Protecting Georgians’ Rights

With 1.7 million members nationwide, and affiliates in every state, the ACLU has been a pillar of Constitutional preservation for nearly 100 years.

Working to ensure that all people are awarded the civil liberties spelled out in the Constitution, the group seeks equal treatment under the law, freedom of speech and religion, and the right to privacy.

Locally, the ACLU of Georgia is monitoring and lobbying 132 pieces of legislation, and keep a strong focus on issues pertaining to free speech and protest rights, the school-to-prison pipeline, and statewide voting rights.

Through litigation, community engagement, and lobbying, the group pursues these goals to protect the people of Georgia and beyond.

Although started in 1920, the group still faces some misconceptions about its work, namely that it is a partisan or political-affiliated organization.

“We only ask our staff and members for a commitment to defend the Constitution,” said Chris Bruce, Chief Lobbyist and Policy Council for the ACLU of Georgia. “I am here to let you know that we are completely 100% non-partisan.”

Originally founded to combat civil liberty violations after WWI, the ACLU has continued its work, defending a broad spectrum of Constitutional rights, including racial injustice, as in the 1967 Loving case.

“The ACLU’s commitment to civil liberties and the Constitution has remained consistent over the years, but as we know, the surrounding political environment and technological advancements have raised the importance of certain civil liberties,” Bruce said.

This changing environment and technological advancements are ever-apparent in a post-9/11 world, where the right to privacy is increasingly salient. Current work of the ACLU includes computer hacking legislation and ensuring safe security systems.

“In 1920, nobody thought about computers,” Bruce said. “But it is something that we have taken on because you have a right to privacy, no matter what age or era.”

The state-affiliate is also focused on the 90,000 people incarcerated in Georgia, with 2/3’s of them not convicted of any crime, but held because they can’t afford to pay bail. And, in the current political environment, the ACLU of Georgia is educating individuals on their rights to legal and peaceful protests. Informing people of their limitations and reasons a protest could get preemptively shut down ensure successful demonstrations of free speech.

“We do not go in alone,” he said. “We work with a lot of other organizations and community partners to make sure that legislation and the people are heard.”

Along with the cash bail bill and work on voting rules, the ACLU of Georgia is also focused on LGBTQ rights, and a Mobile Justice app, with which citizens can record and submit incidents of over-policing, racial profiling, or examples of excessive force.

For more information on their current initiatives, visit www.acluga.org.

From Homeless to Hopeful

For the last 80 years, The Atlanta Mission has served those who need it most, seeking to transform the lives of the homeless.

Every day serving more than 1,000 homeless men, women, and children, the Mission provides critical wraparound services to the homeless population of Atlanta.

“We’ve spent a lot of time over the last five to six years doing best practice work and looking at what the real fundamental issues of the people we get the privilege to serve each day,” said Jim Reese, CEO of the Mission.

“A big challenge for the homeless and the many people we see on the street is that they’ve reached a place of hopelessness,” Reese added. “When you reach a place of hopeless, you are kind of frozen.”

Reese said that the Mission tries to get the people they serve from a place of hopelessness to help. This can be difficult for many reasons, including a lack of relationships and a support system for those who are homeless.

Started in 1938 as the Atlanta Union Mission, the nonprofit originally operated on a $10,000 budget with 20 beds, serving only men. In 2010, they officially changed their name to the Atlanta Mission, and now serve 1,000 people a day across four campuses.

“The goal of the Mission is to get you stabilized and get you the emergency needs you need,” Reese said.

In the short-term, this looks like shelter, and a variety of day services like laundry and showers. From there, the Mission tries to build relationships with their clients, to encourage them to “choose help” over hopelessness.

“We are not prescribing for you what you need, but helping you discover what your needs are,” Reese said.

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Clients work with ambassadors through this process, and are able to take part in programming through the Mission, like art therapy and conflict management classes.

From there, the goal is to move clients into the “make progress” phases. Focusing on their physical, emotional, spiritual, social, and vocational well-being, the Mission helps them build individual plans and goals. Clients work directly with a social worker, counselor, and an advocate to receive wraparound services.

