We asked prominent Atlantans what drives them to volunteer—and why you should too

"All I’m asked to do every day is to love and find ways to create a better life for others. That’s the rent we pay for living on Earth."

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One in four Atlantans volunteers their time to fight hunger, bring relief to the homeless, repair the environment, or mentor children. Their energy fuels some 5,000 local nonprofits. On the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, January 21, Hands On Atlanta expects as many as 2,000 volunteers to work on 30 projects around the metro area—painting murals, clearing the Chattahoochee, planting trees, and delivering meals.

When asked to help, Atlantans respond. The organizers of Super Bowl LIII needed volunteers to help welcome visitors to the city, and 5,000 people applied within the first 24 hours. Ultimately, 32,000 vied for 10,000 volunteer spots. Team ATL will serve as host ambassadors and will engage in community projects.

Yet even this army of volunteers isn’t big enough to do all that needs to be done in Atlanta. “We’re still working to fulfill the dream of Dr. King, to help build the Beloved Community where no one is left out or left behind,” says Congressman John Lewis, the civil rights icon who marched with King.

Why should you volunteer? How much good can you do? We posed seven questions to Lewis and five others who have devoted themselves to service, from a former Falcons running back to a visionary teenager. Making a difference is easier than you think. Check out our accompanying list of nonprofits that need help—with opportunities that fit a wide range of interests and time commitments.

Volunteer in Atlanta: Rodney BullardVolunteer in Atlanta: John Lewis

Illustration by Filip Peraić

John Lewis

The King holiday began as a day off. A chance to sleep late, a day to spend at the mall, a long weekend just after the December frenzy. Congressman John Lewis wanted it to be a “day on.”

“We must not allow the King holiday to become a day of nothing in particular—a day of shopping, a day of recreating,” he said as Congress considered the King Holiday and Service Act he sponsored in 1994 with then Senator Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania. “We must make the holiday a day of action, for ourselves and for our children.”

The son of sharecroppers, Lewis was just 18 when he met Martin Luther King Jr. Inspired by King’s sermons and the Montgomery bus boycott, Lewis organized sit-ins, joined the Freedom Ride of 1961, spoke at the March on Washington, and was beaten on Bloody Sunday as he helped lead a civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery.

Today, he sees volunteering as one way to carry on King’s legacy. “I truly believe that service is part of the building of the Beloved Community,” he says.

1

Why do you feel it is important to volunteer rather than just give money?
When you volunteer, you’re giving of yourself. When you go and pick up a broom or shovel or go work in someone’s garden or field, you’re giving your energy, and you’re building that sense of community.

2

When you look back on your years of service, what is one moment that especially resonates with you?
During the Carter administration, there was a flood in Pennsylvania. Hundreds of federal employees boarded buses, and we traveled in our work clothes with shovels and brooms. We took mud and dirt out of the basements and first floors of homes and brought people food and dry clothing. It was a lot of sweat and hard and difficult work, but we were pulling and working together. We were more than just federal employees.

3

What has been the most difficult or challenging experience you’ve had as you sought to help others?
During the height of the civil rights movement, people came together to serve, to make things better, whether it was conducting a voter registration drive in the heart of the deep South or trying to desegregate lunch counters in a restaurant. It was difficult. Sometimes you’d get arrested on some trumped-up charge or someone would beat you up. But it was a calling to make things better. When I look back on it, it made me stronger, it made me a better human being.

“I never really get discouraged. Sometimes the problems seem so massive—if you can just end one piece, it’s like making a down payment. It’s not finished. But at least you helped to end some of the pain and suffering and met some of the need.”

4

What do you wish people would consider before volunteering?
It’s not so much what you’re going to get out of volunteering, but what can you do to help your neighbor, your country, your city, or your town. Sometimes, it’s just going to a school, getting on the floor, on the same level as someone in the first grade or preschool, and talking to them.

5

What lesson have you learned from someone you sought to help?
More than anything else, I think I learned to be a little more human. And not to judge people. [In years past,] I’ve gone out with groups building homes for Habitat for Humanity. Seeing people from different backgrounds coming with a hammer or saw and learning how to work as a team is a great feeling. When you finish, you feel like you accomplished something not just for yourself, but for the person who worked beside you, the person who will live in that house.

6

In metro Atlanta, more than 1 million people volunteer their time—yet problems such as homelessness, hunger, animal abuse, and inequality seem as deep as ever. How do you keep from getting discouraged?
I never really get discouraged. Sometimes the problems seem so massive—if you can just end one piece, it’s like making a down payment. It’s not finished. But at least you helped to end some of the pain and suffering and met some of the need.

