Katie Patel & Atlanta Mission

Katie was the very first interview of ATL 1X1. She was selected, because she has a long history of selfless service with Atlanta Mission that is a lifestyle, not an obligation. She took a leap from corporate world to non-profit to pursue her calling to serve people who are currently experiencing homelessness. Katie's caring nature creates a welcoming environment that is dignifying for all people regardless of their current state in life. Her heart of service and her willingness to extend love and acceptance to everyone she meets is incredible. I hope her story resonates with you and challenges you to rethink any stereotypes you may have about homelessness and to extend help to your neighbors in need in Atlanta.

 

Where are you from and how long have you been in Atlanta?

I’m originally from the Dayton, Ohio area and have lived in Atlanta for about 7.5 years.

Tell me about your story with Atlanta Mission.

I moved to Atlanta with a corporation I was working for and was originally going to be here for six months. But in the midst of that six months I started volunteering at Atlanta Mission’s My Sister's House campus, which is the campus for women and kids. I ended up really loving it and getting involved that way. Ended up going on to serve dinner at My Sister’s House every week for five years on Friday nights. I also joined the advisory board for Atlanta Mission about three years into that and was part of it for a couple years. 

In the midst of that I met my husband indirectly through Atlanta Mission. We got married at The Potter’s House (Editor’s note: The Potter’s House is a campus of Atlanta Mission). It was a neat way to combine an organization that we’re really passionate about with our wedding day and having all of our family and friends come see a place that we love and be able to share about God through their campus there. And to be able to give back to Atlanta Mission through us getting married there. 

I had been at the company I was with for about seven years. Loved it. Great place. Was learning a lot. But I felt this tug that I was supposed to be doing something different. I explored that for a couple years to figure out what exactly I wanted to do. It should have been obvious that I loved Atlanta Mission and this would be the next step, but I really kind of explored a bunch of different alternatives and ultimately decided that this was really my dream job and what I wanted to do. It was something that I thought maybe eventually someday I might get to do down the road, but I hadn’t necessarily planned to do so soon. A position opened up on our marketing team, and it just felt like the perfect fit. God definitely opened the door, and that was two years ago.

I have just really loved it, and overall I have a huge heart for people who are currently experiencing homelessness. I just really believe that their lives can change and look entirely different than they do right now. That combined with really believing that Atlanta Mission was a really well run organization that had a lot of structures in place and a huge heart to really change lives made me want to be part of it full-time. 

Would you say that homelessness is what breaks your heart about Atlanta?

Yeah, definitely. It’s one of those things that you walk down most streets in downtown Atlanta especially, and you’re bound to see someone that’s homeless.

At the point where it went from just seeing them as people on the street and wondering why they were out there to getting to know people that were homeless and hearing their stories and realizing they were real people.

Once I got to know more and more of them through volunteering at Atlanta Mission, every time I saw anyone around town who was homeless, it broke my heart and I wanted to do something about it.

Yesterday I was driving down to Peachtree Center and saw multiple people that were out on the street, and I’m just thinking – this isn’t all that they could be doing in life. These are real people with potential and stories and families, and they once had hopes and dreams.

I just have a huge heart for helping them realize that and see that about themselves and for encouraging them to take steps to really help actually end their homelessness for good so they don’t repeat the cycle over and over.

These are real people with potential and stories and families, and they once had hopes and dreams.

When you became aware of the issue of homelessness in Atlanta what helped you moved from just seeing people on the corner and driving by to taking action and learning more about their stories?

After the first time I thought, I love that place.

A lot of it happened in the kitchen at My Sister’s House volunteering there. Initially when I went, I went with a group of girls that I was friends with. We signed up to go help serve breakfast, and it was really just a community service project. I wasn’t necessarily going because I had a huge heart for homeless women or that I really intended to get involved long term. But I remember the first morning that we served breakfast there, there was a woman who had a pretty young baby that she was holding on to and trying to eat breakfast with the other hand. Someone mentioned that the night before had been her first night there, so it was her first morning in the homeless shelter and you could see the look on her face – What am I doing here? How did I get here? And she was clinging to her child probably afraid that she was going to lose it.

Through that, that’s what captivated me to keep going back and  volunteering. After the first time I thought, I love that place. It was more than just going to help out. I want to get involved in a more long term capacity. So I started going every Friday evening. 