The Mission hopes for three outcomes through this work: that the individuals become rooted in their community, that they can retain employment, and that they are able to secure housing. The Mission also helps their clients by offering work or service assignments, getting them comfortable with working on a team. In these controlled environments, their counselors can monitor their work and progress.

The nonprofit relies on the support of individuals and corporate partners to continue their work. To learn more about donating, or how to volunteer, visit www.atlantamission.org.

“There is nothing that will impact your life like serving the people that God gives us the privilege to help,” Reese said.

Pebble Tossers: creating a ripple and a tradition of giving back

In his University of Cape Town speech in South Africa in 1966, Robert F. Kennedy told students that “each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.”

Here in Atlanta, the nonprofit organization Pebble Tossers is sending out these ripples.

Started nearly ten years ago, the youth service organization connects kids and families with age-appropriate service opportunities throughout metro-Atlanta. Jen Guynn co-founded the group after noticing a lack of options for the whole family to give back.

“It can be hard to find opportunities to get kids engaged,” she said. “I have three kids and trying to find activities that we can do together was difficult.”

Many nonprofits, she said, saw kids as a liability or a hazard. Pebble Tossers started creating projects suitable for kids, provided all the volunteers and the supplies, and proposed them to area nonprofits.

Now 16,000 volunteers strong, Pebble Tossers produce an annual volunteer value of more than $1,183,000, hosting nearly 100 volunteer projects every year.

Interested families can visit the Pebble Tossers website to find upcoming volunteer opportunities and sign up. Soon, the site will switch to a membership model, which will allow individuals to create an account and track their hours. There are options ranging from animals, to the arts, to helping with the elderly, to homelessness, and veterans.

“If you’re interested in it, we’ve got projects,” Guynn said.

Each volunteer event includes an informational, education portion, which highlights the benefits of the project, and the mission of the nonprofit organization.

Pebble Tossers works with 111 different nonprofits across Atlanta, and have developed strong relationships with their partners. Each month, the group focuses on a different theme, with April being devoted to the environment. Activities will coordinate with Earth Day and Global Youth Service Day. In May, Pebble Tossers will focus on veterans and moms, for Mother’s Day.

The name “Pebble Tossers” comes from that concept of creating a ripple. Volunteering not only creates a ripple for the organizations and communities involved, but for the individual families, as well.

Kids who start volunteering with their families at a young age are more likely to continue giving back as they get older, and those who have grown up with the program are now looking for opportunities all on their own. One former Pebble Tossers volunteer, now in college, manages her school’s Adopt a Grandparent program.

“It’s a way for parents to pass on those values and instill them in kids at an early age,” Guynn said. “We want to create lifelong volunteers.”

“It’s opening kids’ minds to see opportunities that are out there,” she added.

For more information, families and organizations can go to www.pebbletossers.org.

A safe place for the whole family at The Drake House

Women and children make up more than 40% of Atlanta’s homeless population, contributing to the more than 10,000 individuals experiencing homelessness on any given night.

Finding a safe place for these families to stay can be a challenge, and even more so if the family includes a son age 12 or older. In Atlanta, these boys are typically required to stay in an all men’s facility.

From a need to help keep families intact, and to offer them a stable living environment where they can get back on their feet, The Drake House was born. Founded in 2004, The Drake House is a 16-unit housing program for single mothers who come from North Fulton communities.

The home is located on a MARTA line, allowing kids easy access to their current schools, and provides adequate space for the whole family to stay.

Programming at the house includes mentorship, tutoring, and support for the kids and the mothers. Mothers must be employable or already employed to be eligible. They must live in the community, and the kids must be enrolled in school in the North Fulton area.

Housing must also be the number one priority for the mothers. Once admitted into the house, they work with social workers to outline a personal empowerment plan, and then are held accountable to their goals. Every Monday, mothers are required to attend a life-skills class, which covers a variety of topics like prioritizing needs over wants, household budgeting, making better decisions, and boundary setting.