7

If you could fix one problem in the world, what would it be?
The lack of quality healthcare. The need for healthcare and homelessness and lack of food—those three go together. In America, there are so many people without any form of healthcare. In a city like Atlanta, you see so many people who need shelter, sleeping over grates, under coats and blankets. We need to find a way to deal with mental health. We need to be more responsive to the basic human needs of people.

Volunteer in Atlanta: Rodney BullardVolunteer in Atlanta: Michelle Nunn

Illustration by Filip Peraić

Michelle Nunn

Michelle Nunn was just 23 when she met some young professionals who wanted to start an organization to make volunteering easier. They offered her a position as the executive director—a lofty title that came with little pay and no job security. She took it and eventually turned Hands On Atlanta into a global network of affiliates.

Nunn met her husband, Ron Martin, when he called her out of the blue with an idea for using volunteering to create community. TeamWorks!, which guides groups through weekend service projects and mixers, is still an active team-building program.

Today, Nunn is president and CEO of CARE USA, where she added a volunteer component to the global organization’s efforts to combat poverty. “Our hope is that we will be more entrepreneurial and creative as a result,” she says. “It’s a way to bring in supporters who will be invested in our future for a long time.”

1

Why do you feel it is important to volunteer rather than just give money?
While it’s rewarding to give financial resources, I think giving of yourself is where people often find the greatest reward. It connects you directly to the issues. People who are volunteering are better and more effective in allocating their philanthropic dollars.

2

When you look back on your years of service, what is one moment that especially resonates with you?
Among the most poignant was serving in the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina and seeing the extraordinary sacrifice and solidarity and connection among volunteers, people working to help people restore and rebuild their lives. It was truly a vision of the Beloved Community.

3

What has been the most difficult or challenging experience you’ve had as you sought to help others?
The absolutely most tragic thing occurred at a Hands On Atlanta Day event many years ago. In one of those projects, a city truck lost traction. The emergency brake was not set, and the truck rolled over a husband and a wife. The wife was killed, and the husband was seriously injured. I’ll never forget my visit to the hospital. I had a great sense of personal responsibility. I remember [the husband, John Starr] just greeting me and saying how grateful he was for all the support he received [from Hands On Atlanta]. He and his son became some of our best volunteers, participating in Hands On Atlanta Day, year after year. They really became a symbol of hope when you thought there could not be any.

“With my CARE hat on, I would say if we could unleash the true potential and power of women across the world and have true gender equality.”

4

What do you wish people would consider before volunteering?
Think about where you want to start, but don’t become overwhelmed to the point of paralysis. Just take the first step. People can start with episodic or incremental volunteerism. Hands On Atlanta offers the opportunity to try things. You can take increasing steps. You can go from being a [one-time] tutor to being a committed, long-term mentor.

5

What lesson have you learned from someone you sought to help?
My most long-lasting mentorship started when I was in my 20s and 30s, and my [mentee] was 6. She’s now in her 20s. She has taught me so much. She would say I’m her mentor, but I would say she’s been my mentor over time and really an extended member of my family. I think what she taught me is that ultimately volunteering and service become integrated into who you are and your family, and it’s reciprocal in every sense.

6

In metro Atlanta, more than 1 million people volunteer their time—yet problems such as homelessness, hunger, animal abuse, and inequality seem as deep as ever. How do you keep from getting discouraged?
I think it’s by calibrating the progress along with the challenges. Too often, if you read just the daily headlines, they focus on what’s not working. I know this in my own global work. If you ask people whether global poverty has increased or decreased, 95 percent of people say it’s increased when in fact it’s been halved.

7

If you could fix one problem in the world, what would it be?
With my CARE hat on, I would say if we could unleash the true potential and power of women across the world and have true gender equality, it would make a world of difference on everything from climate change to feeding the world’s hungry. We estimate that if women had full equality in terms of access to land and tools, we could feed 150 million more people.

Volunteer in Atlanta: Rodney Bullard

Illustration by Filip Peraić

Rodney Bullard

When Rodney Bullard arrived at The Gathering Spot, the lights were out, and the parking lot was empty. It was only 6 a.m. The Westside Future Fund summit wouldn’t start until 7:30, but Bullard wanted to make sure everything was in order.

“As people came in, I started to think about what we were trying to do to live out the ideals of the Beloved Community,” says Bullard, vice president of community affairs for Chick-fil-A and executive director of the Chick-fil-A Foundation, both sponsors of the Westside project.

