The COVID-19 pandemic limited the ways The Place of Forsyth could serve the community during a time when more and more families were reaching out for help.
President and CEO Joni Smith said the local pantry jumped from serving an average of 85-100 households per week to an average of 400 in 2020. Due to this increase, the nonprofit was no longer able to invite all these families into the building or pantry.
With limited physical space, The Place was unable to accommodate safety precautions inside the pantry. They were forced to begin giving out pre-made boxes of food where before families could pick their own food from the shelves using allotted points.
“None of us liked it …. but we were still in survivor mode,” Smith said.
But this year, The Place has found a way to bring families back into the building and give them back that freedom of choice.
New shopping method
One way they were able to offer the choice of items and food back to clients was through a new software, which allows families to pick out items they want online that are currently available in The Place’s warehouse.
Smith compared it to Instacart, which many have started using during the pandemic to order groceries from Publix and other stores on mobile devices.
To use the software, clients don’t always need their phone or access to the internet. They can come to The Place, and a volunteer will help them order whatever they may need for the next week.
Once they order what they want from a list of The Place’s inventory, a receipt is printed at the warehouse on Martin Road where volunteers then pack up bags according to the list. The bags are later brought to The Place where volunteers will bring them out to clients waiting in the parking lot.
“Not only does it help us control inventory better, but more importantly, it allows our clients to have a choice,” Smith said. “So they’re able to decide what they take home to their kids, and they’re able to better plan and use their food stamps for what they can’t get here.”
Before the start of the pandemic, Smith said she and her team began working with an architect to physically expand the food pantry to give families more space to come in and shop with points for the items they needed. As the pandemic began to calm down, The Place’s team decided that a major physical remodel was no longer needed.
"With the technology currently available, we felt an investment in software was a more efficient way to bring back choice to our clients and a more effective use of the resources the community has given invested in our programs and services,” Smith said.
So far this year, more than 960 households representing more than 3,000 individuals have used The Place of Forsyth's pantry for supplemental food, including 216 households who needed to use the pantry for the first time.
Clients waiting outside of The Place for orders of frozen meat, fresh produce and other items said they like the new software.
One woman said she has been coming to the pantry for about a year and the services offered at The Place have been amazing for her and her family.
“I’m just thankful I can get food every week,” she said. “I like [the new shopping system] much better you can get what you want and pick your own stuff.”
Smith said the software took about two months to fully implement, and it has required much more work from their volunteers to take orders, pack bags and get them out to families. In the end, though, she said it is entirely worth it to give that freedom of choice back to clients.
The nonprofit plans to continue to give choice back to families through the holidays this year with one of its largest annual events — The Place Holiday House.
7th annual The Place Holiday House
The Place of Forsyth hosts a toy drive each year starting in November to collect toys and gifts for kids of all ages throughout the community. After collections are over, it invites registered parents to come out and shop, using points, for gifts for each child.
They can then wrap the gifts at The Place of Forsyth and have them ready for their kids to open during the holidays.
“The kids receive great gifts, but the true benefit is for the parents who are able to create the magic of the Holidays for their children according to their traditions and customs,” Smith said.
Last year during the height of the pandemic, the nonprofit could not invite families to all shop together for their kids among the donated items. Instead, they asked parents to send in wish lists that they tried to fulfill.
More than 2,100 kids received gifts donated to The Place last year, but for its 7th annual Holiday House, Smith and her team wanted to invite parents back out to pick out gifts.
“That’s really important that the parents are treated with dignity and they, just like with the food, get to choose what they want and the gifts their kids would want,” Smith said.
More than 1,800 children from 630 families have registered for Holiday House this year, and shopping days for parents are planned for Dec. 13-18 at Freedom Tabernacle Church.
Smith said The Place of Forsyth will be collecting toy donations for the shopping days through Dec. 9, and they continue to look for help from the community to collect all the gift donations they will need for the holidays.
Those interested can help by donating items for kids to The Place of Forsyth or making a financial donation. For ideas of what families may want, the nonprofit created a gift guide, which can be found on is website at www.theplaceofforsyth.org/holidayhouse.
They also have an Amazon wish list, which allows community members to purchase gifts from Amazon and have them delivered directly to The Place of Forsyth.
Smith said they receive many donations of kids’ toys during the holidays, but this year, they also want to put a focus on middle and high school students who are often overlooked.
Gift suggestions for teens include headphones, watches, gift cards, books and sunglasses along with a full list of other items.
“It seems like, ‘Oh, it’s just Christmas gifts,’ but the fact that they can go back to school and say, ‘Look, I got these new shoes,’ or ‘I got a bike,’” Smith said. “They don’t have to know that you donated it. They just know that with their family and custom, they were able to have a wonderful holiday.”
“We’re really glad that parents get to come back this year and shop,” she said.
Those with questions can email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
The Place will also be looking for donations on Giving Tuesday right after Thanksgiving on Tuesday, Nov. 30. An anonymous donor offered to match any donations given by the community to The Place that day up to $20,000. Smith said this donation could give a huge boost to the programs and services leading up to the holidays in December.
“We are very grateful for this donor,” Smith said, “and excited to share that 100% of donations received will go to programs and services.”
The Place of Forsyth — where every Person, Dollar and Hour has a PURPOSE — has been serving the Forsyth County community for more than 45 years. For more information, visit www.theplaceofforsyth.org.