The neat thing about volunteering in the kitchen there was that the women who live there all have a job. Everyone within Atlanta Mission who is a client in any of our programs each have a job to do. They’re each assigned a task for about 3-4 hours a day that helps build their job skills, both their hard skills and soft skills to be able to reenter the workforce and be successful employees. One of the opportunities for them is to work in food service. They can actually earn a food service certificate and get referrals to go work at different food service companies around Atlanta.

A number of the women at My Sister’s House who had taken that route were pretty new to the shelter. So it was a really neat opportunity to see them from the time that they came into the shelter and then for several months while they were there rebuilding their lives and then going back out and finding jobs. I remember so many times when I would see women that were walking out with cardboard boxes to a car or a MARTA bus, and they had packed up all their stuff. They were like, “I have an apartment, Katie. I’m going to move into it.” It was always bittersweet to see them go, because you got to be friends with them. But obviously that’s ultimately what we want for them. We don’t want to keep them forever in the shelter. 

Through that process of getting to know the women and really seeing their lives transformed over a matter of months which sounds like a long time to live in a shelter but really that’s pretty quick time to completely transform your life. Getting to know them and seeing that process is what made me see that these are real people and wanted to continue to be involved and help out in a bigger way.

To be honest, I have no food service skills at all. These ladies who were coming off the streets and brand new to their program were far more skilled than me and taught me how to do anything that I needed to know how to do. That’s when I reached out to Jim Reese, our CEO, and said I’m volunteering in the kitchen. I love the women here and being involved in their lives, but I work in marketing at a company. If you ever have skills that I might have some talent in, I’d love to help out in other ways. That’s what led to getting involved in other avenues at Atlanta Mission. 

Did the issue of homelessness ever overwhelm you? Did you ever see it and think – too many people, it’s a big city. What can one person do to make a change?

Yeah, I’ll be honest. It still does every day. There’s approximately 10,000 folks in Atlanta who are homeless on any given night. Atlanta Mission is the largest provider of services. We see over 1,000 individuals every day which is quite a bit larger than any other provider in the city. But that’s still only 10% of the need. On any given night there are still thousands of people that don’t have a bed, that don’t have shelter.

The big thing that helps me to stay focused and keep it in perspective is to think about ending homelessness for one person’s life at a time.

We do everything we can to take in every person that comes to us. Often times folks that are homeless are scared to go to a shelter or have an idea of what a shelter will be like, and they don’t want to go. So they’ll choose to stay outside instead of coming to a shelter. By the time somebody comes to us, we want to do everything we can to take them. Usually we’re able to take everyone that comes to us. It’s still overwhelming knowing that the need is still that big.

Atlanta Mission has done some things over the last couple years to expand our capacity and reach more people. We opened the Atlanta Day Shelter for Women and Children. They were an existing organization that we merged with. We have expanded fairly significantly, but it’s still just… the need is huge.

While we’re definitely making a huge impact on many, many lives, the big thing that helps me to stay focused and keep it in perspective is to think about ending homelessness for one person’s life at a time. If we start thinking about trying to end homelessness for 10,000 people all at the same time, it’s a really daunting task. But if we think about the people who were with us last night and thinking about each one of them as individuals and their unique circumstances to end their homelessness, it becomes a little bit more doable.

What was that leap like going from just volunteering on Friday nights to this is now my life’s work to change and impact people’s lives one at a time?

It was definitely scary and something that fear held me back from doing for a long time. I thought about doing it for at least 3 years seriously. Before that I had the thought of I eventually want to do something different with my life but didn’t know exactly what. Even once I narrowed down what I wanted to do, I still thought – Oh, I’ll do that some day. It wasn’t like I should take this seriously and do it now.

Essentially it got to a point where I felt God had made it so clear that this was the path I was supposed to go down that anything else I tried to do I felt like it would be really disobedient to God. I knew He was saying this is what you need to do. It got to a point where this is what I need to do. I don’t feel like there’s another option of staying where I am and staying comfortable. I could have stayed at my other career for 30 years easily and been comfortable there and had a great career. It was a great place. I loved the place. There was nothing bad about it at all, but just really felt like God had something completely different for my life and I needed to go after that.

