By Gerhard Schneibel
gerhard@reporternewspapers.net

The Society of St. Vincent dePaul of Atlanta’s family support center has grown in recent years from a food pantry to an expansive one-stop shop for families in need.

A consolidated screening program lets families know exactly which government benefits they are eligible for, including food stamps and Peach Care for children. During tax season, multilingual, IRS-trained volunteers stand by to help maximize families’ refunds at no charge.

Bankers help families open savings accounts. Insurance agents sign them up for life insurance. Members of the University of Georgia’s food and nutrition department teach them what’s healthy for children to eat.

James Verrecchia, the director of support programs at the center near the northeast corner of Peachtree-DeKalb Airport, described the system as a “comprehensive model.”

“We don’t just try to Band-Aid the situation, but we look at ways we can try to help. There’s no limit to the amount of things we will try to get accomplished for people when they come in,” he said.

The center also offers literacy programs, English classes and GED classes in Spanish.

The Brookhaven-area center opened at its current location, a former thrift store, last May after volunteers cleaned, painted and furnished the space.

Debbie Gittens-Litzlbauer, who oversees the food pantry at the center, said the biggest challenges of the job are language barriers and the continual need for volunteers.

While the center can help families get food stamps, it also provides a resource beyond what the government will provide. “We want to get them from just coming in to get food to uplifting their ability to get more,” she said. “We give them food, but we also help them to better themselves and not just wait for food to come.”

Verrecchia said the number of people relying on the center has increased dramatically as the recession has deepened, and the people needing assistance have become more diverse. Still, he said, the majority of those in need are “people who are immigrants to this country, and they’re just struggling and suffering.”

The center maintains a virtual food drive on its Web site, where donors can “purchase” items for donation. In reality, they are donating a lump sum of money, which is more useful to the center than a product donation. The money can be used to buy supplies at a fraction of retail cost from the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

Donations of old electronics, toys and clothing can be sold to recycling companies, even if the thrift store can’t sell them to customers. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta donates bulk T-shirts and sweatshirts left from events. (The Society of St. Vincent dePaul is a Catholic-based organization.)

When families come to the food pantry, they are allotted a certain number of points per person for each food group. They can pick out foods they are familiar with, even matching particular ethnic cuisines.

“We don’t want to give people just a box of groceries,” Verrecchia said. “People have a dignity and an integrity that we want to respect, and they’ve already fallen on hard times. To just hand them a box of food that they may or may not use … we’re offering them the opportunity to shop for their food.”