“We give them the tools and education to help them better manage not only their money, but their lives,” said Kathy Swahn, Executive Director of The Drake House.

Mothers are also required to meet every week with their social worker and a career coach. The Drake House partners with local businesses to provide employment opportunities, and the women must save the money they would otherwise be paying in rent and food costs (all provided at the house).

“That’s a critical goal so they have a nest egg when they graduate from our program to hopefully have enough for a deposit for next-step housing,” Swahn said.

The nonprofit recently acquired another property of 16 units for mothers who have gone through the full program to transition after living in the Drake House. Here, they can pay under-market rent, and must set up utilities in their own name and establish some good credit. This gives families the opportunity for up to 24-months of under-market rent housing and additional services.

Swahn said these services provided are crucial for helping moms and families get back on their feet. “When the moms finally get into the Drake House and unpack their bags, they can take a breath,” she said. “They can sit down with the trained staff, and chip away at layers and layers of trauma.”

“We sit down and say, ‘let’s rediscover your strengths and build your confidence,’” she added. The job readiness programs at the house include resume development, mock interviews, outfitting for work, and babysitters onsite to watch the kids while the mothers are in training. With an average stay of 142, moms who go through the programming see a 45-60% increase in monthly wages.

To learn more about the organization, including details on their upcoming Miss Mary’s Ice Cream fundraiser on August 26th, visit www.thedrakehouse.org.

The sky is the limit with Skye Precious Kids

April (17)When Skye Jones witnessed firsthand the struggles of her coworker in taking care of her ten-year-old son, she felt hopeless.

At ten years old, the boy’s illness prevented him from walking, required a special person to bathe him, and caused some additional hardship for the family.

“I wanted to help her and her son,” Jones said.

To do so, Jones created Skye Previous Kids, an organization that caters to families with kids who suffer from chronic illness. Through educational, health, and well-being services, the group works with children ages 16 and under.

The organization helps families in a variety of ways, including payment assistance for treatment, medical supplies, educational trainings, after-school care, transportation, food, and housing aid.

“If your family has a financial hardship and you need help, and your child has a chronic illness, we are here to listen to you,” Jones said.

The nonprofit partners with the Ronald McDonald House to help provide housing assistance, and helps by paying for first month’s rent for new living situations.

Housing issues can also include making current living situations better. Recently, SPK helped a family with a child with a muscular disorder. Their house was filled with mold, and unsafe for the child. The group inspected the house, hired a contractor, and got the necessary services done for the family to make the house a healthier environment.

To help achieve their goals and offer services to as many families as possible, Skye Precious Kids looks for support in a variety of ways, including volunteers, supplies, and funding.

“The community really plays a part in helping us supply for the needs of these families,” Jones said.

This community includes teachers who donate their time as tutors for kids with additional education needs. “These kids are very smart and independent, but they need help,” Jones said. “Anything that affects the family, we are willing to help. Everybody is affected. The child has the chronic illness, but the people in the immediate family feel it too.”

Individuals can get involved by volunteering for events, or joining the SPK Ambassadors Team. They are also calling for engagement through their SPK Challenge, which asks people to take a picture recreating the organization’s logo, reaching for the sky.

Coming up next month, SPK is hosting an event at Monday Night Brewing on May 10, to help raise money for families in need. Those interested in volunteering or supporting the organization can find out more at www.skyepreciouskids.org.

“I got in this business so I could spread more love around,” Jones said. “It’s just little things that could help a family. We are here to relieve some of that stress, to turn your frown into a smile, and to make it all better.”

Listen to their full episode by clicking here.

Gigi’s House: providing love without strings or sacrifice

Home to the world’s busiest airport, countless convention, and a burgeoning entertainment industry, Atlanta, unfortunately, provides the perfect-storm of opportunity for sex trafficking.

