Lawrenceville Cooperative Ministry Executive Director Tom Balog knew, even before the city of Lawrenceville approached him in 2016 asking to buy the co-op’s Church Street building, that the organization needed to expand.
“Right off the bat (when I took over), we were in ‘let’s find a building’ mode,” Balog said. “Key factors we wanted to take into account were size of the building — where we were at, we had kind of a crawlspace basement where we could store things, but it was about 5,000 square feet and we used every inch of that — and parking was a big thing we were looking at.”
Accessibility was also an important factor.
“We had a team of us that would get together and pray for the new building,” Balog said. “We started looking and we found either a big building and 10 parking spaces or we’d find 80 parking spaces and a 3,000- square-foot building. We were trying to stay in Lawrenceville proper, so slowly but surely, (our new) building came up in conversation. It came with an approximate price tag, and we kind of shied away from that.”
As the building, which is located at 52 Gwinnett Drive, next to Lawrenceville Elementary School and across the street from Central Gwinnett High School, came up more and more in conversation, Balog said it became more appealing — to the point where the co-op was determined to find a way to inhabit it.
But the co-op, which now occupies the building — an open house is scheduled for Sept. 8 — was not alone in its determination.
“As we were praying, we started saying, ‘what if we became a ministry community and open it up to other (nonprofits)?,” Balog said. “I was tasked with saying, ‘let’s see if there are other folks interested,’ and the first person I talked to was Brent Bohanan with Habitat for Humanity.”
Bohanan was immediately on board.
“We thought, ‘OK, maybe there’s something to this,’” Balog said. “I had talked to Susan Barge with Navigate Recovery prior to us finding this building, and they were really looking for something more last year, so I thought that was out of the question, but then someone said, ‘no, I think they’re still looking.’ I called her up, and again it was kind of a God thing — they were actually getting ready to sign a contract somewhere else but not really sure.
“I told her about the concept of coming here and being a ministry community, and they came out, fell in love with the idea and (agreed) really fast.”
Finally, Balog approached Fay Josephs, founder of Mending the Gap, a ministry that gives low-income seniors food, transportation and other assistance, while also trying to bridge the generational gap between youth and the elderly.
Josephs, too, wanted to partner with the other nonprofits.
“Each of them are a little bit different, so it came together pretty organically,” Balog said. “You have Habitat for Humanity, and everyone (says), ‘they build houses.’ A lot of times people who come in here aren’t quite ready for that step, but (Habitat) also does work fixing up houses and things like that, so that’s a step. But (our clients) also get into the process of, ‘what would it take to get to that next step?’”
The same goes for Navigate Recovery, a nonprofit that serves individuals and families suffering from addiction.
“They (help) folks going through the recovery process,” Balog said. “A lot of times, it was because of their addiction that they need our services, so that (partnership) works. I don’t think that we’ve quite seen what we can do collectively because we’ve all just gotten here and we’re getting used to our new surroundings and that kind of stuff, but I think (we’re all) going to do more (together).”
The idea of having four community aid organizations under one roof is new one for Gwinnett, as the partnerships mark the first of their kind in the county.
But a ministry community is not a new concept to the state of Georgia, with the Lawrenceville community being inspired, somewhat, by Atlanta’s City of Refuge — a 200,000-square-foot building located in West Atlanta that offers health and wellness services, housing, a safe house for sex trafficking victims, vocational training and youth development.
While the Lawrenceville building, which is 15,000 square feet, may not be able to offer as much as City of Refuge does, the goal is to unite as one voice to aid community members who are struggling.
“It’s very good that we were able to connect together,” Josephs said. “We’re trying to become like a one-stop shop, where it’s just one place where everyone can come to get certain services. When people come to the Co-op, they’re going to go, ‘oh, let me see what’s over there’ and they can stop by the (other organizations) and get the help that they need.”
Bohanan echoed Josephs, saying the collaboration was a “win-win.”
“For us, it’s icing on the cake,” he said. “It’s also great to be a part of something that’s groundbreaking, and Habitat has always been about collaborating and working with other organizations, so it’s right in our DNA.”
Balog said he hopes Saturday’s open house will spread that message.
“I think if we can go as one voice out into the community saying, ‘we have folks working together,’ we can (accomplish) a lot,” he said. “Collectively, we can do so much more.”
For more information about the ministries or the open house, visit lawrencevilleco-op.org.