By: Rennard Westley


In the hustle and bustle that is Volunteerism at United Way of Greater Atlanta, we have the privilege of interfacing with all sorts of stakeholders. We work directly with volunteers, nonprofit agencies, corporations, and, most importantly, with the people in the community that we aim to serve.

Early Saturday morning during set-up for our Shoebox Project Kickoff, I ran into two individuals who seemed as though they might be experiencing homelessness – not necessarily because of their spirit, or their appearance, but rather their stated destination when they asked me for directions.

They were headed to Pine Street.

If you’re familiar with the state of homelessness in Atlanta, or if you’ve ever driven down Courtland with your eyes open, then you’re probably familiar with the location. So here we were, in the midst of setting up the kickoff for one of our largest signature projects and making sure everything is in order.

In full transparency, it’s the nuanced moments – when the demands of execution supersede the service at hand – that make such an awesome opportunity to serve feel just like any other job. Fortunately, it’s those same moments that are often most laced with lessons.

As I interacted with these two gentlemen, providing the appropriate directions from Auburn Ave, they inquired about the project inside. I explained the nature of Shoebox Project and who it serves. While they were impressed and appreciative of the effort, there was only one question lingering on their minds.

“Is there food?”

I quickly considered the question, and the answer was simple: yes, there was food. But it was for the volunteers. So I hesitated.

Maybe it was the early morning. Maybe it was the remaining set-up waiting for me inside. Whatever the case, I decided to go inside and check with my colleagues about what they thought I should do. When I turned around, they were gone. I felt terrible. I ran to the corner of Courtland and Auburn and about half way down Piedmont. There would be no second chance – at least not with those two gentlemen.

Redemption arrived about half an hour later in the form of another pair of men – more obviously experiencing the difficulties of homelessness. The more vocal fellow flagged me outside. He expressed that due to the state of his clothing, he was embarrassed to be in close proximity with anyone, let alone actually enter the facility.

Rather than repeat the earlier mistake of overthinking the situation, I rushed to my car in search of a pair of pants intended for donation. I brought back two pairs – one of which fit him just fine, while the other, a bit too small, went to his friend.

Here was a man not searching for toiletries or free food, but rather his dignity. He got much more than he bargained for – not because of some act of individual heroism, but rather because an entire community rallied behind him – with multiple attendees, staff and volunteers alike, pitching in to help out.

In a matter of moments, both men had plates overflowing with delicious breakfast foods. They were both outfitted with new clothes. They were both given a Shoebox full of toiletries. But most importantly, they were listened to. They were taken care of. They were given a bit of optimism to carry them through the day that was no longer as downtrodden as it began. They were shown an example of what it means when a community chooses to truly Live United – not as a mere wardrobe choice, but rather as a lifestyle.

While we wear the words across our chest often, the question we must ask is whether our actions are defined by the organization that we serve, or do we, alternatively, define the organization that we serve by our actions.

Most of us enter this profession, foregoing more lucrative opportunities in the private sector, to make a difference with our work. But whether we’re entry level or the CEO, we have to always give ourselves permission to operate beyond the bottom line. We have to give ourselves permission to be the change that we wish to see.

Every day from March to May was a full scale operation that welcomed shoeboxes from all over our 13 country region and ushered them back into the community through agency partners.

We couldn’t have done it without you.

We couldn’t have done it without awesome volunteers like Raynetta Johnson, who served day in and day out, often covering multiple shifts a day. We couldn’t have done it without awesome corporate leaders like Patsy Hom, who worked from home with her company’s boxes to make pick-up easier for all parties. We couldn’t have done it without our wonderful strategic partners WestRock, FedEx, Delta, WSB-TV and Graphic Packaging. We couldn’t have done it without the work of Steve Tillman and Whitney Hester, who joined the team temporarily but became permanent United Way family. We couldn’t have done it without the next generation of service leaders like Elite Scholars Academy, Mount Paran Christian School, Atlanta Job Corp, and Youth United – who all provided droves of youthful optimism as they swarmed each station with passion and turned mountains of Shoeboxes into empty pallets.

We made it happen, even with an explosion on I-85 and I-20 buckling under pressure. We made it happen because you showed up and showed out.

You hosted Shoebox parties and made your impact whether you created 2 shoeboxes or 200. Setting an example and uniting people over service. You donated to our virtual shoebox – helping our efforts even if you couldn’t participate in person. You donated tons of toiletry items – the overflow of which we passed along to agencies in need.

We increased the number of volunteers for a second consecutive year and together we’ve distributed over 100,000 shoeboxes in that same time-span.

Though our 12th annual Shoebox Project was a success, we still have work to do. You don’t have to wait until next year to make a difference again. The end of Shoebox season just marks the beginning of a summer for service. Whether you help us Silence the Growl with snack packs to combat food insecurity for kids who rely on free meals at school or you want to jump in the trenches for a Day of Action, there are service opportunities available for you.

We’re committed to ensuring Greater Atlanta is a community where children are thriving. If you’re looking to Live United with us and make a difference, then start here.

Thank you to everyone who participated in our Shoebox Project. We look forward to continuing the work with your help.