After 23 years as CEO of the Community Assistance Center, Tamara Carrera has announced her intention to retire. Her legacy will be hard to equal.

Carol Niemi is a marketing consultant who lives on the Dunwoody-Sandy Springs line and writes about people whose lives inspire others. Contact her at worthknowingnow@gmail.com.

CAC was founded in Sandy Springs in 1987 by 10 local congregations to address growing poverty in the community. For the next six years, it operated out of the scout hut at one of the member churches. Then in 1993 along came Carrera, a bilingual native of Ecuador new to Atlanta, with an MBA in nonprofit management and a desire to get involved. Her family joined Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church, where on Mission Sunday she encountered CAC and signed up.

“It was basically all volunteers then,” she said. “Neighbors helping neighbors.”

She soon went from volunteering once a week to joining the board of directors. By 1997, she was CAC’s fourth CEO.

“I started part-time, for basically no money,” she said of the organization that provided food and clothing to 280 families a year with an annual budget of $24,000.

She soon realized it wasn’t really a part-time job but believed in the mission and told the board she would work as many hours as necessary for the part-time salary.

After the 1996 Olympics, many of the thousands of people who had come here to work were left jobless but stayed. The community was growing rapidly. So was the need. Carrera became a fundraiser.

“That’s when we started strategic planning,” she said.

Today CAC is the local community emergency assistance agency, every year serving more than 6,500 individuals in 3,000 households. It has an annual budget of over $5 million, 18 staff members, three locations and more than 500 regular volunteers supported by 28 religious congregations and numerous individual, corporate and foundation donors.

CAC prevents homelessness and promotes self-sufficiency by providing needed food, clothing and emergency financial assistance. To qualify for assistance, people must live in one of six ZIP codes in Sandy Springs, Dunwoody and part of Doraville. Since its founding, it has helped more than 20,000 households cope with financial hardship.

Tamara Carrera.

CAC operates out of three buildings: its headquarters at 1130 Hightower Trail, its food pantry and thrift store at 8607 Roswell Road and a part-time food pantry at 5 Dunwoody Park South in Dunwoody. A second Sandy Springs location inside 285 is currently closed for renovation.

In 2012, the Community Action Center became the Community Assistance Center (still CAC) to facilitate fundraising and more accurately reflect its mission.

“‘Action Center’ was a term from the 1960s for social work organizations funded by public money, not 501(c)3’s like us,” she said. “When I went to foundations for money, they said, ‘We don’t fund federal organizations.’”

CAC has changed in the era of COVID-19. Its main building is temporarily closed, its thrift store and food pantries are open only on certain days, and interviews are conducted by phone and email.

The people served have changed, too. In the beginning, they were mainly families in extreme poverty with no savings. Now many are families that had savings but have used them up.

“People we would have never seen before,” she said.

This year, for Thanksgiving and Christmas, instead of baskets of food, which require over 100 volunteers to pack, CAC is giving gift cards from grocery stores and stores that sell toys.

Since becoming CEO, Carrera has seen a multitude of changes.

“Early on, we were just trying to organize and define ourselves,” she said. “We knew the need was there and we were a Band-Aid, but we had no idea if we were having an impact because we didn’t have the resources to do follow-up.”

In 2005, after moving to Hightower Trail, they began creating individual plans for each family and following up.

“Now we follow families at 30, 90 and 180 days to see if we’re making a difference,” she said. “We know we’re essential. If we disappeared, it would be devastating to a lot of people.”

CAC is all of this and more. It’s a place where people in need, who are often embarrassed to receive assistance, are treated with dignity and respect.

Anyone who has ever been involved with CAC, as I was when I served on the board, knows that the astonishing success of the organization is the result of dedicated teamwork but ultimately due to the commitment and leadership of one person — Tamara Carrera.

Dedicated as always, she has promised to stay until the board finds her replacement.

“CAC has been my life for a long time,” she said. “It’s what I was meant to do.”

For more about CAC, see ourcac.org.