Tending to ATLs Urban Forest

Atlanta is known as the “city in a forest,” and it’s a fitting name. Over 50% of the city is shaded by our urban forest (Nowak and Greenfield 2012), which is more than any other major city in the country.

That’s what made working with Trees Atlanta, a non-profit organization tasked with being an advocate for Atlanta’s urban forest as well as the Beltline that runs through it, such an interesting opportunity. When you volunteer with Trees Atlanta, one day you could be pruning trees in Midtown, and the next you’ll be in Cabbagetown planting native species. During my experience, I was working in Inman Park on the Beltline, removing invasive species that were beginning to choke out some of the native grasses and plants that help support many of the essential pollinators indigenous to Georgia (of which there are over 100). It was still early, but the day was building. Equipped with gloves and buckets, we set to pulling ragweed, asthma weed, and Japanese hops.

I found that as I was doing something as simple as removing weeds, I was helping maintain a part of what makes this city truly unique. In major cities across country, many can only go to a park to interact with nature, a human-controlled setting for pre-packaged nature consumption. But only here, in Atlanta, can you walk at once beneath skyscrapers and a canopy of oaks perhaps older than the city itself. Continually, as you live in Atlanta, you consciously and subconsciously interact with the natural world. It was happening right in front of me. Between each dirt-caked handful of roots I pulled, I looked up to the Beltline humming around us, watching dog walkers, bikers, runners, and families, and saw this city living with nature rather than against it.

And for us tending to the Beltline’s native grasses? The Trees Atlanta group leader, Brie, put it perfectly, “There are so many people working against the environment. I just felt like I needed to be a one of the people working for it.”

Part of being human is striving to be a part of something greater than oneself; part of being an Atlantan, I suppose, is that you work, live, and grow all around it.

Trinity Night Shelter

When I was 14 years old, my school required all students to pick a charity, community, or shelter at which to volunteer their time for the upcoming Service Day. I was young & immature, so naturally, I chose the same place as my best friends—“Trinity Night Shelter” the signup sheet read. Those friends have since come & gone, but 10 years later, I continue to spend time at Trinity.

In fact, this past weekend, I had the opportunity to visit the shelter with my parents, who had never been. It was my mother’s birthday, and instead of doing something fancy & overpriced for dinner, I suggested we cook a meal and dine with the gentlemen at Trinity. My mother certainly didn’t expect to spend her birthday breaking bread with recovering substance abusers, but by the end of the meal, I could tell it had already delivered more satisfaction than a meal at any of Atlanta’s top fine dining establishments.

To provide some background, the Trinity House ultimately acts as a sanctuary. Its “Neophytes” as they are called, are men aged 18-55 who were quite recently homeless, jobless, and addicted to drugs. Trinity opens its arms to these individuals, combining a protective home, nurturing staff, and substance rehabilitation services to assist these gentlemen on their path to recovery. Every weekend, Trinity affords volunteers the opportunity to prepare & share a meal with these brave souls, so that’s what we decided to do. 

Beforehand, my family prepared spaghetti with meat sauce, veggies, cornbread, and desserts. At the shelter, we held hands in prayer, we shared our stories from the week, we laughed, we cried, we ate, and we gave our hugs goodbye. Most importantly, we had the chance to gain deeper insight into each other’s lives. For my family & me, it was extremely humbling. For the Neophytes, it offered a brief glimpse into life on the other side of recovery. Many of these men had lost their families, their homes, their security, and their happiness. By simply taking a couple hours out of our Sunday evening, we provided these guys with a glimmer of hope.

I’m so fortunate for many things in life, but really what I was fortunate for yesterday was the opportunity to make somebody’s day. Though some of those high school friends have disappeared from my life, the Trinity Night Shelter will always be there, and I’m very proud to be a part of such a benevolent organization.

Always,

Justin

Better Choices

Like the guy at the of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade who chose the wrong cup for the holy grail, I chose “poorly” when I selected southWIRED as my non-profit. It’s not because southWIRED is an unworthy cause, I just feel it goes against the spirit of Advice For Good which is to serve those truly in need. My new non-profit is Operation Gratitude

I always love to see those people at the Atlanta Airport arrivals gate who cheer and hug returning soldiers. It’s pretty moving as these folks are coming back from serious, probably life threatening duties on the same flight that I just came back from vacation on. Whatever your opinion of our military, serving can be tough and coming home can be just as daunting. So I am committing to write letters for at least one hour per month for the next 12 months.  

Don’t get me wrong, southWIRED will be amazing, but it’s going to serve those who are already doing pretty well in their lives. We don’t have PTSD. We don’t have to read to our kids over Skype. We sleep soundly at night without worry. Perhaps my letters can remind someone they are not forgotten and someone who doesn’t know them cares. 

Beyond the Donation Bin

My first visit to the Atlanta Community Food Bank (ACFB) was a great experience.  We packed 7,689 pounds of food, enough for 6,407 meals.  Those of us fortunate enough not to worry about where we are going to get our next meal take for granted that there will be a next meal.  In this Costco-sized facility, you begin to get a glimpse of the other side.  