So I remember it was a Sunday afternoon before I was going in to resign from my job on Monday morning, and I spent the whole day praying – God, if there is any chance that you don’t want me to do this, let me know. Because I felt like I was giving up my career. It has been really exciting when I graduated from college, got into the company, worked there, got a few promotions. I was on a pretty good career path in the world’s standards, but to go in and resign the next morning and say – I’m going to work at a homeless shelter was definitely scary. I had all kinds of thoughts of, what if this doesn’t pan out? I wonder if they’ll take me back? Or if they’ll all think I’m crazy for having left. So, I did it.

All of those fears I had that I might look back and feel like I just threw away my career – now I kind of laugh when I think about it.

I was really amazed how supportive people were even at my job that I was leaving when they really didn’t have any reason that they had to be supportive. I had so many comments where people said I dreamed of something, and I never went after it. And now I’m 50 years old, now I’m 55, now I’m getting close to retirement and I never did it and that’s my biggest regret. So it gave me a lot of encouragement that I was doing the right thing even if it seemed crazy and that hopefully I wouldn’t regret this. So, I took that jump.

I remember leaving my old job for the last time and turning in all my stuff, and thinking – God, I hope that I heard you correctly because otherwise this is really nuts. 

I was about a month out from finishing my MBA program which I had done to help advance my corporate career. Meanwhile, I was leaving to take a totally different route. It was a really significant pay cut. There were a lot of things that seemed crazy about it. But I really feel like literally I’ve never regretted it. All of those fears I had that I might look back and feel like I just threw away my career – now I kind of laugh when I think about it. When I think about what I would have missed out on if I hadn’t taken this jump, that’s more scary to me than what the fear was like of being scared to leave my old job.

How does it make you feel to know that you’re helping people one by one? 

The biggest thing is that I feel like it’s such an honor and neat privilege to get to see people’s lives changed one by one. To be honest, I play a very insignificant part in their transformation. My role with Atlanta Mission is to help share the story of Atlanta Mission, share the stories of our clients' lives and to help raise money from donors to support the programs that we have going on.

Their life transformation really comes from God and comes from a lot of self-discipline of really deciding that they’re going to change their lives. It makes me really proud of them and honored. I get a front row seat to see what’s happening in their life. I love hearing their stories and even seeing it in their faces when they come in.

They come here as a last chance. By the time they come to a shelter, they have no where else to go. They have nobody else to turn to. On average at least 80% of our clients have no relationships outside of Atlanta Mission.

For you and I if we became homeless, we’d have friends, family, somebody to turn to. But they end up at a shelter because they literally have nobody. When they get here they’re pretty beaten down by life. So it’s neat to see what can happen when they do start believing in themselves and believe for themselves that their life can look different.

I never want to not be in awe of it.

We have a graduation ceremony every other month at each of our campuses. To see the men and the women get up on stage, they each give a short little speech to talk about what they’re up to now and share a snippet of their story. It’s so neat to see those and think back what they were like even just a few months before. It’s really an honor to get to see it.

That’s the biggest thing that I feel like I’d have missed out on if I didn’t make this leap to this job, getting to see those things. Honestly, I didn’t even know that type of transformation and that type of story was even possible when I first started to work here. Now my biggest hope is that it doesn’t become normal to see that. We see so many of them that I don’t want it to become – oh yeah, that’s just what happens. I never want to not be in awe of it. 

From all of your time volunteering to now working with Atlanta Mission, is there anything that you’ve learned that has changed your mind about either volunteering or homelessness? Or something where you had a perception that’s now different?

My first question is always – what do you really need?

I think that I used to think of volunteering as going and serving a meal as I did and doing some of those basic things. The biggest thing that I’ve learned is that people have a huge range of skills and talents to offer to non-profit, so I think it’s really great when people combine what those skills are with what the non-profit really needs to help them run as an organization.

We have people that are experts at finances or that come and teach classes or people who are really neat artists. We have people who come and teach a recreational art class to the women at our day shelter who have never had an opportunity like that. Sharing those types of skills is such a unique way to intersect your own talents with needs that people really have in the community too. I think that’s definitely shaped my view of volunteering. 

