweeping people out to sea and being lost forever.”
Behemoths like the Atlanta Community Food Bank used a massive grant to support nearly 700 partner groups across metro Atlanta and North Georgia. Other, smaller nonprofits met more specific needs. A Latino group, Ser Familia, received a six-figure award to provide mental health counseling to its clients, in Spanish, and to supply food and emergency assistance. Ser Familia serves a lot of Latinos in hospitality and construction, areas which crumbled with the economy. Some couldn’t get aid from government agencies.
Grants were awarded to dozens of groups with unique needs, like the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam, which provided halal meals to 500 seniors in East Atlanta; the Tahirih Justice Center, which supports immigrant survivors of gender-based violence; and Giving Kitchen, which represents hard-hit food-service workers.
“We saw more asks for help during the first week of COVID-19 than we saw in all of 2018,” Giving Kitchen co-founder Jen Hidinger-Kendrick says. “The fundamental services we provide helped keep a line cook from being evicted, allowed a server to pay for her mother’s funeral expenses, and kept the lights on for a bartender going through cancer treatment.”
At the same time, nonprofits used their own partnerships and fundraising skills to add to the influx of money. In a matter of weeks, more than 5,000 people—90 percent of them newcomers—donated to Giving Kitchen.
“I am an optimist by nature. I think that most people are good. Most people just want to help,” says Belisa Urbina, the founder and executive director of Ser Familia. “They just need to find a way to do it.”
For the Community Foundation and United Way, the crisis was a defining test. Staff and volunteers attacked it, cobbling together working solutions (Zooming from home, WhatsApp-ing from Portugal, streamlining the application process for grants), putting in back-breaking hours, and all the while concentrating on the neediest.
“We provided for large organizations early on, but in our open-application process, we decided it was important to support smaller organizations with smaller budgets,” Lita Pardi, the vice president for community for the Community Foundation and a key driver behind the fund, said in July. “In the end, out of all the organizations that we supported through the fund so far, 49 percent are agencies with budgets under $1 million.”
As remarkable as the response has been, the need remains even greater. Through June, more than 367,000 workers in the metro area had filed first-time unemployment claims, a stunning 3,700 percent rise from 2019. The loss of income has potentially devastating implications:
- Without steady paychecks, living conditions for thousands across the metro area are imperiled.
- Thousands more—maybe more than 1 million—struggle with hunger every day.
- The education of hundreds of thousands of children was interrupted when schools closed; more than 344,000 area schoolkids, according to United Way, do not have access to the proper educational tools to learn while out of the classroom.
- And the threat of COVID-19 remains, with the pressures it places on the physical and mental wellbeing of the area’s neediest.
Although the work is destined to continue for years—the pandemic has laid bare undeniably deep-rooted economic and social inequity in Atlanta—the city has shown in this crisis an admirable ability to rise to the call.
“I think it’s about the spirit of the people . . . who work at our institutions who believe really strongly in the power of community to come together when it’s really needed and have a commitment and dedication to working on behalf of others,” says Katrina Mitchell, United Way Atlanta’s chief community impact officer and another key player in the formation of the relief fund. “I think that’s, for me, truly powerful and uplifting.”
Here are a few of the hundreds of Atlanta organizations that have stepped up:
In early April, as the full force of the pandemic descended on Atlanta, Gov. Brian Kemp declared that all Georgians should shelter in place—a particular problem for the area’s thousands of homeless. Says United Way’s Little: “You can’t shelter in place on the street.”
Statistics vary, but on any given night in Atlanta, some 2,000 people are without any kind of shelter—they’re on the street—and some 7,000 are otherwise homeless throughout the metro area, according to Atlanta Mission. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s last Point-in-Time count found that almost 86 percent are Black.
Gateway Center, the venerable downtown institution which provides emergency shelter and critical services to the homeless—meals, showers, health checks, employment aid—immediately confronted the challenge that the virus posed. While other shelters closed to new residents as a precaution, and others, staffed largely by at-risk elderly volunteers, closed down entirely, Gateway remained open to serve its nearly 500 residents. The people at Gateway worked to educate the homeless population, in their Pryor Street facility and on the street, in preventing the spread of the virus. With the help of the City of Atlanta, Mercy Care, and many others, Gateway was among the organizations engaged in the first full-scale virus testing of the area’s homeless. Thousands of tests were done in 16 shelters early in April.
Gateway, with others, also partnered with two downtown hotels, largely unused as the pandemic spread. One was used for quarantining homeless persons who showed symptoms of infection or who tested positive. The other was for housing healthy but at-risk homeless.
