From Hunger to Happiness
Jennifer Barnes: 2022 Good Neighbor Awards Winner
- REALTOR® Jennifer Barnes began distributing food to a small number of families in need in Sandy Springs, Ga., at the start of the pandemic.
- She soon discovered the vast unmet need for help in the community. Today, 2,600 volunteers provide food and other services to 25,000 families through Solidarity Sandy Springs.
- Last year the organization ran health clinics, distributed homeless kits, and provided backpacks to 1,019 children and 1,176 Secret Santa gifts.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, REALTOR® Jennifer Barnes sprang into action to help feed 10 families coping with food insecurity near her in Sandy Springs, Ga. She opened a food pantry in a local restaurant that was temporarily closed. “The owner was gracious enough to let us use the space until restrictions were lifted and he reopened the restaurant,” Barnes says. “He left a key under the mat and said, ‘Have at it, ladies.’”
Barnes initially thought her involvement would be short-term and remain small-scale, ending when these families got back on their feet. It didn’t take long for her to realize how wrong she was .
Although Sandy Springs is an affluent city, a significant share of residents are service workers living well below the poverty line. “The service industries were the earliest and hardest hit. These families did not have an emergency safety net, so the need was quickly uncovered,” Barnes says. “It is far greater than anyone knew before the COVID crisis."
Through her strong community network, Barnes was able to mobilize about 25 volunteers to help in a matter of days. The 10 households that showed up for food soon grew to 60, leaving the pantry out of food with 30 shoppers still on the sidewalk. “Fear and despair were the two words to describe that day,” Barnes says. “Fear that we were over our heads and despair that we were letting down people who needed us.”
“There’s a high rate of high blood sugar in our community, so we concentrate on providing nutritionally dense food like fresh produce.” —Jennifer Barnes
That moment of despair for the helpers and those in need became transformational. Barnes and her fellow volunteers were determined to ramp up their supplies to meet the exploding demand. They fed 105 households the next day, and no one seeking help has been left on the sidewalk since. The number of visitors to the pantry grew entirely through word of mouth, Barnes says. “Several food pantries shut down during the crisis, and we became the closest source of food for more people,” she says, adding that families “hear that we have good food in abundance and come to us.”
Barnes has leveraged her commercial real estate connections to locate five temporary spaces for the organization, including a vacant commercial building and a closed Publix supermarket. “We haven’t been able to find a permanent space yet, but we’ve been fortunate enough to find people that would let us use their space rent-free,” says Barnes, a Keller Williams associate broker who began selling real estate in 1990.
Today the nonprofit organization, Solidarity Sandy Springs, provides food to more than 25,000 families, primarily from the nearby Latino community. In two years, it has also become a vital community movement, bringing together a diverse network of 2,600 volunteers, many of whom are also pantry shoppers.
Increasingly, Solidarity hosts events to foster community engagement, such as spring celebrations for families, Secret Santa giveaways that benefited nearly 1,200 kids last year, and back-to-school backpack distributions for more than 1,000 students. They also provide clothing, kits for the homeless, and other resources.
Barnes says the pantry is fully funded by community donations. “Our tagline is that we are ‘neighbors helping neighbors,’” Barnes says.
The pantry’s doors are open three days a week, and food is available to anyone in need. “We have a doormat that says, ‘All are welcome here,’” she says. “We’ll never turn anyone away.”
Growing Beyond a Pantry
Solidarity Sandy Springs distributed more than 875,000 pounds of food to over 18,387 shoppers in 2021 alone.
The shelves are lined with nutritionally dense and fresh foods, Barnes says. Jalapeños, avocados, rice, peppers, tomatillos and beans are staples they aim to keep up with to meet the preferences of this largely Latino community.
“Our core values are abundance, kindness and gratitude.” —Jennifer Barnes
Solidarity has also partnered with health care providers to offer free flu shots, eye exams and COVID-19 vaccines. Last December, Joana Ozuna received free braces for Christmas through the organization. “I was really insecure about my teeth,” says Ozuna, 17, who volunteers at the pantry with her grandmother. “I was so happy the day I got my braces that I started crying when I got home.” Ozuna has also made friends with fellow volunteers at Solidarity, inviting several to her quinceañera celebration.
‘Our Leader and Our Face in the Community’
Abbey Mixon, a volunteer manager at Solidarity who oversees the nonprofit’s volunteers, fundraising efforts, social media and administrative tasks, calls Barnes the “beating heart” of the organization. “Jennifer is our leader and our face in the community,” says Mixon, who joined Solidarity in March 2021. “You won’t find anyone more energetic than Jennifer.”
Betty Klein, a volunteer and board member, agrees. “Jennifer is always looking for one more way she can help enrich people’s lives,” she says. “She’s the most generous person I have ever met. She’s also always excited, no matter how challenging something is.”
Rising food costs have proven to be one of those challenges, Barnes says. “The costs of a lot of our foods have gone up tremendously, and that’s put a strain on our budget,” she says, “but we’re doing everything we can to raise food donations and monetary donations.”
Finding a Space to Call Home
Barnes’ vision for the future of Solidarity Sandy Springs is to procure a permanent location for the organization. “We want a community center for not only our food pantry but also for monthly events,” she says. Barnes and Mixon are also looking to hire a program director to expand Solidarity’s outreach.
In the meantime, Ozuna and her grandmother will continue to volunteer at the pantry, restocking shelves to keep their community fed and engaged. And Barnes will be right there alongside them.