By Nicole Pressley with Cate Duggar and Pam Kilmer

“Hello! Are you here for service?” When you arrive at the Toco Hills Community Alliance (THCA), you will find a volunteer holding open white double doors and greeting you with a warm smile and joyful invitation. After signing in, you are ushered to the serving line where lunch goers serve themselves from an assortment of warm freshly made dishes. While you wait, the sounds of grocery carts and flatware against porcelain plates cut through the general hum of community voices and laughter in the dining room. A sea of diverse faces and a dutiful flow of bodies accomplish tasks large and small to pull off their free meal service.

woman smiles while holding dorr

Undergirding this pleasant community gathering, however, is the vicious, growing nightmare of homelessness and hunger in Atlanta. Toco Hills Community Alliance is on the front-lines of this battle, providing direct support through its meal program, food bank, and free clothing closet. The food bank serves people experiencing homelessness, and veterans who are without sufficient food for themselves or their families in 9 northeast Atlanta zip codes

If you speak with Rev. Lisa Heilig, the Executive Director of THCA, you will find what she is well equipped with statistics and facts about food insecurity in Atlanta, as well as information about local organizations, churches, and businesses working to eradicate hunger in our communities. For example, one in seven Georgians is food insecure. This rate increases to one in five for children in Georgia. She estimates that THCA’s Tuesday through Thursday hot lunch serves approximately 300 residents a week. It is difficult to listen to the devastating statistics, but after a visit to their site at 1790 LaVista Road NE, Atlanta, GA 30329, you are guaranteed to remember the incredible kindness of the all the people who enter THCA’s doors.

A welcoming ministry is at the heart of Toco Hill Community Alliance. THCA’s mission, “Neighbors Helping Neighbors” is easily witnessed in the interactions among staff, diners, and volunteers. When she talks about the culture at THCA, Rev. Lisa’s smile widens. She leans in and uses her hands to illustrate a joy that words seem insufficient to describe.

Rev. Heilig smiles in the food pantry of toco hills community alliance

Rev. Lisa Heilig began working at THCA in August 2018, receiving her Doctorate of Ministry the same year. After serving several local churches as pastor and consultant and working for a disability justice non-profit, Rev. Heilig brought her time and talents to THCA. She has used her passion for refining the voice and operations of faith institutions to build an interfaith ministry of cooperation and support at THCA. With faith groups that include UUCA, St. Bartholomew’s, Episcopal Church, and Oak Grove United Methodist among others, partnerships with Whole Foods and Sprouts, and hundreds of amazing volunteers, Toco Hills Community Alliance has cemented its status as a pillar of our northeast Atlanta community.

THCA’s success is evidenced by new financial support from grants and community fundraising that funded substantial renovations this fall: new floors in the dining room, major upgrades to the bathrooms and food storage area, and a fresh coat of paint on the walls. This project was managed by Board Chair Lynn Pasqualetti and executed with the help of the Board of Directors and volunteers. Rev. Heilig is overjoyed that the renovations have greatly increased both the beauty and function of the space. A clean and beautiful space has ignited a new sense of pride in the staff and volunteers, as well as the community diners, she says making them feel “more welcome, and more a part of this community. It makes them feel like they are worth something.” This sense of pride and welcome has enhanced an environment of community ownership of the space. She notes a repeated comment from community members:

“We come here for the food, but we keep coming for the community.”

volunteers paint the wall at toco hills community alliance

For Toco Hill Community Alliance, this culture of neighbors helping neighbors is as important as the food they serve. TCHA doesn’t just provide meals. It provides a welcoming ministry where people find community and a sense of home. Spreading the word that THCA is a safe space is integral to serving the most vulnerable residents of our community. With a service area extending between Piedmont Park and Buford Highway, THCA serves an astonishingly diverse range of program participants.

Early this summer, THCA experienced a perceptible decline in Latinx participation in the meal and grocery service, which Rev. Heilig attributes to that community’s fears of arrest and detention because of increasing ICE raids and growing anti-immigrant sentiment in Georgia and across the United States. She notes that that THCA is finally beginning to see this population returning for meals and services.

Additionally, LGBTQ+ youth make up a notable segment of participants. In Atlanta, more than 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. With the growing Lost and Found LGBTQ homeless resource center just 2 miles away, THCA is committed to being a safe and welcoming place for members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community. This isn’t always easy. When any community diner uses offensive or discriminatory language, Rev. Heilig and other staff intervene—not to shame or to rescue, but to re-establish a culture of acceptance and affirmation, where the worth and dignity of each individual are recognized and celebrated.

The food bank is open Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm and requires over 1500 volunteer hours a month to sustain its food pantry, lunch service and clothing closet. Doors open at 11:30pm, shopping begins at 1:15 pm and lunch is served from 1:00pm – 2:30pm. Each year, volunteers haul over 1 million pounds food that needs to be weighed, processed, and distributed to the public. THCA also offers a mobile pantry on select dates. The Mobile Food Pantry has a variety of produce that volunteers distribute from the parking lot and load in participant’s trunks or rolling carts. With constant food deliveries from residents, restaurants, and supporting organizations, committed volunteers must be available each day to meet the volume of donations and serve the hundreds of participants who rely on the food bank for groceries.

This largely volunteer-run organization depends on the cooperation and investment of the Atlanta interfaith community. Some of these volunteers are fellow UUCA congregants. UUCA has had a relationship with the Toco Hills Community Alliance for many years. Members including Annie Archbold, Frank Casper, Florence Tang and Carol Ann Arvan are dedicated supporters. UUCA members have participated in the Annual Hunger 5K Walk/Run, donated food and clothing, and championed THCA throughout our congregation. This summer, UUCA staff represented our community at the THCA Prayer Breakfast, where we learned more about their work and connected with other faith leaders.

On Sunday, November 24, 2019, during our Thanksgiving service, we will be donating our entire offering to Toco Hills Community Alliance. Join us on Sunday for a great sermon from Rev. Taryn Strauss about ordinary people performing great acts of sustainable service and solidarity because of their faith. Donations to the offering can be made during the service or by texting “UUCA” and the dollar amount you want to give to 73256. Please select “GATP” in the dropdown menu. In this season of giving, let’s help Rev. Heilig and Toco Hills Community Alliance “provide hot meals, free groceries and clothing, and a community of care and compassion” to our friends and neighbors in need.