By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published April 2, 2015
ATLANTA—Setting down roots in a new neighborhood, the St. Vincent de Paul Society is initiating a novel approach to serve the community in southeast Atlanta.
The new venture allows them to serve as a hub of community development, partnering with educational nonprofits and neighborhood associations, in addition to offering services to people in need.
With oversized scissors, leaders of the Catholic service agency on Wednesday, March 25, cut a blue ribbon strung between columns at a former SunTrust bank branch as it reopened as the Lakewood SunTrust Community Outreach Center.
John Berry, chief executive officer of St. Vincent de Paul Georgia, said the building expands the nonprofit’s efforts in one of the city’s most challenged neighborhoods. “It is a great opportunity for us to get into a part of town that has a whole lot of need,” he said.
The building has two floors, covering 11,000 square feet. A thrift store and offices take up the top floor. The bottom floor has a large multipurpose room for community meetings and educational programs, along with a separate room reserved for a computer lab. The food pantry is also on this floor. The organization spent about $75,000 to redesign the building to serve its purpose. Contractor T.D. Farrell Construction was applauded for its cost-saving contribution at the site.
Located at 1700 Lakewood Ave., SE,, the center is about two miles south of Turner Field in the Lakewood Heights area. The area is very poor. The median household income is about $21,000 a year. The poverty rate is more than double that of the metro Atlanta area. More than half of children under 18 in the area live below the poverty line.
The brick building was a bank for nearly 50 years, part of this neighborhood’s small commercial core. But many of the buildings are vacant now. The branch closed in response to the growth of online banking and changes in the industry.
SunTrust donated the building to the nonprofit. Jenner Wood III, the president and chief executive officer of SunTrust Bank, Atlanta Division, said the building was part of the community for nearly five decades. The bank owned the building and leaders wanted a partner to put it to good use and continue to serve residents, said Wood. SunTrust was “so lucky to find” St. Vincent de Paul to offer its programs here, he said.
Atlanta City Council President Ceasar C. Mitchell said he applauded the news when he heard St. Vincent de Paul was moving into the neighborhood.
“It really is more than a closure. It is a rebirth, a renewal,” he said, speaking to the crowd gathered outside the building to watch the opening and tour the building.
The goal is to develop the facility as a hub of activities for the neighborhood and invite other agencies to use the resources there and partner with St. Vincent de Paul.
The first collaboration is with The Edge (Empowering and Developing Georgia’s Entrepreneurs) Connection, which trains low- to moderate-income women, minorities and veterans in skills to start a small business.
Edge executive Terri ElHaddaoui said the goal is to support and train people who have drive and creativity to successfully launch their own businesses. The program will host classes at the Lakewood Center twice a week. Edge is based at Kennesaw State University.
“It’s the microbusinesses that communities are built on. They develop self-sustaining ecosystems,” the chief executive officer said.
The new organization is near Aaron’s Amphitheater and Screen Gems film studio. There are also other nonprofit ventures nearby, including Community Grounds coffee shop, part of FCS Urban Ministries, Community Economic Development program. This program hopes to open a produce market in its building in the next few weeks.
There are four other St. Vincent de Paul family support centers around metro Atlanta. This will be the only center run by the central SVdP office, not by a parish conference.
The Sullivan Center, a longtime presence on Dill Avenue that merged with the St. Vincent de Paul Society in 2012, could close once the Lakewood Center is running. Berry said the organization is “looking strongly” at the Sullivan Center’s future.
The staff at the Lakewood Center will serve clients with the help of volunteers from parishes around downtown Atlanta and Hapeville. The thrift store is already open and other programs will begin in a month.
Kevin Barbee, chief operating office of St. Vincent de Paul, said to succeed, the facility staff will have to do a lot of listening to neighbors and learn what they want to improve their community and their self-sufficiency. Said Barbee, “We can’t do cookie-cutter.”