Column: City of Refuge marks 20 years of transforming lives in Atlanta

By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on October 27, 2017

The City of Refuge, founded 20 years ago, has already helped transform 20,000 lives.

But to listen to founder Bruce Deel, a minister who founded City of Refuge, the nonprofit is just getting started.

“We won’t finish this,” Deel said. “This is not an end-game proposition.”

city of refuge

City of Refuge. launches capital campaign. Left to right: Chick-fil-A’s Dan Cathy, Coca-Cola’s Muhtar Kent, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and the City of Refuge’s Bruce Deel and Terry Tucker

City of Refuge celebrated 20 years and 20,000 lives at its annual fundraising event, “The Gathering,” at the Georgia Aquarium on Oct. 19.

And it has many reasons to celebrate.

It is in the midst of its “Shining the Light Capital Campaign” to raise $25.6 million to expand both its geographical footprint as well as its services.

“We have raised $22.5 million of the $25.6 million,” Deel said. “I’m hoping we can close out the campaign by the end of the year.”

City of Refuge has received strong support from Atlanta’s major foundations. Mark Toro, Atlanta managing partner for North American Properties who is chairing the campaign, said City of Refuge received $6 million from the Chick-fil-A Foundation; $3 million from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation; $2 million from the James M. Cox Foundation; and $1.25 million from the Coca-Cola Foundation, plus dozens of other gifts.

The campaign is helping the City of Refuge acquire significant pieces of dilapidated real estate surrounding its current base at 1300 Joseph E. Boone Blvd.

Already, it has acquired and demolished a run-down apartment complex across the street. And North American Properties is working with the City of Refuge to build 47 units of supporting housing to help house people who currently can’t live within the city’s walls.

The City of Refuge provides shelter to women and children who are at different stages in trying to get their lives back on track. It has quarters for teenage mothers as well as a section for women and girls who have been victims of sex trafficking.

But the city’s tentacles stretch far and wide. Mercy Health has a base in the facility. The City of Refuge also has a Workforce Innovation Hub, and it currently offers job training and employment opportunities to people interested in the culinary arts and auto mechanics.

The “Shining the Light” campaign will add eight new fields of job training opportunities to the City of Refuge: administrative assistants; bookkeeping; hospitality; a tech academy; data entry; code writing; call center training; security and landscape services.

Deel began City of Refuge in 1997 after being sent down to close a church on the Westside. Instead of closing the church, Deel moved his entire family to the Westside neighborhood.

“There was nothing wrong with our life, but we were not living inside the calling,” Deel said at The Gathering. And he reminded the audience how much more needs to be done.

“We stand in the shadow of that incredible work – years and years of toiling the soil,” said Dan Cathy, Chick-fil-A’s CEO, who also credited Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank for “leading the charge here on the Westside.”

Toro then summed it up this way: “Bruce and the City of Refuge are the most effective urban ministry in our city.”

Transform Westside Summit

For two years, the Westside Future Fund has been bringing together hundreds of people twice a month to help in the revitalization of Vine City, English Avenue and surrounding communities.

On the morning of Oct. 20, the Transform Westside Summit celebrated the milestone by looking back. Chick-fil-A’s Dan Cathy, who has attended nearly every meeting, set the stage by saying the summit has brought together people of all different races, incomes, backgrounds and interests.

“It’s such an eclectic group,” said Cathy, noting what a contrast the summit is from the “divisiveness” going on nationally. “We are committed to transforming the future of people. We are not going to run off the people who are here… We are going to respect the people who are here. We need that heritage as we go forward.”

Five community residents then took the stage describing their own experiences in the community transformation. While there has been some rebuilding of trust from residents living in Westside neighborhoods, there is still skepticism.

“It’s a matter of communications,” said Kelly Brown, an English Avenue resident who offered to film the meetings. “I believe people have good intentions. But there is a cultural divide, and there are divisions.”

Larry Corker from the At Promise Youth Center, said the only way to accomplish the goal is for people to become connected to each other. “Be willing to know people you don’t know,” he said. “Are you willing to let your heart be knitted to mine? That spirit has to take place.”

The Transform Westside Summit then ended with Cathy playing a happy birthday song on the trumpet and presenting a carrot cake to John Ahmann, executive director of the Westside Future Fund.


Another organization transforming lives is Chris 180 (formerly Chris Kids).

The nonprofit has been working to heal children, strengthen families and build communities through mental health counseling, training, safe house and skill building dating back to 1981. Since then, it has helped transform the lives of more than 60,000 people.

Now Chris 180 is aiming even higher.

On Nov. 2, the nonprofit will launch the public phase of its “Turning Point Capital Campaign” at an evening event at the Cherokee Town Club. The goal of the three-year campaign is $12 million and already $11 million has been raised.

But Kathy Colbenson, president and CEO of Chris 180, said the potential is even greater.

“As part of the campaign, we have received a challenge grant from an anonymous donor to reach $14 million,” Colbenson wrote in an email.

Early donors to the campaign include The Kendeda Fund, the Joseph B. Whitehead Foundation, and the James M. Cox Foundation, Delta Air Lines, Georgia-Pacific, Publix Super Markets Charities and SunTrust. The campaign committee is chaired by Cyril Turner, a retired Delta executive, and David Moody Jr., founder and CEO of C.D. Moody Construction.

Colbenson said the demand of Chris 180’s training services and programs has multiplied over the last several years.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

What are your thoughts?