Norcross co-op assists people during hard times

Photo by Kristen Ralph

Photo by Kristen Ralph

NORCROSS -- Terese Walsh sorted donated clothes at a table the basement of the Norcross Cooperative Ministry on Monday.

The Lawrenceville resident came to the nonprofit as a client 10 years ago after moving to the area from Cleveland, Ohio. With no job, knowing no one locally, Walsh sought a hand up from the organization, which provides food and clothing to those in need and assists clients falling on difficult time financially with paying rent and utilities.

Walsh has been paying it forward ever since, volunteering her time to help others who are going through what she was once. She is one of more than 200 volunteers who work behind the scenes at the Norcross co-op doing myriad tasks, from organizing canned goods on shelves to greeting clients as they walk in the front doors, each small act allowing the co-op to run efficiently and assist the most people possible. These volunteers are passionate about what they're doing.

The ministry's services are much needed these days, perhaps best evidenced by the line that begins stretching outside the building as early as 6:30 a.m., well before the co-op opens at 10 on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Volunteers hand out numbers to the first people in line each morning. The amount of numbers given out depends on the number of volunteers present to assist clients and the amount of food and clothing the co-op has on hand to offer. The co-op is seeing an average of 1,100 clients every month.

"Sometimes we have to turn away people," said Shirley Cabe, the nonprofit's executive director and one of three staff members for the otherwise all-volunteer initiative.

Sarah, a Norcross resident, arrived at the facility about 7:30 on Monday morning to find out the co-op's operating hours. As she watched the line outside the building begin to grow longer, she decided to get in it, receiving number 15 for the day. Her name was called by one of the volunteers about 10:30 and she was escorted into an office area, where Paul, one of the volunteers, asked her about the type of assistance she was looking for and entered her information into the co-op's computer system. A first-time client, Sarah came to the co-op in need of help paying her electric bill. The single mother of three works as a waitress, but an ongoing health issue sometimes prevents her from working as often as she needs to in order to support herself and her family.

"This particular month I didn't get to work as many hours and they cut our hours, too," she said, "so it kind of put me behind."

Through one of the Norcross co-op's grant programs, Paul was able to give Sarah a check Monday made out to Georgia Power for $190.63 to pay a portion of her electric bill.

While Sarah's immediate needs didn't extend to food or clothing, others, like repeat client Esperanza, shopped the clothes closet, a room just outside the office space where used clothing -- all free of stains and holes -- is separated into children's items, women's wear, and clothes for men on different racks attached to the walls. Shoes of all types and sizes, all donations made to the co-op, are organized on a large, wooden shelf. Beside the shelf, undergarments, including bras and socks, sit in plastic storage units. Clients are allowed to select a certain number of items, on this particular day six, per each member in the household. The magic number is determined by the amount of donations the co-op has received.

A couple of shelves outside the clothes closet hold items clients can take freely, including coffee mugs, small, decorative items and other knick knacks.

"A few weeks ago we had somebody come in, a woman with twins who'd lost her job, been evicted from her home and they were sharing one spoon and one fork and one bowl with three people," said volunteer Stephanie King. "For us, these look like trinkets, but if you don't have a coffee cup at home, that's pretty exciting."

Another set of shelves outside the clothing closet holds toys, where children who come with their parents can choose one or two to take home.

"We've had some weeks where we've had (very few) toys and it was just so sad," said 12-year-old Samantha King, a young volunteer who this summer is helping manage the clothes closet on Mondays. "They could take two, but it was like Happy Meal toys. This week we've got a lot more to choose from than we normally do."

Clothes, toys and any other bagged items in hand, clients then move into the adjacent area where the co-op runs its food pantry. Clients are able to select bread items, one to two depending on what the co-op has on hand on a given day, while volunteers gather the nonperishable food items each client is allotted from an expanse of shelves holding anything from canned green beans to ground coffee, which King said is a rare item.

Once clients receive their food, they are sent on their way. Some clients come to the Norcross co-op worse off than others, almost all leaving with something more than they had before walking through the doors. Despite the dire and extenuating circumstances that bring individuals to the Norcross co-op, there is a sense of hope about place.

People come likely discouraged and heavy-hearted, seeking help from strangers, and leave with at least some of their needs met for a time.

It's long-time volunteers like Walsh, the always-smiling Caviness McLean, known as "Mr. C," and Duluth resident Stephanie King and her two children -- 12-year-old Samantha, who helps run the clothes closet, and 8-year-old Landon, who is known a jack of all trades ready to help wherever needed -- that help keep the co-op running during their respective shifts and serving as many clients as possible. But the blessings go both ways.

"What you find is you come thinking you're going to bless somebody with your work and you find it's really the other way around," Stephanie King said. "You're the one that's blessed."