Jennifer Swain and the staff at youthSpark saw what could only be described as a “gap in the juvenile court system.” It needed to be addressed.

“We have historically worked in the area of child sex trafficking since our beginning in 2000,” Swain, who is Executive Director of youthSpark, says. “Since Georgia’s sex trafficking movement has grown and expanded under the [Statewide] Human Trafficking Task Force, we’ve begun to intervene with the juvenile court as soon as possible. So, we’ve built out a space for youth services for girls who have experienced exploitation, and then we began serving boys and LGBTQ+ youth.”

The programs were non-gender specific, Swain says. They created programs geared toward LGBTQ+ youth to provide a safety net to support them in school and “increase their voice around sexual identity and gender.”

But Swain says there were still problems with how data around LGBTQ+ youth was being collected in the court system. She said the Fulton County Juvenile Court system didn’t collect sexual orientation data “nor did they identify and report that data in young people.”

So, youthSpark, a longtime partner of United Way of Greater Atlanta, joined with Georgetown University’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform in a project that would enhance youthSpark’s capacity and the juvenile court’s system to become a national leader in creating a fair, inclusive and respectful culture.

This Capstone Project is called “Intentional Culture Change to Reduce LGBTQ+ Youth Discrimination, Victimization, & Overcriminalization,” according to a press release from youthSpark.

The project focuses on eight primary goals and objectives developed from an intensive review of youth experiences, quantitative data on the challenges LGBTQ+ young people face in Fulton County and a review of recommended best practices in serving this vulnerable population.

“We don’t know a lot about the LGBTQ+ population in the Fulton juvenile system, but the Atlanta homelessness study, or the Atlanta homelessness study we worked on with Dr. Eric Wright at Georgia State University, was the launching pad to see how to serve this population,” Swain says. “The way to do that was to find out how many of these kids identify in ways we don’t know.”

LGBTQ+ youth are at a much greater risk of becoming homeless. You can help United Way today provide more resources for LGBTQ+ youth and families.

The Capstone Project has potential to improve the well-being of LGBTQ+ youth and their families in communities across Greater Atlanta.

youthSpark’s Youth Services Center is at the heart of the organization’s work and serving LGBTQ+ youth is encompassed in that work. According to youthSpark’s 2019-20 annual report, since opening the Center in 2017, they have served more than 600 kids with 121 acts of crisis intervention, 2,200 instances of individual counseling, 565 group therapy sessions and more than 12,000 hours of intervention services.

Those direct services have helped youthSpark reimagine how to serve students and provide training for school—to make sure they are college and career ready.

The nonprofit’s goals align with United Way’s mission to improve the Child Well-Being of Greater Atlanta’s 13 counties and create an environment where all children can thrive.

“We are looking for organizations who can change the trajectory for young people,” says Michele Jacobs, Director of Youth Development at United Way. “We are looking for programs that remove systemic barriers and increase access to College and Career Ready opportunities for youth and young adults in low and very-low Child Well-Being communities. youthSpark is a unique organization that offers real solutions for youth involved in the juvenile justice system.

“All their programs have been designed to create systematic change for trauma-exposed youth and the communities in which they live.”

Jacobs says grant managers and members of the Community Engagement team at United Way meet regularly to talk with organizations like youthSpark to find successes and challenges the organizations face. The goal is to help determine the level of support needed.

“We are true thought and collaborative partners in ensuring young people are equipped with resources they need to obtain education and secure positions in high-growth careers,” Jacobs says.

Swain has worked with youthSpark for 13 years and has been the executive director for over four years now. She says United Way’s support has been instrumental in allowing them to expand services.

“United Way has always supported our work, and when we transitioned our work over to the community-based response, United Way was our very first funder,” Swain says. “We’re very grateful for our partnership with United Way.”

When a community unites, lives can be changed. When we work together—pooling our resources, time and energy—our community impact grows exponentially to create and equitable future for all. Can children, families and Greater Atlanta communities count on you?

Mona Sabeti wanted to volunteer in Atlanta during Pride Month.

Sabeti’s new to Atlanta—she’s pre-COVID-19 pandemic “new,” but still, not too long before that. So, it hasn’t been the easiest time to connect with volunteer opportunities in Greater Atlanta over the past year.

“I wanted to find some time to step away from my day-to-day work and give my time to people who need it more than I do, or my [job] does,” she says.

She was scrolling through her LinkedIn feed one day when she saw a friend post about United Way of Greater Atlanta’s “Unite for Service Week.”

This was a massive community-wide undertaking for United Way. It was a coordination of 40-plus service projects and more than 1,000 volunteers across 13 counties. All just in one week.