Called, she says, to do her part, Gigi’s House founder Sabrina Crawford has created a safe haven for formerly trafficked girls in the metro area. Providing a space for these girls to escape their situations and get their life back on track, Gigi’s House plays a key role in combatting the trafficking epidemic.

“I knew there was something inside of me that was just on fire to help these girls, and just mentoring them wasn’t enough,” she added. “Once you know that these girls are out on the street, you have to do something. You can’t just sit back and do nothing.”

A former CASA (court appointed special advocate) guardian, Crawford said she saw the problem firsthand, and noticed that the foster system was not always the best place for a girl just out of trafficking.

“I think seeing what the kids going through in the foster system helped me with this home,” she said. “It’s so much for than just being someone’s mom when you have the level of trauma that these girls had. There is no way they can get where they need to be as a young adult without going through the trauma-informed therapy. They have to work through their past issues.”

This trauma, Crawford said, typically includes sexual abuse from within the family of the girl. 95%, she said, have been abused before being trafficked.

“You can’t just put them in a home and expect that they are going to change,” she said. “They don’t know how. They have to be prepared to be independent.”

Now with a ten-room house, Crawford’s organization offers life-skills and a safe space for trafficked girls ages 13-19. The house in single-sex, and girls are homeschooled while they live there. This is important, Crawford says, as this added attention to their specific needs, away from the distractions of the school, helps with their long-term success.

The one-home model, in comparison to traditional foster care, is beneficial to the girls’ recovery, Crawford said. Here, they are able to work with professionals trained in trauma, and aren’t as susceptible to the shame they might feel in an integrated setting. Arming these girls with the practical and emotional skills and tools they need to succeed in the real world, Gigi’s House provides a crucial transformational zone.

With such a high need, Crawford hopes to expand her services to care for more girls. She would love to open a second home, and an independent living home for girls over the age of 19. Here, they will still have the support system, but not as many rules.

“It’s allowing them to start making decisions on their own, but with support staff there with them,” she said.

Those interested in supporting the organization can visit www.gigishouseatl.org or attend one of their upcoming events, including a 5k, a golf outing, and a “Come Together” event, featuring keynote speaker Annie Downs, and award-winning recording artist Meredith Andrews. The concert will be held on Friday, March 23 at Community Bible Church. Tickets are $25, and can be purchased at communitybible.church.

Goodwill’s C3: combining college and career for long-term success

With a goal of assisting 50,000 individuals this year, and placing 24,000 in jobs, Goodwill of North Georgia has all hands on deck to help people find new or better employment.

One of the many ways they are getting the job done? C3: College Career Catalyst.

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Individuals enrolled in C3 enroll in a college or credential program while working with Goodwill to receive additional support and placement help. Working with Goodwill, they participate in skills and professional development trainings while also attending post-secondary courses.

Ashia Walker, one of C3’s Navigators (who help applicants with the program and college), said the work they do with the students is all-encompassing, ensuring success.

“Our job is to help any of our participants who are enrolled in programs with post-secondary education,” Walker said. “That includes helping them figure out where they want to go to school, what they want to study, and helping them get their applications done.”

Once they get into school, the assistance continues through the first semester, making sure they can navigate the campus and their classes. From there, after completing their educational program, Goodwill helps them get a job.

“It’s helping people not just find a job, but helping them find post-secondary education or credentials to help them further their career,” Walker said. This includes assistance for those looking to earn more money, get a promotion, or take on a leadership role.

Ideal candidates for the program are those who have gone through a training at Goodwill, or who are referred from one of the many Goodwill partner organizations. Those working with the C3 program often don’t have any family members who have gone through the college process, and need that extra help.

“They don’t even know where to start,” Walker said. “I’ve had students who actually paid for their FAFSA to be completed, not knowing it was a free application.”

Walker has worked with Goodwill for six years, and has encountered a lot of success stories during her time, including a young man who is now enrolled at Chattahoochee Technical College, with hopes of eventually transferring to Kennesaw State University to study marine biology.

