Last year, a few days after the pandemic closed Fulton County Schools, a phone call from a fifth-grader at Lake Forest Elementary School set in motion a teacher-led effort to make sure students and their parents had enough food and money to pay bills.

Lake Forest third-grade teacher Nicole Nagel Gray heard about the student’s call from a fellow teacher. “They were low on food, and they were getting worried and they didn’t know what to do,” Gray said, recounting what the fifth-grader student had said. 

Gray lived in Sandy Springs and decided to drop off food for the student that the school was handing out. When she arrived, the entire family of six treated her like she was giving them gold, she said. 

“And it was just boxes of milk and cereal. It just felt so small. So I felt terrible. And I said, ‘Take this, but I’m going to be back,’” she said.

That was the beginning of Lion Pride, a nonprofit that helps families of Lake Forest. 

“It was just a bunch of teachers who were checking in on their kids and their families, and trying to make sure everybody made it through,” Gray said.

The teachers started helping, connecting families in need with organizations including the Community Assistance Center and Solidarity Sandy Springs.

Lion Pride would fill in the gaps not met by other groups, raising money to help families with food, rent, utilities, medicines and everyday necessities. Donations were made via Venmo after notices were posted on Facebook about the needs.

“The community was absolutely amazing. Money would flood in,” she said. “I will say this, I was not trying to start a nonprofit. I was just trying to get us through this. But as we kept going, we realized that there’s people that really want to help.”

Erin Long, another community member, helped the nonprofit gain 501c3 status.

They decided as a team to focus on emergency assistance for families at Lake Forest Elementary and on education enrichment.

“That’s what we’re looking to do at this point, emergency assistance because pandemic or not, our families don’t have a lot of extra resources,” Gray said.

As part of enrichment efforts, Lion Pride sponsored summer camp scholarships at five different Sandy Springs locations, including at Latina Art Studio, Center Ice Arena, soccer camp at Sandy Springs United Methodist Church, Family Martial Arts and Peach Pit Gymnastics.

Lion Pride received 120 applications when the scholarships were announced. Each child had to write an essay or draw a picture about why they would want to go to camp and what it would mean to them.

They were able to fund 30 scholarships.

“The community response was just absolutely overwhelming, because first of all, people would just donate in spades. Second of all, I had people saying quite often ‘Can you tell me the need of a specific family,’ and they would grocery shop for them, and deliver it,” Gray said.

One community member hosted a virtual wine tasting with donations going to Lion Pride. Another woman helped her kids put on a bike-a-thon. Lake Forest’s art teacher sold her paintings for donations while another teacher baked cookies to sell for donations.

The Sandy Springs Society supported Lion Pride, as did Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church.

Donations can be made to Lion Pride through its website, Visit its Facebook page for real-time opportunities to help a student or a family.

Gray awarded Spirit of Sandy Springs Award

For her efforts, Gray was awarded the Spirit of Sandy Springs Award by the Sandy Springs Society.

“Nicole is so humble. She is very quick to say, ‘I did not do this by myself. It was just a little startup scrappy charity that began’ and so many people jumped in, including her fellow teachers,” Peyton White, chair of the Spirit of Sandy Springs Award committee, said.

The Lion Pride organizers were lifesavers to many families during COVID-19, White said. The families they helped were hard working folks, but they didn’t have extra financial resources during the pandemic. Many of them still don’t have enough resources because their jobs in the service industries like restaurants, hotels and construction may be gone, or their hours have been reduced.

By the end of 2020, Lion Pride already had received more than $40,000 in donations and it’s still going strong, White said. And many other schools saw what Lake Forest’s teachers did and started similar organizations at their own schools, Gail Jokerst, president of the Sandy Springs Society, said.

The Sandy Springs Society exists to raise money to give back to the community by supporting nonprofits.

Through Tossed Out Treasures and the Elegant Marketplace, the organization raises funds with the holiday marketplace and the giant, upscale community garage sale. Despite the pandemic, the Sandy Springs Society still managed to hand out $151,197 in grants to 31 nonprofits, Jokerst said.

Bob Pepalis

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Reporter Newspapers.