Wednesday was something of a welcome change for the United Way of Greater Atlanta as it had a dozen volunteers cooking and bagging meals for HomeFirst Gwinnett’s soon-to-open homeless shelter in Norcross.

The United Way of Greater Atlanta is the umbrella organization for HomeFirst Gwinnett, but it didn’t have chances before Wednesday to do a service project to help the homelessness prevention group because the shelter hadn’t gotten up and running. The COVID-19 pandemic also delayed things for HomeFirst Gwinnett.

“United Way has been involved from the beginning with everything that’s going on, so my team, the volunteerism team, is really happy to finally have a way to show our support with our time and our talent, so we’re excited to be here and be a part of things as they’re launching,” United Way of Greater Atlanta Senior Director of Volunteerism Claire Arnold said.

A dozen United Way of Greater Atlanta volunteers showed up at the shelter Wednesday to assemble 100 grab-and-go breakfast bags and to cook lasagna and chicken pot pies that were immediately frozen after they were cooked for the shelter, which is set to open this summer. There were three pans of lasagna and three pans of chicken pot pies with enough food between the two meals to have 40 servings.

The project was part of the United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Unite For Service week, where the organization takes on service projects around the metro Atlanta area. The United Way had about 40 projects underway with hundreds of volunteers involved in a 13-county area this past week as part of the initiative.

The goal of the project with HomeFirst Gwinnett was simple, according to Arnold.

“Since there are actually not clients on site, the goal is to set them up so that when they do start to get clients, they’ll already have something to be able to feed their residents,” she said.

HomeFirst Gwinnett Norcross Assessment Center Director Brandee Thomas said that will be a major asset to the shelter once it opens.

“It’s huge,” she said. “The way that the shelter is going to run (is) we’ll serve a family-style dinner every day that the shelter is open and then in the morning, we’ll have grab-and-go breakfast and lunch items. We’re going to do takeout for them to have throughout the day.

“So this is huge. Staff will be doing all of the cooking, so to have a couple of meals all ready to go, that is going to be very awesome. It will give us an opportunity to focus on some other things versus having to cook things from scratch.”

It was a particularly important project for volunteer Jacquita Graham because she grew up in Gwinnett County, in the Peachtree Ridge cluster area. She is a frequent United Way volunteer, but that Gwinnett connection was a major part of why she wanted to be a part of this particular project. She helped assemble the breakfast bags, along with five other volunteers.

“It’s amazing to see (the shelter) come about,” Graham said. “I’m aware of the homeless problem in Georgia and particularly in Gwinnett, because having over a million residents now, so I know it’s very needed so it’s very exciting to be here.”

It wasn’t actually her first time doing volunteer work with HomeFirst Gwinnett, however.

“I helped set up the library (and) I was here when they had the warming station,” she said.

For some volunteers, the cooking project was their first in-person volunteer project since before the COVID-19 pandemic began more than a year ago.

One such as volunteer was Luke Maslow, who was helping mix ingredients in the kitchen for the lasagna and chicken pot pies.

“I think part of what I’ve enjoyed throughout my career and throughout my life is being able to volunteer and be with other individuals who want to volunteer and give back,” Maslow said. “But, now being back in person, this is an exhilarating experience. It’s amazing to see people moving around, you bump into each other, you can socialize, (have) fellowship and learn and that’s what makes this awesome.”

Clayton County resident Laketa Yearby participated in the project with her husband, Ajada, and their daughter, Jaccaria. Like Maslow, this was the Yearby family’s first opportunity to do an in-person volunteer project since the pandemic began.

“It feels good to be back actually because we usually do like the shoebox project that the United Way has ... but this is great being amongst people,” Laketa Yearby said.

But, like Arnold, Thomas said she was glad to see HomeFirst Gwinnett have new ways to work with the United Way of Greater Atlanta now that the shelter is getting ready to open.

“This service day, for me personally, has really made me feel like OK, HomeFirst Gwinnett is really and truly a part of the United Way of Greater Atlanta family,” Thomas said. “Even though we always have been, just to see so many different departments come together and get the volunteers here has been really exciting.

“We are looking forward to being able to host other volunteer opportunities once we are up and running.”

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I'm a Crawford Long baby who grew up in Marietta and eventually wandered to the University of Southern Mississippi for college. Earned a BA in journalism (double minor in political science and history). Previously worked in Florida and Clayton County.

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