A hand-made sign sitting atop supplies at Southeast Gwinnett Cooperative Ministry’s warehouse reminds that the Operation Round Up-supported assistance program spreads love with every box of pantry staples.
“We spread the love.” That’s how Laura Drake sums up the work of Southeast Gwinnett Cooperative Ministry in February — and every other month of the year. In 2020, that love was spread farther than ever before as the assistance program distributed more than a million pounds of food to families struggling financially.
“It was a wild year,” said Drake, who is executive director of the ministry that provides community outreach for more than 25 area churches.
Spread the love! Any Walton EMC customer-owner can sign up to become an Operation Round Up donor.
The cooperative ministry is one of several faith-based programs that have received a financial grant from Walton EMC’s member-funded Operation Round Up (ORU). The Southeast Gwinnett Cooperative Ministry, The Salvation Army of Gwinnett County and ACTS Oconee County Food Pantry used ORU grant money to operate feeding programs and provide for other basic needs for those facing financial emergencies.
Southeast Gwinnett Cooperative Ministry
Last year, ORU grants helped the ministry care for a record number of families residing in Snellville, Grayson and a portion of Loganville. The program provides food and non-food pantry items as well as financial assistance for utility and prescription drug expenses. Housing assistance was added to the mix last year.
Assistance requests skyrocketed by 245 percent during the early days of the pandemic, Drake said. Eleven months later, the program continues to serve 75 percent more families than in 2019.
“About 1,500 of the households we served last year were first-time visitors,” Drake said, illustrating the impact of pandemic shutdowns for area residents.
The relationship between the cooperative ministry and ORU dates back several years. While every grant has been appreciated and used responsibly, one stands out as special, said Drake as she points out a truck parked nearby.
“That’s a retired service truck from Walton EMC that was donated to us through Operation Round Up,” she said, explaining that the vehicle is used to transport food and other supplies. “We named him Walt in honor of the members of the co-op who contribute to Operation Round Up.”
Lately, Walt has been delivering supplies shared via a drive-through distribution. Families can receive 100 pounds of food every two weeks. Currently, the program serves an average 350 families each week.
The Salvation Army of Gwinnett County
Many new faces are among those picking up food boxes at The Salvation Army facility in Lawrenceville. At the height of COVID shutdowns, more than 400 cars came through the drive-through distribution line each Tuesday.
An ORU grant helps to fund the food ministry.
“The funds raised from Operation Round Up have been used to make sure families do not go hungry during one of the most difficult times in our nation’s history,” said Captain Paul Ryerson, the unit’s commanding officer. “We have seen an over 100 percent increase in emergency food needs and these funds have allowed us to continue to meet the growing need.”
Among those picking up food were local Asian-Americans who lost jobs as the pandemic spread. Gwinnett County has one of the largest concentrations of Asian-Americans in the South, representing 12.5 percent of the county’s population. To address their specific dietary needs, items such as rice were packed in the boxes.
ACTS Oconee County Food Pantry
Dennis Clarke, co-chairman of ACTS — Area Churches Together Serving — takes great satisfaction in knowing his needy neighbors haven’t had to go hungry, even at the height of the pandemic. Supplies and volunteers have remained steady at the Bogart food and clothing pantry that opens every Tuesday and Friday.
“We have not missed opening a single day that was scheduled. We’re here for people who are hungry and need food,” said Clarke. Along with co-chair Randy Dawson, he oversees the outreach ministry supported by 29 area churches.
The ACTS food pantry “experienced a pretty big jump” in clients in 2020, said Clarke. The facility currently provides food boxes to more than 200 families each month. Each box contains about $300 of shelf-stable pantry items as well as perishables such as milk and meat donated by the local Trader Joe’s and others.
“The generosity here means we never have to turn away any Oconee County resident who needs help,” he said.
The nonprofit is staffed completely by volunteers, making it possible for every dollar donated to go directly to securing and distributing food. Some of those funds are made possible by ORU contributors, explained Clarke, a Walton EMC customer-owner and ORU participant.
“Operation Round Up participation creates the funding that makes so many people happier and healthier,” he said, pointing out that rounding up an electric bill is an easy way to care for neighbors in need.
Neighbors helping neighbors
Walton EMC customer-owners who choose to participate in ORU agree to have their monthly electric bill “rounded up” to the next dollar. For example, if your bill is $52.51, you pay $53. The extra 49 cents goes to a special fund that is combined with donations from other co-op members and then distributed to local organizations and groups needing financial assistance.
Customer-owners combined their pennies to contribute $595,979 last year. Since its inception, more than $6.8 million in ORU grants have benefitted local groups and individuals in our communities.
The average ORU participant gives an average
50 cents a month, or $6 a year.
The average ORU participant gives an average 50 cents a month, or $6 a year. Any administrative costs are absorbed by Walton EMC, so 100 percent of your donation is used to make life better. Your donation is also tax deductible.