This was my first food bank experience that didn’t end with bringing a canned good to a donation bin.  I now have some idea of what happens next.  All packages have to be inspected to make sure they’re not expired or damaged.  Chocolate and baby food are removed completely, although there are some gray areas like semi-sweet chocolate chips, which apparently count as food.  Items are sorted into categories and packed together into boxes.  Those boxes are then weighed and labeled for distribution.  Items that are not used are recycled.

I came alone for my volunteer duty, but in order for the session to be successful, everyone needs to work as a team.  There were some other corporate volunteers, and for the second half of our shift, a high school group showed up.  That ramped up our productivity significantly.  During the session, you start to become more efficient at your task, discovering shortcuts that speed up the process.  Repeat volunteers often take the same position.  I think I’m better at sorting now, but it might be fun to try a different position next time.

I think the ACFB would be a good volunteer day activity for our company as well as other companies in the community.  It fosters teamwork and generates awareness of an important cause.  I appreciate having the opportunity to donate my time and encourage others to do the same.

Atlanta Mission: The Line

Staring out into the cafeteria, it broke my heart to see such a long line of people who were in need of the basics like food, water and clothing. I briefly caught eyes with some of the members in line and noticed a sense of embarrassment and anger.However, it was refreshing to see  how many people were on my side and willing to help. Serving at the Atlanta Mission was a rewarding experience for me, I worked on a team of about 8 people that ran an assembly line that ultimately feed approximately 250 people. We literally served dinner plates until all the food in the kitchen was gone. I couldn’t help but to realize how fortunate I was but more importantly, how quickly I could be in the same situation.On my way out, I spoke to a man who was dealing with drug addiction. He told me a summary of his story and his plans for the future. I made a connection to this specific member because he had a plan for after the mission. I respect that. I plan on volunteering more often at the Atlanta Mission in the near future. 

Learning about Startups with Colin Ake

I’m a high school senior, and getting the opportunity to meet with Colin Ake through Advice for Good was fantastic. I got to learn a lot about startups, and gave back to the community by volunteering to make a website for free for a nonprofit organization that raises awareness of gender inequality.

Read more about my experience on my personal blog!

Meeting The Need

As a 29-year-old, it’s great to know there is still a place where being miscalculated as a high school student is possible. Last week, I volunteered at the Atlanta Food Bank and I unexpectedly learned what it’s like to live in the Middle East. It turned out my day volunteering would parallel a fellow volunteer’s journey to this region. 
Before I share how the connection happened, let me rewind.
I recently decided to walk away from our marketing company. As a part of this transition, I sought community and mentoring to help guide me through this transition.
Over the years, I have stayed connected with Jeff Hilimire. Jeff Hilimire is the owner of a company called DragonArmy, and he was someone who came to mind as I sought council. Well it seems, there are others who see Jeff as an approachable person and so he came up with a neat idea called ‘Pay it Forward’. The idea being, when I agreed to meet with Jeff, I committed to volunteer at least one hour of my time to help others. In addition, I agreed to write about my experience.
With the intent to go outside of my comfort zone, I asked Jeff if he would recommend a place I could serve. He mentioned the Atlanta Community Food Bank had a need for volunteers and he recommended I serve there. After our time together, I went online and signed up to volunteer in the program called ‘Kids In Need’.
Kid’s in Need is a program of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, and they aim to provide a free store for educators to supply their classrooms with the tools for academic success. My volunteer position was to help load the supplies received by the teachers into their vehicles.
The day came and I drove down there about an hour early. By being early, it allowed me time to talk with the staff, learn about their mission and fill out paperwork. It also opened up opportunities for me to help and engage with the volunteers while we waited for the teachers to arrive.
One such opportunity was talking with a woman who, I came to find out, worked with the United States Government over the past 6 years. While working, she spent most of her time in Dubai and Iraq. With limited experience out of America, I decided to take this opportunity to learn. I proceeded to ask her about her perspective after being oversees.
I first asked her what it was like returning to the states and what her perspective of our country was. She proceeded to share how much she realized we, in America, take for granted. Being incubated in our country, there are so many little things in life we have access to that most of the world does not. She also shared how in America, we are busy and we work at a break neck pace. In these other areas of the world, they take their time and focus more on what is in front of them.
This was compelling, but I wanted to learn the other side of the coin. I flipped the question around to expand my perspective and I proceeded to ask her what does America value compared to this region. Her first response was our value for family. In America, we value and cherish family in a way they do not. In those parts of the country, she experienced how they would abandon or sell a family member with little or no hesitation. I asked her about the difference between the two worlds when it comes to generosity. She said we are much more generous than what she experienced from these areas of the world.  We give, help the poor and they tend to do the opposite.
It was humbling to learn how much we take for granted and how rushed we are in our culture. It was also reassuring to know our value for family, generosity and helping others was a strong point in our culture. As she shared, she said there was no way for us to understand and feel what it was like without experiencing it for ourselves. 
This made me think about what I was doing volunteering with Kids In Need. Before Jeff connected me with the Atlanta Food Bank, I had a limited understanding of the need our city had in this area. People in our community need help to survive, and teachers need materials and supplies to teach their students. The need is big, and being in this season of transition allowed me to slow down to such a level I could see what was going on around me.
As I loaded the cars, I asked teachers their names, what they taught and why they taught. I met teachers from all grades and subjects as I loaded cars with school supplies. I was contributing to the bigger picture. My commitment to volunteer was a profound analogy of how busy my life had gotten, and how little I appreciated the little things in life. By volunteering, it helped me to cherish my commitment to family, generosity and helping others.
I challenge you, go outside your comfort zone and consider volunteering. Find an organization like the Atlanta Community Food Bank and try it out. It just might change you.