The Westside Future Fund brings together nonprofit organizations, companies, and government agencies to revitalize an area that has suffered decades of decline. Local residents come to the bimonthly meetings and join the volunteer efforts.

“We often call this ‘the Atlanta way,’” says Bullard, author of the new book Heroes Wanted: Why the World Needs You to Live Your Heart Out.

1

Why do you feel it is important to volunteer rather than just give money?
It’s important to do both. But it’s easy for some to give money and not be invested. [Chick-fil-A CEO] Dan [Cathy] wanted to start these Westside meetings. We are here every other Friday because we are invested. Millions of dollars have been poured into Westside. What’s different now is that we have the time and money and talent of people who are committed to the work.

2

When you look back on your years of service, what is one moment that especially resonates with you?
In 2012, Chick-fil-A started a camp on the campus of Morehouse College for the children of Westside. We specifically featured it as a sports camp with nontraditional sports. We had tennis, golf, archery. We did not have football or basketball. Two young ladies came up to me after they had finished playing tennis and said, “We loved tennis, that was really cool. . . . Can you make money playing tennis?” And I said, “Well, there are two sisters, the Williams sisters, and I think they make money playing tennis.” The simplicity of the question, but also the ability to expose these kids to something that broadened their horizons—that’s a special moment.

3

What has been the most difficult or challenging experience you’ve had as you sought to help others?
I heard from some people, “Yeah, we tried that [before], the exact same thing. The neighborhood’s still the same.” That is a challenge. But it’s also an opportunity. I remember Mayor [Shirley] Franklin said that if you’re going to solve problems, you might as well solve hard problems. I think that’s a true statement. Anybody can solve easy problems.

“You should volunteer in a manner in which you’re convicted and called to volunteer.”

4

What do you wish people would consider before volunteering?
In my book, I write about conviction and calling. Conviction is that which pricks at your heart, and calling is responding to that which pricks at your heart. You should volunteer in a manner in which you’re convicted and called to volunteer.

5

What lesson have you learned from someone you sought to help?
I have learned humility. I have learned the importance of showing up. I have learned I can’t help everybody. I have learned that I have to be mindful of my own time and my own self. When I was in my first year in law school, which is the exact wrong time to do this, I decided I wanted to be a Big Brother. I really didn’t have time, but I thought that was the right thing to do. I wasn’t able to show up much. I remember showing up after the first year was on its down slope. I went to where this young man lived and he had run away. So, that always stuck with me.

6

In metro Atlanta, more than 1 million people volunteer their time—yet problems such as homelessness, hunger, animal abuse, and inequality seem as deep as ever. How do you keep from getting discouraged?
We will always have problems in our community. We will always have homelessness and poverty. We have to focus on the individual and not on the macro problem.

7

If you could fix one problem in the world, what would it be?
Talent is equally distributed. You see genius in the most unexpected places. You see business and entrepreneurship in the most unexpected places. Opportunity is not equally distributed. Even more so, expectation is not equally distributed. Because of that, people don’t expect much of their lives. They don’t go for more. If we can [provide more opportunity], I think that’s one of the ways we can solve many of our problems. I think bringing people together does help bridge opportunity and expectation, it does help bridge divide and division.

Volunteer in Atlanta: Warrick Dunn

Illustration by Filip Peraić

Warrick Dunn

Warrick Dunn stood on the front porch of a small house with white siding and wrought-iron railings and held the keys high, as if making a toast: “Congratulations. Here’s my mother’s dream.” A woman and her two teenage sons walked inside and found a home that was not just furnished but stocked with food and decorated down to the throw pillows.

“It’s my mom’s legacy,” says Dunn of his program, Home for the Holidays, which works with Habitat for Humanity and other partners to provide opportunities for homeownership. “I’m living out her dream through other single parents. And it’s been one of the greatest joys.”

Dunn was just 18 when his mother, Betty Smothers, a Baton Rouge police officer moonlighting as a security guard, was gunned down in an attempted robbery in 1993. Smothers never owned her own home, but in the past two decades, her son—a former Atlanta Falcons running back—has provided homes to more than 160 single-parent families through Warrick Dunn Charities.

Now, Dunn, part owner of the Falcons, is giving back in another way—as captain of Team ATL, the army of 10,000 volunteers who will help welcome Super Bowl visitors to Atlanta.

1

Why do you feel it is important to volunteer rather than just give money?
I think if people have skin in the game, there is just a better outcome. If your hard work is part of your investment, it seems like you just care more.

