Hands On Atlanta celebrates 20th anniversary

By Maria Saporta
Friday, September 25, 2009

A national movement was birthed over dinner at the former Camille’s Italian restaurant in Virginia-Highland.

It was late in 1988. Elise Eplan had just returned from graduate school in the Northeast where a friend of hers had started a volunteer organization called New York Cares. She contacted a longtime family friend, Kent Alexander, who she thought might be interested in helping launch such an organization in Atlanta.

“Our parents were hoping we were on a date,” said Alexander, who is now general counsel for Emory University.

That “date” led to the creation of Hands On Atlanta 20 years ago when Eplan and Alexander gathered a dozen friends and colleagues to launch the organization.

Today Hands On Atlanta is a national leader in the volunteer movement. In fact, the national organization — Points of Light and Hands On Network — is now based in Atlanta. And the CEO of the national association is Michelle Nunn, who was the founding executive of Hands On Atlanta.

On Oct. 3, the organization will put on its 19th Hands On Atlanta Day — a day when as many as 10,000 Atlantans will volunteer on projects all over the city.

As it celebrates its 20th year, Hands On Atlanta is kicking off a new campaign — to raise $500,000 and have its volunteers contribute 500,000 hours of service during the next year.

It is a time of transition for Hands On Atlanta. Last November, it named Gina Simpson, formerly deputy commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Resources, as its president.

“We are still the connector between the people in need and the people who want to give back,” said Simpson, who added that Hands On Atlanta is re-emphasizing its core mission of service in three key areas: the economy, education and the environment.

In its two decades, the volunteerism movement has taken hold. The recent passage of the Kennedy Serve America Act will invest $1.1 billion in fiscal year 2010 to expand service programs.

“Being the place where the national organization was birthed, we have such a legacy around volunteerism,” Simpson said. “The other affiliates still see us as the godfather and leader of the volunteer movement.”

Eplan, now a consultant to foundations, marvels at how the organization and the movement has grown since the original dozen founders met in her living room.

“It was an idea that worked,” Eplan said.

Hands On Atlanta was able to tap into a population that didn’t want to be remembered as the “me generation.”

“The whole decade was branded the narcissistic ’80s,” Alexander said. “We bristled at that. We wanted to get people hooked on volunteerism. Part of the vision was to do things hands-on and not just mailing a check or calling it in.”

Corporations also have signed on. General Electric Co. is the presenting sponsor for Hands On Atlanta Day. One of the largest projects will take place at the Butler Street YMCA in northwest Atlanta’s Washington Park neighborhood, where more than 300 volunteers from GE will do a host of improvements, including building walking trails, installing flooring and electrical fixtures, and assembling planter benches.

Other corporate sponsors include AirTran Airways Inc., Accenture Ltd., The Coca-Cola Co., Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc., The Home Depot Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc., Newell Rubbermaid Inc. and Radiant Systems Inc..

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, is the honorary chair of the 2009 Hands On Atlanta Day. Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and the four leading candidates running to succeed her also will be part of the event.

“We really want to knock this one out of the park,” Simpson said.

For Eplan, the 20-year anniversary is a time to reflect and look forward.

“There’s still so much need in Atlanta, and there are so many more opportunities for people to be engaged in community service,” she said. “I wouldn’t dare say we changed the world, but I do think that we helped change Atlanta.”

Founded in 1989 by a group of concerned citizens, Hands On Atlanta in its 20-year history has mobilized more than 250,000 volunteers who have provided more than 1 million hours of service to more than 4,000 nonprofits and schools throughout the greater Atlanta area.

It also has operated the largest AmeriCorps program in the Southeast for the past 16 years, with more than 1,750 members providing tutoring, mentoring, after-school enrichment and volunteer management services for Atlanta Public Schools.

Hands On Atlanta is an affiliate of the Hands On Network, an umbrella association of “Cares” and “Hands On” organizations across the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries.

Hands On Network and the Points of Light Foundation formally combined forces in 2007 to become to become the Points of Light Institute.

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.

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