I’m a Computer Science major at the University of Georgia, and I recently met with Jeff Hilimire of Dragon Army for an hour of discussion about the tech industry and advisement regarding my future place in it. He was also nice enough to show me around the Atlanta Tech Village and let me sit in on Dragon Army’s morning stand-up. It was easily the coolest hour in recent memory. In addition to all that, Jeff connected me to three awesome internship opportunities.

In return, he asked that I volunteer an hour of my time to the service of any charitable cause. This brought about a slightly disturbing realization - This would be the first hour, out of all the hours that have passed since I gained sentience, that I would be actively serving a charitable cause. 

I like to think of myself as a kind and charitable person, I’ve always tried to help others when presented with an opportunity to do so. However, I had never thought to seek out these opportunities. Growing up in the suburbs, without religion and outside of community organizations, perhaps I had allowed my world to shrink too small. I had no connection with my next-door neighbors, let alone those in the community who could have used my help.

As a student of political science (I’m an International Affairs double major) I’m used to thinking of poverty and the myriad social problems it spawns in terms of statistics, and solutions in terms of policy proposals. These were nation-scale problems - about which I, operating at medium sized man scale, could do absolutely nothing. It was for governments to solve these problems. My part would be to pay my taxes, vote for Democrats, and ponder over which policies might bring about the most positive change.

It was certainly a change of perspective to find myself making chili in the kitchen of the Athens Area Homeless Shelter.

I was very excited for my introduction to the world of active charity. I expected that my notion that the problems of society were intractable would soon be proved wrong. I arrived at the shelter with a package of assorted bell peppers - my humble contribution to the meal. I was struck immediately by the small size of the building, and with how few people seemed to be living there. There were, by my count, three young families present, and one older woman who may or may not have been part of one of the families.

I had also expected to feel awesome, I’d expected my heart to fill with the good feeling you get when you know you’ve really helped someone out. I waited for the feeling, but as we finished cooking and left the residents to their chili, cornbread, baked potatoes, and banana pudding (there must have been days of leftovers), it still hadn’t come. I felt normal. Happy to have helped, but far from bursting with satisfaction and pride.

Driving home, I realized that this was probably how it’s supposed to feel. I’d done a small amount of good for a small number of people in a short amount of time - it’s only right that I get a small amount of satisfaction in return. 

I came away from this experience without any illusions about how much of a difference I made to the lives of the residents, or to solving the problem of homelessness and poverty. I had been right, in a way. These are intractable problems, but the cool thing about intractable problems is that they can be solved - it’s just that there’s no quick and easy way to do so. You solve them though slow and plodding steps, and there’s little glory to be had. But it’s worth it. 

That’s step one for me.

Giving Back

I was able to spend 3 hours working at the Oasis Católico Santa Rafaela Center, located in Athens Ga.  The Oasis Center is located in a poverty-stricken hispanic neighborhood that hundreds of families call home.  The Oasis Center is a Catholic after-school center that host 115 students between the ages of 3-12 where the primary focus of the school is to help teach English, while offering a safe place for these children to have fun.  I met with Sister Margarita and was embraced with open arms.  As soon as I got there I was put to work painting their new tool shed and when I was done I was able to spend some time playing games with the children. It is great to know that I was able to help the Oasis Center that is doing so much for these children in need and I look forward to helping them again soon.  

Playin’ in the Dirt Again

Garden Entrance at the Wylde Center in Decatur

The winter vortex has eased its grip on Atlanta at last (knock on wood) and spring is in the air! To celebrate, Mattie and I traveled out to the Oakhurst Community Garden at the Wylde Center in Decatur. As the photos attest, it was literally a perfect day to be out in the open air getting down and dirty.

During the day, we worked with JC, a community gardener who studied political science and environmental law but left it all behind after she spent a season working the farmer’s life. JC led Mattie and I to the tomato garden and gave us our assignment for the day:

Move an assortment of tomatoes from here: 

tomato greenhouse

To here: 

Tomato field

Using these: 

wagons

Mattie and I had a blast! It was great exercise, we learned that there are way way way more varieties of tomatoes than what you see at your local grocery store, and it was awesome to spend an afternoon and see the steady progression of your work building on itself.

Everyone at the Wylde center was happy and friendly, I’d recommend spending an afternoon of volunteer gardening there to anyone looking to lend a hand and get some exercise - just be sure to bring a change of clothes!