2

When you look back on your years of service, what is one moment that especially resonates with you?
When I see the reaction of the parents and children we help through Warrick Dunn Charities, I feel like I am doing what my mom would be proud of. And that feels good to me. When I hand the keys over, I have the feeling that the parent will now unlock opportunities to create a sense of family history, a place where kids can study in peace, have pride in having their own beds or bedrooms. It will create safe spaces for them to grow and develop.

3

What has been the most difficult or challenging experience you’ve had as you sought to help others?
In the beginning, I was just trying to use my mom’s dream to help people in her similar situation—hard-working but in need of a break. Now, I see things differently, because the need for affordable housing is much bigger. It’s not just about one family. It’s about how can we build communities, create an environment so that everyone has the same opportunities.

“Kids, rich and poor, want the same things, too—to be accepted and loved for who they are.”

4

What do you wish people would consider before volunteering?
Their motivation. Sometimes it’s menial work, and the rewards are intrinsic. That has to be enough. And you need to feel fully committed—because people are depending on you.

5

What lesson have you learned from someone you sought to help?
That most people want the same things in life. Parents want safety, security, and a good education for their children. Kids, rich and poor, want the same things, too—to be accepted and loved for who they are.

6

In metro Atlanta, more than 1 million people volunteer their time—yet problems such as homelessness, hunger, animal abuse, and inequality seem as deep as ever. How do you keep from getting discouraged?
Yes, fatigue happens. Self-care is important. Take the break when needed and not when it is too late to recover. And then, hopefully, you will reconnect with why you got involved from the beginning.

7

If you could fix one problem in the world, what would it be?
Education and poverty because they are often one and the same or linked. The question becomes: How do we bring kids into a world where there are real opportunities and their gifts and talents will be encouraged and appreciated? We know that lack of education is a barrier to a sustainable life—and so is poverty. The mix of both is so very challenging. So, I’d start there.

Volunteer in Atlanta: Rodney BullardVolunteer in Atlanta: Ann Wilson Cramer

Illustration by Filip Peraić

Ann Wilson Cramer

Ann Cramer held her most recent birthday party at the Atlanta Community Food Bank. That tells you everything you need to know about how deeply she feels about service—more than the long list of nonprofit boards she has chaired or honors she has received or details of her almost 50 years with IBM, most of which were spent in corporate engagement. After joyously sorting cans, she, Food Bank founder Bill Bolling, and two other friends with similar birthdays shared a huge sheet cake with about 100 friends, family, and other volunteers.

Cramer developed “external programs” for IBM and helped shape the evolution of corporate social responsibility in Atlanta. She retired in 2013 and now is a senior consultant working with Coxe Curry & Associates, which helps nonprofits with fundraising.

1

Why do you feel it is important to volunteer rather than just give money?
The important part isn’t whether it’s time or money. It’s that we’re sensitive to the needs of others and give what we can. There are seasons when we have more money. There are seasons when we have more time. There are seasons when we have more influence—being on a board and serving in leadership or being on a committee and giving your ideas. You have the privilege of using your feet, hands, heart, voice—bringing whatever you have—to best influence change.

2

When you look back on your years of service, what is one moment that especially resonates with you?
There are so many stories. [My husband,] Jeff, and I, working together with kids at Bass High School in the years of integration and going into homes to get kids to come to school. For years, I was working on the streets, [with] the hippies on Peachtree Street. I would leave my jacket on the back of my chair [at IBM] and go down and get kids who had OD’d and take them in my car to Grady. I think the most significant was when I had the privilege of chairing the Olympic Force, which was the volunteer corps for the 1996 Olympic Games.

3

What has been the most difficult or challenging experience you’ve had as you sought to help others?
One day, one of our little girls [we worked with in the neighborhood], age 13, rode on the bus with her grandmother to have her baby. That was one of those “ahas” for us that having faith wasn’t enough. You needed to give education. It’s kind of where Communities in Schools of Atlanta [a drop-out prevention organization, which Cramer cofounded] came from.

“All I’m asked to do every day is to love and find ways to create a better life for others. That’s the rent we pay for living on Earth.”

4

What do you wish people would consider before volunteering?
How hard it is. I love that you can feel good [by volunteering], but I hope you can feel whatever the burden and the barriers are that put people in situations. It’s fun for people to do the direct service, pass the juice, but it’s interesting to always understand the “why.”