The other big thing is that when I go and volunteer at other organizations, my first question is always – what do you really need? Before I was quick to try and jump into what I thought they needed which is sometimes accurate, sometimes not. Organizations generally have a lot of unmet needs that if people would just ask what we really need, it actually ends up being some of the most helpful things. I think it’s a combination of organizations need to be better at asking for what we really need, and it’s great when volunteers are flexible enough to fit into what those are based on those skills and find the right match. 

 

What are the best ways to relate to someone who is in a situation that we may have no experience in, like homelessness or addiction? If people want to help but can’t actually empathize, what’s the best way to address those needs?

The biggest thing is just think of the folks like anyone else you would meet anywhere else in your normal day to day life. So while it feels so much different because they’re living in a homeless shelter or living on the streets, in reality they’re people just like we are. I struggled with this initially of what kinds of things do I talk to them about? But then realized I talk to them about the same types of things I would other people.

So while it feels so much different because they’re living in a homeless shelter or living on the streets, in reality they’re people just like we are.

So when I met someone I ask, where are you from originally? What was your life like growing up? Anything like that that are fairly open-ended questions that they can answer in any way that they want and as vague or as deep as they want to. The biggest thing is I would just approach them like I would other people I would meet.

The more that we treat them like a friend and like a normal person the more comfortable they feel relating to us in the same way. Then it’s more comfortable for both people. 

What would you say to someone who wants to help but doesn’t think they’re actually able to make an impact on a big issue like homelessness?

Try to find a piece of it. For example, with the issue of homelessness, there may be an area that people have an especially big heart for or an area where they feel like they could make an impact. Within the realm of homeless there’s a million different factors that lead to someone being homeless, so those interested in volunteering may have a unique skill that matches up with.

Let’s say someone works in recruiting or HR, they might have a great skill that may be directly transferrable to helping people have a resume or work on interview skills or job search skills.

One of my favorite ones is the art class that we have at the day shelter. We have two people who teach an art class there every Thursday. It’s been one of the coolest things. They have a big heart for coming in and making a big difference in that area. While they’re not ending homelessness for the 100 women in the shelter, they’re coming in and giving those women a sense of self confidence that then helps them be able to make a decision to either come to our overnight shelter or to pursue next steps to look for employment. Whatever it might be.

So if you break it down to either thinking about a specific area that you have a skill in that might be able to help a small group of people or think about an area where you have a passion that might help them develop emotionally, socially, those types of things – I think it makes it a little more easy to grasp if there’s a smaller subset of the big issue. 

What is your challenge to the citizens of Atlanta for how to make an impact on homelessness? 

There’s always a big question of what to do when you see someone on the streets that’s homeless, especially if they’re asking for money or some kind of help. The big question is always, what should I do? What’s the best thing to do? So something that Atlanta Mission does and recommends is we actually have little cards where you can refer folks to our shelters. It has a little map of which shelter to go to and a phone number, and we write our name on it so they feel like they have a personal invitation to go there. They feel like it’s an invitation to go to the shelter. For a lot of people that’s what they need. They want to feel like they’re welcome there, and they’re invited to come.

The big question is always, what should I do?

During the summer, we recommend to give that card and a bottle of water and a snack and maybe even a MARTA card to help them get to where they’re going. We really feel like that’s the best chance for them in terms of really receiving some help. If they make it to one of our campuses, they’ll have such an array of services to meet what their needs are compared to if they just stay on the streets and receive money for a meal. 

One of the big things that we raise money for is meals. We serve over 800,000 meals a year across our 5 shelters. The average cost for a meal at our shelter is $2.67, and all of the meals are provided completely free to our clients. A neat way to think about helping is sponsoring a person for a day, so providing three meals for one day. Or if you sponsor a table for 10 women and kids, it would be $26.70. Breaking it down at that level way makes it feel attainable like you’re making a difference. 

Another step is to actually sponsor a client for a day. Our average cost of having a client for one day is about $21, and that’s for a man, a woman or a child. If someone sponsors a client, they can do it for one day or they can sponsor a woman and child for a day. It’s a way to break it down and feel like you’re having an impact on individual lives and helping those lives be transformed and helping end their homelessness. 

As told to Kristen Green at The Shepherd’s Inn in Atlanta, GA on Tuesday, August 4, 2015. 

 

 

Kristen Green Consulting is the digital consultant for Atlanta creatives. Kristen helps cultivate ideas into a meaningful business through workshops, consulting and 1-on-1 coaching.