Staff Photo: John Bohn Maureen Kornowa is the executive director of the North Gwinnett Co-op. The North Gwinnett Co-op opened at a new location Wednesday morning in Buford.
BUFORD -- On a brisk morning in northern Gwinnett County, dozens form a line outside a brick office building complex.
An elderly couple is at the front of the queue. James and Patricia Childers smile: their perpetually optimistic greeting to a world which has spared them no pain.
A suite inside the office complex is abuzz with chatter as a group of a dozen volunteers stand in a circle. Their leader, Maureen Kornowa, gives them instruction. She coaches them. Before turning to unlock the glass doors behind her -- where families like the Childers silently wait -- she asks a volunteer to offer up a prayer.
A faith-based, non-profit organization, the North Gwinnett Cooperative provides food, clothing, lights, heat, water and prescription medication assistance to senior citizens and those with low income levels. What started in the basement of a church in 1991 has helped more than 15,000 families in Buford, Sugar Hill and Suwanee.
As the reach of the organization has expanded so has the need for larger and more appropriate headquarters to house its operations. This week, more than 50 volunteers and the cooperative's board of directors celebrated the opening of the new location at 4395 Commerce Drive, Buford. It's the second relocation for the North Gwinnett Cooperative and, Kornowa hopes, the last.
"We've found a very good spot here, and it's been a blessing," Kornowa said. "God has had his hands all over this thing. He's been blessing us at every corner."
Having recently moved from 70 Wiley Drive -- the old Buford City Schools board of education building -- Kornowa said there's a sense that the organization has found its permanent place. "We were blessed for many years, because the city of Buford donated the space (at 70 Wiley Drive) and didn't charge us any rent. But it was time, because it was an old building and we were spending a lot on utilities to heat and cool a building that old."
Added Kornowa: "If one thing the down economy afforded us, it was the opportunity to buy a foreclosed building and slide in. If every cloud has a silver lining, that would be ours."
The move, she said, represents a new chapter for the organization.
"Now, we're trying to find ways to do what we do in bigger and better ways," she said. "Our goal is to move from being a band-aid type agency to a life-changing agency, bridging critical gaps for families in need in times of crisis."
One man who's received much assistance from North Gwinnett Cooperative is Roger Ergle of Sugar Hill.
For nearly a year, the disabled man has scraped by on Social Security checks. Ergle said he could never pay back the volunteers at the organization for the groceries and the help with utility bills.
"I'm lucky they're here. How do you ever thank somebody for giving so much," Ergle said, choking up. "They're angels on earth."
Kornowa said it's through the cooperative's thrift store, Second Blessings, that the organization can help with bills for those like Ergle who are on the verge of having their power or water shut off.
"We call utility companies to make sure the bills are absolutely past due, because we can't help with current bills," Kornowa said. "We try to help those who are in danger of having their utilities cut off. Then, we'll give the client a check made payable to the utility company. It's their responsibility to get the check to the utility company."
She said clients who come to the cooperative in search of food rather than financial assistance can help themselves to a loaf of bread, stacks of which sit on a long folding table in the front lobby.
"We get them to sign their name on a sheet out front, and we give them a ticket," she said. "With the ticket, a family of one to three people will get a small bag of assorted groceries, and a family of four to six will get a larger bag."
As she clutched a bag of groceries in her arms, Patricia Childers smiled. Her husband, James, offered a friendly greeting as well.
The couple is out of work, homeless, ailing from debilitating cases of diabetes and mourning the recent death of their only son. But one would never guess it from their attitudes.
"If it weren't for the co-op, we would be out on the street or dead even," Patricia said. She explained that the organization was currently helping them afford to live at an extended stay hotel in Suwanee. "It seems like for a while it was one crisis after another. But we keep our heads up...we wouldn't probably be here if not for Maureen (Kornowa) and the co-op."
Added Patricia: "She's like Mother Teresa to us. She's North Gwinnett's Mother Teresa."
To learn how to help out at the North Gwinnett Cooperative, visit www.northgwinnettcoop.org or call 770 271-9793.
The organization is holding a ribbon cutting ceremony from 5 to 8 p.m. Oct. 2 to celebrate the opening of the new building.