This story appears in the September edition of 400 Life Magazine.
Joni Smith, president and CEO of The Place of Forsyth, felt the world turn upside down when the COVID-19 pandemic hit more than a year ago.
Many in Forsyth County will always remember how devastating the pandemic has been, especially last year when the community did not yet have access to a vaccine. Residents struggled to keep jobs, families weren’t sure how they could continue to pay for groceries or rent, and some business owners were forced to close.
“Almost overnight, our food pantry saw an increase of over 400% in the number of families coming to The Place for food support each week,” Smith said.
Hit especially hard by this pandemic, nonprofits such as The Place worked overtime to help community members in need with the suddenly limited resources.
Fortunately, The Place and other nonprofits in Forsyth County and surrounding communities found additional support in the North Georgia Community Foundation.
In March 2020, the foundation established a fund for COVID-19, adding $350,000 of its own disaster relief money to the total. It has since given more than $1.2 million through 15 rounds of grants to 123 nonprofits impacted in the region.
CEO Michelle Prater said North Georgia Community Foundation normally works to get funding to nonprofits and communities in need, but the COVID-19 relief fund was set aside specifically for critical needs such as child care services, food, education, rental assistance and health care costs.
To make it easier for nonprofits to request funds, Prater got rid of complicated forms, and asked that nonprofits email her directly with specific needs.
“We didn’t want to make it a really difficult process, because this is such a difficult time,” she said. “When they needed the money, we needed to get out there quickly.”
Prater said she has received more than 1,200 requests from nonprofits in and around north Georgia. The requests are then vetted by a committee that verifies the organization and how its needs are tied to the pandemic.
Community members also came together during the crisis to help the foundation and other nonprofits. Megan Martin, the foundation’s vice president of marketing and development, said many in the community called to see what they could do to help.
The foundation broke $100 million in charitable fund assets for the first time in 2020, and as of May 2021, they had reached $116 million.
Throughout the pandemic last year and into the beginning of this year, nonprofits in Forsyth County saw this same support from community members and the foundation.
“Support from the North Georgia Community Foundation and their donor-advised funds were instrumental in keeping our doors open,” Smith said.
Grants received from the foundation allowed The Place to find new ways for them to help as many in the community as they could.
At one point The Place had enough funds to buy frozen meals from local restaurants who were struggling for business instead of buying from wholesalers.
“It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but for these restaurants it meant their staff had work,” Smith said.
The Place was ordering about 400 meals per week from several Forsyth County restaurants, including Tam’s Backstage, which is owned by Brian and Kelly Tam. Martin said she remembers Brian coming out to The Place’s food pantry to hand the meals out himself, thankful for the support from The Place and the opportunity to support other local families.
Smith said the partnership really benefited everyone involved. She remembered that, during the second week of them handing out frozen meals, one mother began crying because she was so grateful.
The woman also told her she had always wanted to try Tam’s Backstage but had never been able to. The meals, easily heated up in the oven, meant everything for her and her family during such a difficult time.
“We realized then just how significant these meals were for our families,” Smith said. “It reduced their stress. It reduced their worry. And at times, it gave them more than a sense of normalcy, it gave them a surprise – a treat – as something that had been out of reach for them financially, became a gift during the pandemic.”
Helping our youth continue to grow
Leaders and counselors at the Bald Ridge Lodge also found themselves in a bind at the beginning of the pandemic when schools suddenly closed last spring, leaving virtual schooling as residents’ only option.
Executive Director Angela Dike said, at the time, they simply did not have the technology infrastructure they needed for their 12 teenage boys and the administrative staff to work online each day.
A case manager was working to facilitate virtual meetings with medical professionals, workers from placing agencies and families from an old laptop that simply could not support the workload. The staff also needed a centralized server for collaborative projects and file storage as many of them worked remotely.
The community foundation’s relief grant significantly helped the Bald Ridge Lodge, its staff and residents continue working through the pandemic.
Dike said one of the residents had missed 51 days of the 2019-20 school year before he was placed at the lodge in April 2020 during the beginning of the pandemic. Thanks to the foundation’s grant, they were able to upgrade the technology, and he was able to complete the school year virtually along with the other residents.
When the 2020-21 school year started last August, he was still able to attend the same out-of-county school because he had reliable technology to take his classes online. Dike said he worked hard in his classes and with a volunteer tutor to eventually bring his grades up to all A’s.
“As he returns to school face-to-face in the near future, he enters with a renewed focus on achievement which was made possible by his consistent access to his education virtually during COVID-19,” Dike said.
Along with the support for the boys, the technology also gave staff the chance to work without barriers and help residents the best they could throughout the pandemic.
Supporting those who help others
United Way of Forsyth County received several grants from the foundation last year, which went directly to families struggling with rent and to other nonprofits in both Forsyth and Dawson counties.
Officials with United Way decided to match the first grant they received in March 2020, setting aside $50,000 to send to nonprofits and organizations in need.
They helped source PPE and sanitizing supplies for Georgia Highlands Medical Services; they acquired food items and provided masks to RIC-Rack Food Bank in Dawsonville; and they helped to supply smaller food pantries in Forsyth.
“We knew that our larger food pantries here in the county were receiving funding to support food insecure folks, so we supplemented with cleaning supplies, toiletry items, children’s activity bags and school supplies in both Forsyth and Dawson counties,” said Ruth Goode, United Way of Forsyth County’s executive director.
The United Way of Forsyth has worked to support the county and surrounding communities in any way they can since the beginning of the pandemic, but Goode said about half of the funds they received from the foundation were used to keep families in their homes last year.
Many in the community lost jobs or saw a reduction in pay, and with issues securing unemployment benefits, residents were left feeling panicked, clamoring to find a way to pay for rent and utilities.
Goode remembers receiving calls from residents who said they had never asked for help before but had nowhere else to turn.
“It’s something that I’ve never witnessed before,” Goode said. “This truly was a disaster that has hit so many folks, even here in Forsyth County. It’s something you just don’t forget.”
Beginning in March of this year, U.S. Treasury funds for rent and utility assistance have become available to Forsyth County. The Place and United Way of Forsyth are both currently processing applications for the program for residents to continue receiving funds and support from the county.
Goode said she is incredibly grateful for the foundation’s support through the pandemic. Thanks to the grants, United Way of Forsyth was able to help more struggling families than they ever thought possible.
“If we work together and everybody does what they can and does their part, then we can’t be defeated,” Goode said.
Connor Evans contributed to this story.