Walker calls his parents once a month to check in on the student and his progress. “That makes me happy every month that he’s still in school,” she said. “It’s important to know that somebody cared and that he wasn’t just a number, and somebody is proud of him.”

The C3 program partners with a variety of local technical college partners, including Athens Technical College, Gwinnett Technical College, and North Georgia Technical College.

With 13 career centers and five dedicated navigators, those interested in working with the C3 program can essentially visit any location to be matched with assistance.  For additional information, please visit www.goodwillng.org/collegecareercatalyst.

EarthShare of Georgia: protecting the environment, one employee at a time

For EarthShare of Georgia, conservation is king. In an effort to protect the air, land, and water, the organization partners with 50 employers from across the state to raise money for environmental nonprofits.

Primarily through workplace giving, EarthShare of Georgia coordinates employee giving campaigns to support more than 60 environmental and conservation organizations. With 30 based in state, and the others nationwide, there is an organization for everyone.

The group started as the Environmental Fund for Georgia in 1992, and then affiliated with the national EarthShare in 2001. In their 25-year history, EarthShare of Georgia has helped raise $6 million for its member groups.

EarthShare of Georgia’s Executive Director Madeline Reamy called into the show first. EarthShare was founded 25 years ago by environmental nonprofits who wanted representation in workplace giving.

Currently, nearly 400,000 employees across the state participate in EarthShare’s giving program, and come from a variety of companies, including Booz Allen Hamilton, Emory University, and MARTA. Employees are able to pick from a slew of environmental nonprofits, like Georgia Conservancy, Trees Atlanta, and Park Pride.

The group remains en vogue, especially as the environment becomes more and more of a hot topic. Many are connecting the dots between the benefits of improving the environment and strengthening communities. This work can also connect companies to volunteer projects in underserved areas.

“That is a new area that we have gotten into that is very exciting, because it brings many more people to the table to have a conversation about the environment and the benefits of a sustainable Georgia,” said Madeline Reamy, Executive Director of EarthShare of Georgia.

Individuals are encouraged to give and volunteer, as it makes such a critical impact on the environment. “The bottom line is those contributions help to conserve land in Georgia, they help to improve air quality, they help to strengthen work and improving the quality of our water,” Reamy added.

EarthShare of Georgia

In addition to the opportunity for employee giving, companies partner with EarthShare for its countless opportunities for employee volunteer engagement. More and more companies are looking for year-round opportunities for their employees to engage and give back to the community.

For them, EarthShare offers a variety of options, including multiple events revolving around Earth Day. The annual holiday is typically used as an entry point for interested organizations, and they can take part in three separate events, including a Corporate Green Day, Earth Leadership Breakfast, and a closing party. Members also receive special invitations to corporate sustainability forums, access to the Green Chamber, and discounted tickets to the sustainability speaker series.

This year’s Earth Day Green Challenge will be held on March 30th and 31st, and the Earth Leadership Breakfast will take place on April 12. Sponsors get package deals to support the different events. This year, Lewis Perkins of Cradle to Cradle will act as the keynote speaker.

More information on EarthShare of Georgia, and how you can get involved, can be found at www.earthsharega.org.

A network for good in Lake Spivey/Clayton County (and beyond!)

Transformational, long-lasting change can take some serious manpower. It needs a group of dedicated individuals, committed to a cause.

It doesn’t get much more dedicated or serious than the 1.2 million membership network of Rotary International, an organization devoted to creating a positive impact in communities at home and abroad.

Rotary International is an international service organization whose stated purpose is to bring together businesses and professionals leaders to provide humanitarian services. The organization wants to advance goodwill and peace worldwide, and is a non-political and non-secular group.

With 35,000 chapters around the world, Atlanta is lucky to have many right in its backyard, including the Lake Spivey/Clayton County Rotary. Now celebrating its 58th Anniversary, the local chapter takes its work, including initiatives in literacy and health, very seriously.

“I feel like it’s one of the best clubs you could possibly be a part of,” said Gina McCombs, President of the group. “It’s a group of community leaders and people who very much care about their community. We spend many, many hours doing service for our community and around the world.”

