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The Place of Forsyth County reflects on changes, goals during anniversary
Joni Smith, director of The Place, said one of her goals is to help people while letting them retain their dignity. The organization celebrated 40 years of service Friday. - photo by Micah Green

CUMMING — Forsyth County has changed drastically over the years, but the mission of The Place of Forsyth County has remained the same as when four Adrian Dominican nuns came to the area in 1975 with the objective of eliminating poverty.

Friday saw the nonprofit packed with board members, community activists and local volunteers as they celebrated 40 years of The Place serving Forsyth County residents in need.

One organization has witnessed the growth of Forsyth County. It saw outreach start with woodworking and sewing skills, morph into emergency assistance  to prevent homelessness and recently begin to shift toward community outreach and on-the-go work force development services.

“We have everything we have and got where we are today because of the past and who was there to do what needed to be done at that time,” said Becky Powell, a board member on and off for the last 13 years. “But now we can do so much more and in a different way.”

Powell said there should “be nobody in this community who is in need.”

But not everyone who needs help may reach out for it or even know the options.

Joni Smith was brought into the executive directorial role of the nonprofit in January. One of her goals, she said, is to help people while letting them retain their dignity.

New projects such as The Market allow people to pick out their own food from the pantry so they don’t feel like they’re being shoved handouts.

“Sometimes it’s bittersweet to even reach out for anything,” said Nina Swift, a client of The Place.

Swift is a working grandmother who has guardianship of her 8- and 10-year-old grandchildren. She cares for them and her 84-year-old mother, whose cancer just returned after an initially successful round of chemotherapy, and their only paycheck comes from her job as a cafeteria worker in a public school in the county.

“They help fill in the gap,” Swift said.

In the past that gap has been holiday meals or school backpacks. Other times it was a scholarship for her grandchildren to a YMCA summer camp or a heating bill she could not afford in the winter.

“I go to work every day, but sometimes that’s not enough,” she said. “It’s falling short of having a better life.”

She said everyone she encounters at The Place works to disbar the stigma connected with those who need help with bills or food.

“They just help everybody,” she said.

Sometimes that help is simply encouragement. A push to prove anyone has what it takes to be valuable.

Three weeks ago, Lynn Sennett filled a new role at The Place as a life and career coach.

“I see everyone from low-educated people with troubled pasts who are timid to even come in to people with a degree but maybe they’re fleeing a husband and left everything behind, and they don’t have any self-esteem,” Sennett said. “I just advocate for the people. What does this person need? How can we provide it?”

From buying someone a suit to mentoring them on interview questions, Sennett’s new role aims to build on emergency assistance by promoting self-sustainability.

One of her clients has been Swift. Swift is now gearing up to attend classes after her job to earn an associate’s degree and work as a medical coder.

“They’re building me back up to where I can stand on my own two feet,” she said.

What it takes to stand on your own may have changed in 40 years, and those necessities are what members of The Place are adapting toward.

Board member Powell recounted The Place as a crutch of community support when the nuns started out.

“It used to be, ‘You need help? Whatever it is, just go to the nuns’ place. They’ll help you.’ We want to get back to that,” Powell said. “Where anyone can say, ‘You need help? Go to The Place. They’ll help you.’”