Jennifer Barnes, left, and Erin Oliver when the food pantry started at Under the Cork Tree.

Jennifer Barnes, who said she is living her best life since helping start food pantry Solidarity Sandy Springs, was named Volunteer of the Year by the Sandy Springs Perimeter Chamber on Oct. 12.

Jennifer Barnes.

The chamber named her the top volunteer at its Business Awards Luncheon, which Barnes said was surprising and humbling. During the same event, Bishoku was named Restaurant of the Year, and North Georgia School of Ballet was honored as the Small Business of the Year.

“I think most people pray for or ask for what it is they are supposed to do in their lives, what meaning. This is my chapter right now for giving back,” said Barnes, one of the co-founders of Solidarity Sandy Springs, along with Erin Olivier and Sonia Simon.

The food pantry started in March 2020 to help feed families during the pandemic.

Solidarity Sandy Springs had its modest beginnings at Under the Cork Tree, using 800 square feet of space. They thought they’d feed 10 families for two weeks at the start of the pandemic. But it continued to grow, and so far, 31,000 people have received help through the food pantry. The best part has been serving a whole lot of people a whole lot of food, Barnes said.

Under the Cork Tree had transformed into a food pantry at the beginning of the pandemic.

The nonprofit organization’s secondary mission is promoting volunteerism, she said. More than 1,900 unique volunteers have worked at the food pantry. Most of them have been middle and high school students, along with scouts, Barnes said.

“In the beginning, our mission was creating community through crisis,” she said. “And then we added on to that ‘… and beyond.’ Now I feel like we are out of the crisis period.”

The mission in the beginning was to keep people from going hungry. Food insecurity was very real, she said. Those helped were primarily families of Lake Forest and High Point Elementary schools, which in turn reached students of Ridgeview Charter Middle School and Riverwood International Charter High School.

Most families lacked a food reserve, Barnes said. She feels that Solidarity Sandy Springs now serves as those families’ safety net. They don’t have to decide if they will pay rent, pay an electric bill, go to the doctor or feed their family. They know they can feed their family.

“That’s what your village does. They shore you up,” she said.

Another beautiful thing about the people served is that if they don’t need something, they won’t take it, Barnes said. The community being served is grateful, humble and kind – and not entitled. That in turn makes you want to do more for people, she said.

This summer, Solidarity Sandy Springs relocated to 5920 Roswell Road, Suite C-212. From left, Maria Bravo, Ashley Olague, Jennifer Barnes and Abbey Mixon. (Photos by Amy Arno)

From early days of survival mode, Barnes said now she feels the nonprofit is moving from survive to thrive.

This summer, Solidarity Sandy Springs relocated to the Parkside Shops shopping center at 5920 Roswell Road, Suite C-212. The food pantry will be housed there until the end of 2021. Then, the group hopes to open a permanent food pantry at a new branch of the Community Assistance Center on Northwood Drive.

A new goal for Solidarity Sandy Springs is to figure out what can be done to make the community’s lives better, easier and more productive.

An example of that is a 14-year-old volunteer who has been helping at Solidarity Sandy Springs since the summer of 2020. One of the mom volunteers took him to get his school physical and that’s when they found out he needed glasses. Another volunteer took him for the eye exam and got him glasses. Barnes said they found out he’s needed glasses since he was 6-years-old, but his family didn’t think they could afford it.

Today, Barnes’ days are filled with working for the food pantry and selling real estate every afternoon, “basically working two full-time jobs,” she said.

But, she has a great team of people for both.

“When you surround yourself with good people, anything is possible. But nobody can do this on their own,” she said.

Bob Pepalis

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Reporter Newspapers.