Groups typically meet once a week, either in-person or virtually. While fulfilling their main tenant of helping the community, it’s also an opportunity for members to form strong friendships.

The Lake Spivey/Clayton County Rotary Club is part of the Rotary’s District 6900, and is one of the biggest in the world, reaching from Tennessee to Florida. “We are an awesome force in the world. We love what we do,” said Claudia Mertl, the group’s Public Image Chair. “We’re passionate about what we do, and we try every way we can to make rotary accessible.”

One of their main passions? Rotary groups both locally and worldwide lend a hand to support the organization’s focus on eradicating polio. These efforts have created partnerships with some heavy health hitters, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the CDC, and the World Health Organization.

“We promised the children of the world that we would stop this disease and Rotarians always keep their promise,” Mertl added.

Locally, the Lake Spivey/Clayton County group has zeroed-in on the tragic reality of human trafficking. Supporting the safe home Gigi’s House, a place for formerly trafficked girls ages 13-19 to leave, learn, and get back on their feet, the group recently donated furniture for the house.

They also take great pride in their dictionary initiative, giving more than 20,000 dictionaries over the last 20 years to Clayton County 3rd graders. For some of these students, it’s the first book they’ve ever owned.

To join the club, individuals must be asked by a current member. A great way to get involved is to visit a club and let the President know of interest. For more information on the Lake Spivey/Clayton County group, visit www.rotarycluboflakespiveyclaytoncounty.org. Other chapters can be found at www.Rotary.org.

Fair and just representation under the law with Gideon’s Promise

The 1963 case of Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous decision that defendants unable to pay for legal representation must be provided on by the state. This landmark decision was the birth of the public defender’s system in the United States, and created a momentous shift in the criminal justice system.

To honor that decision, and to ensure all public defenders were informed, engaged, and encouraged as attorneys, Gideon’s Promise was founded. Started in 2007, the nonprofit works with public defenders across the country to train, mentor and support them to provide quality representation to individuals who can’t afford attorneys.

While working with attorneys directly, Gideon’s Promise wants to shift current cultural perceptions, especially as they pertain to people of limited means. By supporting the grueling work of public defenders, Gideon’s Promise hopes to change the way defendants are processed through the system.

The organization is also trying to do their part in stopping mass incarceration. According to their website, since the Gideon v. Wainwright case was tried in 1963, the prison population in the United States has gone from 217,000 to 2.3 million, even though there has been a decrease in crime rates.

To combat these growing numbers, Gideon’s Promise is making it personal. “We felt like who better to partner with than public defenders who help tell the story of their clients, their client’s significance, their importance, and why we should advocate for people who have no voice in court,” said Ilham Askia, Gideon’s Promise Executive Director.

This partnership starts by acknowledging the demanding workload for public defenders. While the American Bar Association suggests that attorneys take on no more than 150 cases each year, the average public defender tried between 250 and 300. Gideon’s Promise works with young, new attorneys to make sure they are prepared for the work ahead of them.

To achieve its goals, Gideon’s Promise has multiple programs. The New Public Defender Program works with attorneys with less than three years of experience, providing them with comprehensive training and support for the first three years of their career.

To create a pipeline of new public defenders, Gideon’s Promise’s Summer Law Clerk Program attracts and recruits current law students interested in public defense. Each student is paired with a partner law firm for a 6-10 week summer training program.

Askia said their ideal public defender candidates are students already interested in the specialty.

“You have the heart-set, mind-set, soul-set to really do this work,” she said. “You have to really want to change and make a difference in the lives of people.”

“Law school tends to strip the humanity out of it,” she said. “You are learning about the law, but at the end of the day, you are representing people. So when we go into recruit, we try to remind them of that. When you talk about public defense, it takes a special breed of lawyer to do this work.”

For more information on Gideon’s Promise, including how to become a Summer Clerk Program partner firm, go to www.gideonspromise.org, or check them out on Facebook and Twitter.