5

What lesson have you learned from someone you sought to help?
How we can’t judge people. You would love Miss Poythress. She was disabled, had four children. Lived in a house on stilts. I loved that woman. She could cook collards. She invited Jeff over all the time for dinner when I was at IBM. She babysat my daughter. From a world view, she was a poor person and disabled, but from my view, she was the most gracious, generous, hospitable, adoring, good mom. The lesson is that we all have something to give and learn from each other.

6

In metro Atlanta, more than 1 million people volunteer their time—yet problems such as homelessness, hunger, animal abuse, and inequality seem as deep as ever. How do you keep from getting discouraged?
If I’m going to complain, I have to be a part of the solution. The poverty gap is so discouraging. But we live in hope. We live in a faith statement. All I’m asked to do every day is to love and find ways to create a better life for others. That’s the rent we pay for living on Earth.

7

If you could fix one problem in the world, what would it be?
Issues become so interconnected. I have a hard time just saying world hunger or housing. If you’re hungry and you don’t have a place to lay your head that’s safe, it’s hard to learn or grow or even be nice to others.

Volunteer in Atlanta: Rodney BullardVolunteer in Atlanta: Gracelyn Leath

Illustration by Filip Peraić

Gracelyn Leath

One morning, when she was running a bit early, Gracelyn Leath’s mother dropped her and her sister, Brooke, off at the senior center next door to their middle school and suggested they ask the social events manager if they could volunteer. The sisters had told their mom, after a recent volunteer day at their school, that they wanted to do more. Still, Gracelyn recalls, “I was like, why would they need help from a 12-year-old?”

The manager was thrilled, and a few days later, the girls and a few friends came back to sing Christmas carols with residents. They left feeling buoyant and returned soon after. “It was cool to see that a small act of kindness brought so much joy,” says Gracelyn, who is now 18 and a student at Kennesaw State University.

Gracelyn and Brooke decided to spread the joy by forming Teens Help Other People, which encourages teen-led volunteer experiences. Today, TeenHOP has more than 50 chapters around Georgia and the country—and even a few in other countries.

1

Why do you feel it is important to volunteer rather than just give money?
When you’re making a difference, it gives you a greater sense of purpose. You’re like, “Wow, I’m actually doing something that’s not about me.” One small act can lead to something so much bigger. If you give money on a website, you just keep living your life, you don’t see how your money is affecting people.

2

When you look back on your years of service, what is one moment that especially resonates with you?
In the winter of 2016, we were working with a young leader who wanted to start a TeenHOP chapter in Grayson. We found an elderly facility in her area and played bingo with the residents. After bingo, we went to each room, knocked on the door, and gave out oranges. In one room, there was a couple. The older man, who was a pastor, just started singing songs. We looked at his daughter, and his daughter started crying. She was like, “You don’t understand: He has dementia, and he hasn’t been this happy in a long time.” His wife gets on the piano, and she’s blind. She’s playing the piano. The daughter said, “It’s been so long since I’ve seen my mom play the piano. I’m so thankful you came to this room to just show kindness.” It was an amazing moment.

3

What has been the most difficult or challenging experience you’ve had as you sought to help others?
The most difficult thing is probably funding. When we first started locally, at least 95 percent of the money came from my parents. Now, since we’re a 501(c)(3), it’s easier to get donations, but we’re still having trouble getting funding from other organizations.

4

What do you wish people would consider before volunteering?
Sometimes volunteers are like, “I’m going to pack these things and just go on home. I got my volunteer hours for my [high school requirement], check, check, go on to my regular life.” Volunteering should be a lifestyle, in my opinion.

“When you’re making a difference, it gives you a greater sense of purpose.”

5

What lesson have you learned from someone you sought to help?
When we volunteered at the elderly facility, we had a “senior prom.” I was very apprehensive at first. I didn’t know how they would react. In the end, it was absolutely beautiful. It was great to see all the ages, all the different races and nationalities were having a great time in one room and just celebrating life. The lesson was that any idea—it didn’t matter what— showed that we cared.

6

In metro Atlanta, more than 1 million people volunteer their time—yet problems such as homelessness, hunger, animal abuse, and inequality seem as deep as ever. How do you keep from getting discouraged?
What keeps me from getting discouraged is thinking back on all the people I helped. I do still get discouraged, but I think about if I stop volunteering, these problems won’t be solved either.

7

If you could fix one problem in the world, what would it be?
Probably fixing our sense of unity. We’re all Americans. No matter what we look like, or our financial status, or our political views, I feel like we’re all in this together. We can agree to disagree, but we can at least agree that we’re all human and we all want the same thing, which is a better world for the next generation.

This article appears in our January 2019 issue.

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