CUMMING — A staple in Forsyth County’s community assistance has a new director, and she has begun blazing a path for finding new ways to help those in need.
Joni Smith took over as executive director at The Place of Forsyth County in January and aims to use her array of past work experiences to expand the reach of who the 40-year nonprofit benefits.
“We want to morph with what the community needs,” said Smith in her new office atop the warehouse-style thrift shop and food pantry.
In her first month at The Place, her priorities included evaluating the need for a work force development program and writing grants.
She said she wants to find ways to run charitable programs without building entitlement in those receiving assistance.
“There’s a fine line between charity and taking away their self-sufficiency,” she said. “We want them to keep their dignity.”
Smith’s career, which began in central Florida, has prepared her for just that.
Before replacing Sandy Beaver, who was executive director for 15 years after beginning as a volunteer in 1995, Smith garnered 24 years in hospital administration.
About five years ago, she entered the nonprofit world by working for the Boys and Girls Club of Lake and Sumter Counties in Florida. In her time there, she saw the chapter grow from two to seven locations.
When her twin daughters began college — they play soccer at the University of Florida — she found herself a state north, living in Alpharetta and working in the disaster relief division for the Northeast Georgia Chapter of the American Red Cross.
In June, she began work at Atlanta Children’s Shelter — a day care center that provides an educational curriculum to young children and social and professional development services to their families — in midtown Atlanta.
“[Atlanta Children’s Shelter] is centered as what I see as a good program to get people into the work force,” Smith said.
Which brings her to The Place.
“With my fundraising background, and I’m big on building partnerships in the community,” Smith said, “we have enough resources and talents to fix a community of needs. And I’m trying to build those [partnerships].”
The recent launch of a pillow and blanket drive for homeless students — there are more than 500 in the school district — and their families mirrors the values and services Smith wants to retain at The Place.
“The Place has been a catalyst for a lot of community needs. We have that history,” she said.
She noted the nonprofit’s food pantry is the only one in the county open six days a week, and she doesn’t expect that to change.
While The Place may be known for its emergency services, such as paying bills for residents in need or giving food free of charge or eligibility requirements, she wants to build on those immediate benefits by providing long-term support.
Such as encouraging gardening.
“Everyone can raise something that’s healthy for them. It doesn’t have to be huge,” she said. “Even if it’s just in one planter. And it can be a family project.”
She said she wants to grow the meal room into a community room.
Nearly $1 million was distributed to people throughout Forsyth County in 2014, from direct bill payments to bags of food.
“We have the emergency assistance,” Smith said. “I don’t see us reducing anything we’re doing.”