Volunteering is important work, though. Work that’s never over or finished.

Sabeti wantedto do more for her community—for families and children like her own. This brought her to an in-person—masked up and in conjunction with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines—volunteer opportunity at the Lost-N-Found Youth Thrift Store in Atlanta.

“This was the first time I’ve heard about Lost-N-Found and what they do for the community, but this definitely wasn’t the first time I’ve seen the United Way logo around the world,” Sabeti says. “I figured it would be a great opportunity to do something with [United Way] and give an extra set of hands.”

Lost-N-Found Youth’s mission is to end homelessness for all LGBTQ+ youth by providing them skills and support needed to live independently—LGBTQ+ youth are at a much greater risk of becoming homeless. Lost-N-Found provides emergency and transitional housing, food and hygiene supplies and jobs skills training among other things.

Sabeti and a team of volunteers including Stayce Michelle sorted and tagged clothing donations before they were rolled out onto the thrift store floor.

Michelle is “always down” to volunteer with United Way. She loves to participate anytime there’s a Day of Action or service week like this.

“One of the reasons why I like service week is because I get to learn about so many organizations that are partnered with United Way,” says Michelle. “I always like coming back to United Way because they make it easy for volunteers to access opportunities. The hours are convenient, and you get to meet people and become aware of organizations that have a need.”

Volunteering in-person has long been built into MUST Ministries in Marietta’s operation as a nonprofit. MUST provides food, clothing, housing, workforce development training and more for its community.

“Several times a year we have groups from United Way come in and help us,” Volunteer Coordinator for MUST Ministries Kristy Steely says. “Before COVID, we were about 80-85 percent volunteer run and now that has drastically reduced. A lot of our locations are small, so that forced us to work mostly with our employees.

“We’re getting back to where we were, though.”

United Way had a group of about eight volunteers on site. They were each working through large pallets of winter clothing that had been donated months prior. The organization began the process of inventorying items before shipping to one of three clothing shelters in neighboring counties.

The items on this day were going down the road to a clothing closet and thrift store.

“It serves as a clothing closet for our clients,” Steely says. “It also serves as a normal thrift store in the community where people who don’t qualify for services necessarily but still need clothing for an inexpensive price can come and shop for their families.”

Unite for Service Week took a lot of time and commitment from volunteers, nonprofit agencies and United Way staff. But the payoff comes with the connections we make to the community, new friends and ultimately the lives we change when we can unite for more in Greater Atlanta.

“This is something that’s been close to my heart,” Sabeti says. “I’m a little new to the Atlanta community, and this has been a great opportunity to learn about new volunteer opportunities that are easily accessible.”

The hundreds of hours logged over the past week will go further than you can imagine, and the impact you all have made on your community is exponential. Want to further that impact? Volunteer with us today. Can children, families and Greater Atlanta communities count on you? Let’s do more, together.

There’s eight weeks until the General Election, and in the state of Georgia, you are eligible to vote by mail as long as you are a registered voter. You can request an absentee ballot, and as long as you make sure to have your ballot filled out and submitted either by drop off, or as specified by each of the 13 counties in our Greater Atlanta region, then your vote will be counted.

Below, we have included links to each of the 13 counties in our coverage region and where you can find additional information about drop-off locations and how to submit these ballots.

  • Fulton County
  • Cobb County
  • DeKalb County
  • Gwinnett County
  • Henry County — Scroll down the page to the “Henry County Voting Information” header and select the “Absentee” tab for additional information.
  • Butts County — The Butts County Administration Building is located at 625 West Third Street, Jackson, Georgia 30233
  • Coweta County
  • Clayton County — You can fill out an absentee form and print and sign absentee ballot and mail to Clayton County Elections & Registration at 121 S. McDonough St. Jonesboro, Georgia 30236. If you have additional questions, email elections@claytoncountyga.gov.
  • Paulding County — To submit an absentee ballot application via email, please use the following address: absenteerequest@paulding.gov.
  • Douglas County
  • Cherokee County — Drop off your application at the “County Registrar’s Office” in Cherokee County, which is located at 2782 Marietta Hwy., Suite 100, Canton, Georgia 30114.
  • Fayette County — Follow this link for information about voting by absentee ballot in Fayette County.
  • Rockdale County — Ballots may be returned by USPS Mail or Express delivery, or to “Office Drop Box.” You can send absentee ballots to the Board of Elections and Voter Registration, 1261 Commercial Dr. SW., Suite B, Conyers, Georgia 30094. For additional questions, contact the office at 770-278-7333 or by email at absentee@rockdalecountyga.gov.