John Marbury likes to think of the county's seven cooperative ministries as being like gangs.
"The good kind of gangs," explains Marbury, a longtime volunteer at the North Gwinnett Cooperative Ministry in Buford.
Each co-op developed on its own, typically as an outreach project of area churches, and each staked out its own turf. Soon, every area of the county had its own co-op. The co-ops offer the same basic services - food, clothing and help paying bills, as well as spiritual assistance if that's what clients are looking for - but each has its own identity and plays by its own rules. The seven groups know the others exist, but don't typically work together.
"We've got our territory and they've got theirs," Marbury said.
And the co-ops all have their own struggles and triumphs. The best-known of the co-ops, the Norcross Cooperative Ministry and Lawrenceville Cooperative Ministry, have made headlines as they purchased new, permanent buildings. The Southeast Gwinnett Cooperative Ministry is still struggling to find its own permanent home after learning its current building, on loan from a local church, had been sold to the city.
The North Gwinnett Co-op just wants to get its name out to people in the community. Co-op director Maureen Kornowa knows people in the Buford, Suwanee and Sugar Hill areas are eager to help, they just need to know where and how.
"We don't have a budget to advertise what we do. It's all by word of mouth, and there's been no way to get the word out," Kornowa said.
Kornowa has lived in the Buford area for 15 years, but she had no idea the co-op existed until she came in two years ago with a donation from her daughter's outreach club. She soon began to spend three days a week volunteering, and in April, she was named executive director, the only paid position at the co-op.
"I thought, there are so many families in need in my own backyard and I never saw it," she said.
The organizations rely on donations from the community to provide food, clothing and other help, and summer is the time when they could especially use some extra help. Gwinnettians are very giving, but seem to suffer from "out of sight, out of mind" syndrome, Kornowa said.
"People tend to think about us more at Thanksgiving and Christmas, which is great, because we help a lot of families then," she said. "But we feed, clothe and assist people all year long. In April and May, we start to see bare spots on our shelves."
The co-ops are always looking for staple foods, such as boxed meals, cans of tuna and soup, pasta, cereal and peanut butter and jelly. Personal hygiene items and diapers are also must-haves.
Last week, the Buford Post Office delivered 8,000 pounds of food, collected as part of a food drive, to the North Gwinnett Co-op, filling the food pantry shelves. For now, at least.
"We'll go through it quickly," she said.
A place of hope
The North Gwinnett Co-op sits in a squat brick building across the street from Buford's City Hall. The halls inside are dark, but the atmosphere is cheerful. Volunteers give out candy to children on each visit, and have a smile for everyone. In client consultation rooms, the walls are painted with colorful murals and messages of hope - "With five loaves and two fish, he fed thousands," reads one.
"Our feeling is, it doesn't have to be a place of embarrassment," Kornowa said.
Clients are helped on a case-by-case basis, and needs vary, Kornowa said. The co-op serves many senior citizens on fixed incomes who need help paying bills or paying for prescription medications. Often, younger parents who have lost jobs come in for food and bill-paying help.
"We have folks who may have to decide whether to not eat that week or to buy medications," Kornowa said.
Marbury said the consultations are one of his favorite parts of volunteering at the co-op. He gets to know the people he's helping, and he can see firsthand that what he's doing makes a difference in their lives.
The hard part, of course, is having to say no. The co-op offers what it can, but often, funds are short. By the end of the month, there's often not enough money to pay everyone's bills.
"It's not fun," Marbury said.
The goal is to help clients get back on their feet. Kornowa scans the help ads daily and posts job listings on the co-op walls.
"These people are living at the poverty line, but we're not a crutch for them. We're trying to give them a way out," Kornowa said. "Everyone has a story to tell, and it could have been any one of us."
Gwinnett Co-op Guide
•Bread of Life Ministry, serves anyone from metro Atlanta
990 Martin's Chapel Road, Lawrenceville
Hours: From 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Monday and 1 to 2 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday
•Hands of Christ Duluth Cooperative Ministry
3317 Ga. Highway 120, Suite 5, Duluth
Hours: From 4 to 8 p.m. Monday and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday and Friday.
•Lawrenceville Cooperative Ministry, serves Lawrenceville and Dacula
176 Church St., Lawrenceville
Hours: From 6 to 8 p.m. Monday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday and Friday and from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday.
•Lilburn Cooperative Ministry, serves Lilburn and the Gwinnett portions of Stone Mountain and Tucker
5329 Five Forks Trickum Road, Lilburn
Hours: From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Thrift store is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday.
•Norcross Cooperative Ministry, serves Norcross and the Gwinnett portions of Tucker and Doraville
2275 Mitchell Road, Norcross
Hours: From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday and from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday.
•North Gwinnett Cooperative Ministry, serves Buford, Suwanee and Sugar Hill
601 Hill St., Buford
Hours: From 6 to 8 p.m. Monday and 10 a.m. to noon Wednesday and Friday.
•Southeast Gwinnett Cooperative Ministry, serves Snellville, Grayson and the Gwinnett portion of Loganville
2437 East Main St., Snellville
Hours: From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday and Friday and from 3 to 7 p.m. Thursday