Change is hard. The status quo is “security” to most of us. So, when we have to deal with change, it can be stressful.
This week I almost had a panic attack. I was attending the annual recognition celebration breakfast for North Fulton Community Charities and was reminded that Executive Director Barbara Duffy, the guiding light, head cheerleader, moral compass and community advocate is retiring at the end of this year. She will officially step back from the organization she has led for the past 35 years. Holly York is taking over and stepping into shoes that will be so difficult to fill.
Barbara has always seemed like a force of nature to me — constant, unstoppable, unflappable, and, well, always there. She has also represented to me the best example of integrity and virtue that I know. “Grace” and “compassion” also come to mind.
“It’s not about me,” is what I am going to hear from her when she sees this column. “It’s about helping those who need to be helped — not about me.” I am sure I will be admonished.
The event was held at Mt. Pisgah United Methodist Church and was attended by probably a hundred or more folks. Breakfast was served and awards were given out to people and organizations who gave their time, their money, their energy, their care, and their love because they wanted to contribute — and because Barbara asked them to.
DataScan, with their new location in City Center in downtown Alpharetta was named Corporate Partner of the Year. In addition to giving their time, their energy and their interest, DataScan’s parent company JM Enterprises wrote a check for $50,000 to NFCC. They believe in Barbara and her work and feel a responsibility to support the community.
The Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce received the “Civic Partner of the Year.” I cannot think of a time when the Chamber hasn’t been “all in” for anything and everything that Barbara has needed. She brings out the best in everyone.
The Faith Partner of the Year went to Cross of Life Lutheran Church for all their support, especially their ongoing housing of the homeless when temperatures drop. They open up their church to give people without warmth or shelter a place to sleep.
Barbara’s NFCC was founded by a coalition of faith-based organizations, and through the years so many churches, synagogues and mosques have always stepped up when NFCC and Barbara ring the alarm.
Volunteer of the year Mark Owens, a retired Norfolk Southern executive, warned the audience that it only takes one day of volunteering at North Fulton Community Charities to get hooked. “I retired and then traveled for 10 days,” he said. “After I got home, I didn’t know what to do. Now I’m volunteering four days a week at North Fulton Community Charities and having a lot more fun than I ever had at work. I’ve seen enough ramen noodles and green beans to feed a couple armies. It’s when I’m helping serve those who come because they don’t have money for food and we feed them, and I get that sometimes almost unnoticeable smile on their face, that I feel that my work is paid in full.”
The last speaker was hard, really hard to listen to. She was a dignified, middle-aged woman. You could have heard a pin drop.
“I was in corporate,” she said. “I worked in tech, and in the ’80s I lived in Roswell and I actually volunteered at NFCC. I was young and well paid. I had great benefits including health care. I was married and raising a family. I worked hard and earned my way.
“Then came my divorce; then the layoff; then my job search that went on and on; then my 401(k) money ran out and my credit cards were maxed out.”
She tried to continue speaking but was unable. Finally, she regained her composure.
“I knew if I just kept focused and kept working the minimum wage jobs that I was able to find and kept applying for a job that paid a living wage — one that would let me earn enough to pay the rent and feed and support my two girls — it would come. It didn’t. I hit a wall that I couldn’t pass. I was desperate. It took every ounce of what little courage I had left to swallow my pride and ask North Fulton Community Charities for help — for food. In my wildest dreams I never imagined that the person showing up on NFCC’s doorstep would be me, but it was.
“It’s so much easier to help people,” she shared with the audience, “than to ask for help.”
Roughly 45 percent of North Fulton residents are living a paycheck or two away from homelessness, according to Barbara.
“With Barbra’s help, we managed to keep a roof over our heads, and I kept working until I actually was offered my old job back — but at a ton less money,” the woman recounted. “At that time, I had run up a $78,000 credit card bill and emptied my 401(k), but we had shelter, health care again, and I had a decent job. I eventually paid off every penny of that credit card debt and was starting to save again when the business slowed down, and I lost my job for the second time.”
Seven percent of the population in North Fulton lives below the poverty line according to Barbara. Last year NFCC helped over 4,000 families — 10,000 people — with food, shelter, counseling, clothing, and comfort.
The woman said that after being laid off a second time, “I had to swallow my pride, and I found myself with no one to turn to again but North Fulton Community Charities. They are helping me now. I am back looking for full-time employment and working part time. I am using some of my spare time to volunteer at NFCC.
“All I want to do is earn my way and support myself. I don’t want charity. I’m willing to work hard. But right now, North Fulton Community Charities is my lifeboat. I thank all of you in this audience this morning for your kindness, your generosity and willingness to help others who really don’t want to have to ask for your help, but must.”
It is the working poor, Barbara said, who constitute the majority of NFCC’s clientele — people with a job or multiple jobs who are just hanging on.
“They’ve done everything right most of the time and circumstances are just not working out,” she said.
For many of these families, Barbara said, it’s a choice between buying food or replacing the dead battery for their car they use to get to their job. It’s that tight for so many.
I already feel a loss that is difficult to describe knowing that Barbara is retiring. At the same time, I know that her work will not stop when she rides off into the sunset. NFCC will continue to be there to help when there is no one else — especially if you continue your support. I am sure that Barbara’s spirit will still be here all around us, watching and pushing and making sure that everyone who needs help will get it. And don’t forget, everyone who volunteers just one day at North Fulton Community Charities, says Mark, will be hooked forever.
You can volunteer. Or, you can help NFCC raise capital for the new addition to their facility being planned. Find out more at NFCChelp.org or call 770-640-0399, but after the end of the year someone else will answer —maybe you.
For Barbara — always our calm water, our safe harbor and our catcher in the rye, in any storm — thank you.
“And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.”
— “Catcher in the Rye,” JD Salinger
This column was updated on December 2nd, 2019.