Homes around Atlanta may be decked out with twinkle lights, towering Christmas trees and snowman inflatables, but many homes in the city are lighting candles – and it’s not always for decorative reasons. When utility bills get higher in the winter, lights are sometimes the first to go. But an Intown based nonprofit is on a mission to make the season bright, one home at a time.
Midtown Assistance Center, headquartered in the basement of Atlanta First United Methodist Church, provides emergency assistance to low-income working residents to help prevent homelessness and hunger during periods of crisis by offering help with rent and utilities, a food pantry and clothes closet.
The organization serves clients who are already hardworking hourly employees with positions at restaurants and retail stores or are security officers and parking lot attendants. Many live in the 30314 and 30315 zip codes where maintaining standard of living on a minimum wage job is tough during the year, let alone during the colder months when electric and gas bills skyrocket. When the holidays come around, the happiest time of the year is often the most stressful and frugal.
“I’m always surprised by hearing how hard our clients have been working and how much they have overcome,” said program manager Keira Dandridge. “They say they have used all of their pension, asked friends and family for money, have taken on a second job or are driving for Uber and Lyft. We really are the last resort and we try to point them in the right direction or brainstorm as a team.”
This year MAC came up with the idea to light up homes not only with holiday cheer, but with light. Light Up the House is an initiative to focus on supplying the basics rather than a holiday bash and give the gift of warmth in the form of paying utility bills.
“Light Up the House goes beyond that one day,” Dandridge said. “We get calls that families have had the lights out for two weeks. The families are still running, but in the dark with candles and flash lights. We are asking donors to light up the house, not only with gifts, but with heat, utilities and food.”
Dandridge said just one bill paid by an anonymous angel can make a difference. MAC encourages donors and organizations to pay utility bills in increments of $50, $100, $150, as the average utility bill runs about $162.
Christmas vacation isn’t a relaxing break for individuals who work at schools or universities. When schools close, facility positions such as cafeteria workers and janitors are not getting paid and many experience up to a month without income. Meanwhile, their kids may enjoy a break from homework and test tests, but not from school. For low-income families, school is a sanctuary where there are lights, heat and free or reduced lunch.
“The reality is that some kids go home from school and after school programs only to enter into cold, dark homes. They may be getting presents, but if you don’t have lights, you are going to play with your toys in the dark,” Dandridge said.
MAC will continue to host an annual holiday gift drive, but with more focus on the necessities this holiday season. The gift drive is one of the biggest campaigns each year, giving approximately 80 families and close to 200 children gifts to open Christmas morning. The organization asks clients to create a gift wish list leading up to the holidays to get a variety of donations for children up to age 18. Parents of teens are grateful for a chance to brainstorm gift ideas for older children, but again, the basics are always in the forefront of their mind.
“I’m always heartbroken by how many parents list underwear and socks or a new jacket and real necessities as the only things they can even think of to ask for,” said MAC partnerships director Ciara Rowley.
While the holidays are a main focus, the center works with those in need all year long with a host of volunteers.
“We have amazing volunteers. We have some retired social workers and school psychologists as well as folks who want to be neighborly or live out their faith,” Rowley said. “When people come in, they are welcomed by volunteers at the door and sit down one-on-one to tell their story. Volunteers are always eager to help as much as they can and advocate for clients.”
Volunteers have been known to help clients with job hunting and application processes to find more stable, higher paying full time employment as well as build relationships with landlords to advocate for clients. When clients are in need of more than MAC can provide, staff refer clients to partner organizations and calls other programs throughout the city to inquire about assistance and requirements for eligibility.
“The average person who is experiencing these hardships is choosing whether they are going to eat, have lights or to go to the doctor. This is every day for most of our clients,” Dandridge said. “Even if it’s only one time assistance, it’s all they need to maintain long term self-sufficiency.”
For more information and to make a donation, visit midtownassistancectr.org.