“We didn’t have to have healthy folks and people who were symptomatic in the same facility. I think that particularly hurt some of the nursing homes,” says Raphael Holloway, the CEO of Gateway Center. “As a community, we really have come together well in being innovative in solutions. We’ve truly been able to manage the storm much better than we could have ever predicted.”
The rate of infection among Atlanta’s homeless population, which some feared could reach epidemic levels, was lower than 2 percent through the middle of summer. Other big cities saw their numbers run in the 30–40 percent range, Holloway says.
The surge of unemployment and loss of income sparked by the pandemic have threatened thousands of renters and homeowners with potential homelessness, too. A small nonprofit in Peoplestown, the Housing Justice League, organizes communities to defend their right to remain in their homes.
The League accepted a grant to launch a COVID-19 hotline, which assists residents with troublesome banks or landlords. It’s proven particularly important to those who can’t leave home to attend organizing meetings. The real value in the grant, though, may be highlighting the injustices that the Housing Justice League has been fighting for years.
“I must say that I am not always pleased with the way Atlanta understands the working class and poor people and how they value the residents in the city,” says Alison Johnson, the executive director of the HJL. “As we begin to see that more people that are not people of color are experiencing difficulties, I see a lot more people calling us and saying, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing, yada yada yada?’
“But that’s not where the power is. That’s not what’s going to help the people in Atlanta. What’s going to really help folks in Atlanta is policy and organizations like the Housing Justice League that believe in the value of people in the city.”
On March 2, the week before the pandemic hit home, the Atlanta Community Food Bank moved into a huge new facility on North Desert Drive in East Point. It’s been doling out tons of food ever since.
“We’re very proud of how our team has responded to this crisis. We’ve grown our food distribution volumes by nearly 50 percent since the onset of the crisis, providing 25 million meals to people in need since March 16,” says Kyle Waide, the ACFB’s president and CEO. “We’re feeding more people more food more often than we ever have.”
The Food Bank provides weekly food distribution to five local school districts (Atlanta Public Schools, Fulton County, DeKalb County, Clayton County, and Marietta City schools) at more than 20 sites. The students there are just some of an estimated 1 million people in the Food Bank’s 29-county service area that are unsure of where their next meal is coming from.
Others harshly affected by the pandemic have found help from the Food Bank, too. Local hotel workers directly impacted by a downturn in visitors were given 12,800 pounds of food—enough for 250 families—in a drive-up distribution.
Like all nonprofits, the Food Bank has had its challenges. Food donations dropped. Concerned with spreading the virus, the organization stopped using volunteers at its main facility. But a sizable grant from the United Way/Community Foundation fund helped restock the warehouse, and the Georgia National Guard took over for volunteers.
Several groups that don’t normally focus on food security issues suddenly were thrust into the role of food providers. And others familiar with feeding the hungry have seen a surge in requests.
“Last year, the whole year, we delivered, I think it was, about 514,000 meals,” Charlene Crusoe-Ingram, the CEO of Meals on Wheels Atlanta, said in late July. “This year already, we’re probably at 360 [thousand] or so. We’re projecting, if we keep on the pace we’re on, we might get very close to a million.”
Meals on Wheels, which supports low-income seniors and veterans, found new donors and used a strong volunteer base to come up with innovative ways to get meals to clients while keeping staff and volunteers safe. Drive-up Super Saturday events limit contact between the 100 or so volunteers who prepare personalized, boxed meals at the northwest Atlanta facility and those who deliver them. The group can turn some 12,000 meals out of the building and on their way to doorsteps in a little over an hour.
“We’ve always been concerned about generating donations for seniors. Nobody wants to be elderly and out of sight,” Crusoe-Ingram says. “But I’ve been so pleasantly amazed at the generosity in this city.”
The virus sickened more than 150,000 Georgians through the end of July and killed more than 3,400. More than a third of the grants from the United Way/Community Foundation fund were made to healthcare organizations. They responded in novel ways.
In three days, CHRIS 180, which provides school-based mental health services in 42 schools and counseling in seven spots in Fulton and DeKalb counties, switched to telehealth services to keep in touch with those who need help. “We are all living through a shared community trauma,” says Kathy Colbenson, the president and CEO of CHRIS 180, “and as a therapist and leader who specializes in understanding and recovering from trauma, I know that being able to act is critical to healing.”
The East Atlanta organization pivoted into other areas of service despite no previous experience. CHRIS 180—the acronym stands for Creativity, Honor, Respect, Integrity, and Safety—provided food service (more than 31,000 meals through late July) for the first time. Counselors did in-home well-checks. They provided Chromebooks and other educational tools for those clients who needed them for telehealth or schoolwork. They delivered medications and toys, too.
