By Fran Memberg

Five hundred Sandy Springs and Dunwoody families will have a more festive Thanksgiving than they might have expected this year, and that helped Debbie Sonenshine have a very happy 60th birthday.

Debbie Sonenshine (in red) leads husband Stan, daughter Rachel Sonenshine Halitsky, and son-in-law Jonathan Halitsky in packing up Thanksgiving baskets for the needy Nov. 7 at the old Ace Hardware Store in Dunwoody. Sonenshine organized the project to mark her 60th birthday

When Sonenshine’s husband asked what she wanted to do to celebrate her milestone birthday on Nov. 7, he was thinking she would answer with something along the lines of a trip or special present, Sonenshine said. Instead, she told him she wanted to donate food to the Sandy Springs-based Community Action Center to help families in need at Thanksgiving.

“I didn’t think a trip would give me as much pleasure as this,” said Sonenshine, a Sandy Springs Realtor who served on the CAC board for two years.

CAC focuses on the prevention of homelessness and provision of basic needs to individuals and families in Sandy Springs and Dunwoody. Last year, the organization distributed 150 fewer holiday baskets than this year.

Among the younger helpers was Audrey Kaye. 9, a fourth-grader at Davis Academy.

“We give holiday food baskets to everyone who has received financial assistance this year,” said, Tamara Carrera, the CAC executive director. She said the number of families CAC assists has doubled since the center moved into its current location on Hightower Trail. A 10,000-pound food donation this fall from Temple Sinai in Sandy Springs was gone in 2 1/2 weeks, added Carrera.

With the metro Atlanta unemployment rate hovering at 10 percent, “This year, a lot more middle class families [have sought assistance],” said Carrera. “We see people in the waiting room on computers and cell phones looking for work. It’s a humbling experience.”

Sonenshine’s efforts to raise the funds to provide CAC’s 2010 holiday baskets were “pretty huge,” Carrera said. “Debbie has been a wonderful supporter. [She says,] ‘Let’s get this done,’ and it gets done.”

Sonenshine is no stranger to giving. “The root of [the holiday baskets project] is my dad, who died 18 months ago,” she said. “He loved helping people. Once he got an idea, he was very hands on and got others excited about helping. [One time] he got a truckload of food donated to a food bank in Pensacola. My parents were both philanthropic. That’s how I was raised.”

Soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, “everyone was feeling helpless and hopeless and concerned about people dying,” said Sonenshine. She realized that ambulances save lives, so she raised $75,000 for a mobile intensive care unit ambulance for the Israel Red Cross. “People want to give and do. They just need someone to ask them.”

With Sonenshine’s encouragement, Coldwell Banker, the real estate agency where she’s worked for 22 years, established the CB Cares Foundation about five years ago. On behalf of the foundation, and in conjunction with Sandy Springs synagogue Congregation B’nai Torah, Sonenshine donated clothes to CAC.

“They said, ‘Do you have food to donate? Our cupboards are bare.’ I thought, ‘What? Homeless people in Sandy Springs?’ How naïve [I was],” said Sonenshine, who became a CAC volunteer. “What better thing for a Realtor to get involved in than preventing homelessness,” she said.

When a co-worker requested donations to help victims of a natural disaster last year in honor of her 60th birthday, Sonenshine thought she could do something similar. “It’s nice to have wonderful things, but if we have hungry people we don’t have anything.”

In short order, Sonenshine collected the $18,000 needed to fill 500 holiday baskets. The money was donated to CAC, which purchased non-perishable food items from Kroger at Orchard Park in on Dunwoody Club Drive. Additional funds allowed CAC to purchase Kroger gift certificates for each family receiving a holiday basket.

On Sonenshine’s birthday, Nov. 7, her family and friends gathered at the old Ace Hardware store in Dunwoody to pack the baskets.

“We worked as a family on this. It’s fun to focus on this and not think about getting older,” Sonenshine said. “Turning 60 doesn’t bother me.”

For information about the Community Action Center, or to make a donation, call (770) 552-4889 or visit www.ourcac.org.

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