A first look at the Catholic Charities Atlanta
She never knows who is going to walk in next.
For 20 years now, a manager of the Catholic Charities Atlanta continues to relive that mystery every moment as she sits at her desk in the front of a warehouse-like room at the back of a Goodwill in Atlanta.
The words “The mission of Goodwill of North Georgia is to put people to work” hang starkly against the bare walls. Numerous small one-person cubicles with dated computers line the middle of the room while circular desks with mugs containing two flower pens each are on the far side. Hallways with extra classrooms are invisibly tucked in the back.
“You never know what type of person is going to walk through that door,” the manager said. “Because they each have their own story.”
Maybe they just moved here from Ethiopia and they don’t have internet connection at home.
Maybe they are undocumented Mexican immigrants in need of a path to residency.
Maybe they are unattended minors of Colombian immigrants looking to learn English.
Maybe they are victims of human trafficking in need of resume classes.
At the Catholic Charities Atlanta — where the motto is “Providing Help. Creating Hope.” — the employees and volunteers stationed in the Goodwill warehouse see about 100 people walk through their doors every day, each with their own story.
Sometimes, though, they do know who to expect. About two months before a refugee or family of refugees arrive for legal resettlement in America, the organization gets a notice. They receive another one 10 days before arrival and a final one two days before.
By then, they have furnished an apartment — filled it with food, clothes and other necessary living items. On the day of arrival, they will pick them up from the airport and begin a month long intensive service program, walking them through the basics of being American — whether that means registering for Social Security or helping them set up an alarm. Eventually, they will work with the refugees to find suitable jobs and permanent housing.
One of the most important rites of passages for these newcomers is the English as a Second Language class.
That’s where James comes in. As the teacher of the intermediate class, he maintains a patient demeanor for two hours while he teaches a class of about 20 students. Today, he walks the diverse group of adult students through a lesson about the construction of the Panama Canal, simultaneously teaching the English language and the American culture.
The class is engaged — the immigrants reply in unison when directed, work together to complete the assignment and respond to corrections with seemingly exaggerated “oh”’s.
Looking around the room, the gradient of accents accompanies a gradient of colors and cultures and races. To most of the workers in the warehouse, it is clear that Georgia has an opinion about that gradient.
Through even fleeting conversations with James and the other employees at the center, you can quickly grasp their feelings and opinions about the racism they see as part of their job.
James described the southern tradition as “insular” while slightly rolling his eyes as he thought about the prejudice he sees in his community.
“[The immigrants] are sort of natural victims,” Volunteer Resources Manager Margaret Prickett said.
She grew up in an Alabama city where there were only blacks and whites and additional diversity was restricted to a single Chinese restaurant.
“Growing up, I was oblivious. For me, immigrants were my Irish grandparents.”
After moving to Texas and Georgia, she sees a significant prejudice against Latinos — particularly given the recent Georgian immigration provision.
With that provision, registration in the center has gone down by 30 percent. Prickett said that all the classrooms of the center used to fill up immediately. Today, they looked eerily empty.
The manager — who wanted to remain anonymous — believes the registration decline can be blamed somewhat on fear amongst immigrant populations.
“There is a lot of racial prejudice here,” she said as she sat at her desk, waiting for the next person with a new story to walk through those doors. “Even if people don’t believe it.”