Few organizations have felt the wrath of the virus more than nursing homes. The nonprofit Sadie G. Mays Health & Rehabilitation Center in West Atlanta houses elderly, low-income Atlantans, providing short-term rehab and long-term hospice and nursing care for its majority Black residents. Sadie G. Mays faced huge challenges.
“Staffing was the most severe thing. Some employees just quit, with no notice,” says Charles Robinson Jr., the president and CEO of Mays. “They were afraid, and they never came back.”
Through late July, 129 residents and 43 staff members tested positive for the virus. Among the success stories, though, were a 104-year-old resident who recovered and Tina Brown, the facility’s interim director of health services. “I was quarantined at home with viral pneumonia for almost three weeks. Then, by the grace of God, I was able to come back to work,” Brown says.
“We had some help from the community, which we appreciated. The State of Georgia provided us with six registered nurses and sent the National Guard to help with testing and sanitizing our facility. We were also able to get periodic donations of PPE and other supplies from Fulton County. We sought out every type of foundation and public health grants available and were successful in securing several grants,” Robinson says. “Even so, it’s been very difficult to carry on our work.”
When area schools began to close, educators sprung to action. The move to learning over the internet was a given. But what about those students without the tools to jump online?
Inspiredu, formerly known as PowerMyLearning, provides needy students in low-income areas with laptops, Wi-Fi, and other materials to get them learning online. They’ve handed out nearly 13,000 devices since 2007. When schools closed in March, they fielded requests from several schools for almost 5,000 students. By mid-July, they had provided 1,400 refurbished laptops and other devices, supplying technical support out of their warehouse in northwest Atlanta.
“It feels like we have been preparing for a time like this for 13 years,” says Oneisha Freeman, the director of partnerships and programs for Inspiredu, “and although there is still much more work to be done, we’re very fortunate to have the support of the philanthropic community, board members, and individuals in the tech and corporate community who really get the technology access challenge with the willingness to be there and plug in where we need to the most.”
Other educational hurdles had to be cleared to keep students on track, too. What about educators unfamiliar with teaching online? What about parents forced into the role of teacher? How are each of those groups supposed to know what to do?
GPB Education, a division of Georgia Public Broadcasting, partnered with the Georgia Department of Education and launched Georgia Home Classroom, an online resource filled with learning tools across all subjects and grade levels.
“GPB Education has been, and is, a thriving entity. Just this last year, there were close to 11.5 million downloads from GPB Education,” says Teya Ryan, president and CEO of Georgia Public Broadcasting. “That’s pretty astonishing. Sometimes we can barely keep up. Certainly those numbers rose exponentially during April and May.” The content online has 3.2 million page views already this year, up 104 percent from last year, according to GPB figures.
The GPB team also wiped out preschool programming during the day and replaced it with around 10 hours of general educational programming on television. “Which, may I remind you, is free,” Ryan says.
GPB Education conducted its first virtual workshop on online learning on March 17 and held 91 more sessions over the next three months, reaching 2,816 educators and families. That’s in addition to in-person courses that show potential educators all that GPB offers.
In effect, GPB taught teachers—professional and novice—how to teach in the age of the pandemic. And it came about, as it did with hundreds of other nonprofits, largely because of the generosity of others.
“I think our beloved city has been challenged like every other city in America,” Ryan says. “Let’s give our city and our state great credit. This is an amazing philanthropic community. I think the city has really risen to the philanthropic call, and it did so immediately.”
How other Atlanta nonprofits have weathered the storm:
- C4 Atlanta began a fund for out-of-work artists and moved training courses online as the pandemic hit. The group also stopped charging rent to tenants in the Fuse Arts Center. Artists helped to deliver food, masks, and other supplies to the needy. “They amaze me,” says C4’s Jessyca Holland. “Artists amaze me.”
- Zeroing in on long-time donors after the loss of a major fundraiser and opening a new store to create more revenue has kept the heroes at Furkids humming. Adoptions are soaring. “I’m so happy,” founder Samantha Shelton says, “that people realize what a great time it was—is—to bring a pet into their lives.”
- Piedmont Park has proven essential to Atlanta during the pandemic, but operating a 200-plus acre park without the funds typically generated from program and venue rentals hasn’t been easy. Thankfully, donors and volunteers have stepped in to fill that void. “From picking up trash, mulching, and pruning to making financial contributions, donors and volunteers are the reason people still want to find respite in Piedmont Park every day,” says Piedmont Park Conservancy’s Mark Banta.