On a Thursday afternoon in a small but lively room, six second-graders from Lake Forest Elementary practiced reading English with volunteers ranging from high school students to retirees. When LaAmistad Executive Director Cat McAfee walked into the room, each child left his or her workstation to formally greet her.
“Hello, it is very nice to see you,” each student said shyly but firmly, shaking McAfee’s hand without breaking eye contact. “Welcome to LaAmistad.”
LaAmistad, whose name means “The Friendship,” offers an afterschool learning program for under-resourced Latino students that focuses on math and reading, as well as teaching manners and virtues, McAfee said.
The nonprofit has been serving Latino families since 2001, starting at Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Buckhead. It has many metro Atlanta locations, but one of the most prominent is the one in Sandy Springs, McAfee said.
But the shopping center in which LaAmistad calls home at 120 Northwood Drive will be demolished come May in preparation for a new self-storage facility that is slated to open in 2022.
The construction will displace two other nonprofits, the Community Assistance Center and Los Niños Primero, as well as about a dozen retailers, including a hair salon, a laundromat, a Mexican grocery store, the Salvadoran restaurant La fonda Guadalupana and a Spanish-speaking tax services office.
The three-story facility was approved in September by the City Council. The site plans include space for the three nonprofits, as well as some space for neighborhood-serving retail, such as a grocery store and a laundromat. The plan will also bring a new park that will replace the current playground at the site.
The unassuming complex currently rests on 2.7 acres and is 1.5 miles south from City Springs, the city’s new art and civic complex. It is known as the Missionary Solidarity Village, named after the Solidarity School, which has since closed.
It is a two-story building dating back to 1971 that has a Germantown-inspired exterior lined with individual spaces leased by retailers and an indoor cobalt blue tiled stairwell tucked behind a glass door that leads to the nonprofits.
Across the street are numerous apartment complexes that are mainly rented out by Latino families, who can easily walk over for basic, everyday needs, or resources provided by the nonprofits.
The nonprofits work closely with the lower-income community in Sandy Springs to help families with resources they may not be able to find otherwise.
While the nonprofits have been promised space in the new building, they are not sure what they will do during the displacement. But they all have one goal in common: not slowing down their efforts during the transitional phase.
The Community Assistance Center was formed in 1987 when it began operating out of the Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church. The nonprofit has had the same focus for over 20 years: to help people at risk of homelessness.
CAC opened a branch office in the Northwood building in 2018. It assists families with financial and healthcare resources and offers many programs involving the nearby schools.
The office has a waiting room for families to settle, as well as individual rooms to discuss their needs in private. The office also provides a shuttle to and from the CAC thrift store and food pantry in the north end of the city on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
The office has helped about 345 families this year, Executive Director Tamara Carrera said.
Carrera said she is eyeing some temporary spaces for the office to relocate to, and that CAC is opening its first Dunwoody location in November.
Although the move may be inconvenient, Carrera said she is thankful for the developers of the property for listening to the community’s concerns about making sure the area can still serve the nearby lower-income and Latino community it currently does.
“I wish all of the developers were as easy as this group,” Carrera said. “If everyone listened like they did, the community would be better.”
Carrera said she is most excited about the larger and updated space the new building will provide and the opportunities it will bring for CAC.
CAC will be able to have a food pantry at its new location, something it could not have before because of poor electrical wiring, Carrera said.
Just across the complex, LaAmistad runs afterschool programs for Latino students Monday through Thursday. The program is for first- through fifth-graders and serves about 35 children from Lake Forest Elementary, which the Sandy Springs location serves exclusively,. They are bused in after school lets out.
At the current location, LaAmistad uses window units for air conditioning because the building has no central system, and the nonprofit had to complete a paint job and knock out walls to make the space work.
“We had to brighten things up in here,” McAfee said. “It was very dark.”
Despite its challenges, LaAmistad has had a presence in the shopping center for four years.
Patrick Ronson, a long-term volunteer and currently working with the fifth graders, said he was intimidated by the idea of volunteering at first.
“But once you meet the kids, you get sucked in,” Ronson said. “I keep coming back because they keep me coming back.”
Ronson said being with the children four times a week has brought him close to them and given him a chance to get to know them individually.
“For instance, I know when this one [as he points to a student] writes in his journal each day, there will be a sci-fi aspect, because he loves science,” Ronson said.
McAfee said the nonprofit is looking into options on where to locate during the displacement but has not yet chosen a temporary home. But when the new building is complete, the organization will be able to have complete creative control, which is something no other locations have had, McAfee said.
“We are most excited about the ability to design it for our use,” McAfee said. “That would be a first for us.”
Next door, Los Niños Primero also works with Latino students but focuses on children entering kindergarten.
Los Niños Primero’s main program is its after-school literacy program, but it offers others, including Saturday school for ages 3 and 4.
The nonprofit has been operating in Sandy Springs for 18 years. In 2018, Los Niños Primero served over 190 families.
Executive Director Maritza Morelli said she is looking into a building on Carpenter Drive for the temporary displacement, but that she has some other options, as well.
“I do not want to stop offering the services while the construction is happening,” Morelli said.
The nonprofit takes a holistic approach, offering education programs but also yoga, art and music classes.
Morelli said the after-school literacy programs are not only for the children; they involve the whole family.
“We want to improve the literacy level for the children, but also for the parents,” Morelli said.
The nonprofit tries to involve the entire family because being an immigrant herself, Morelli knows the struggle the community faces.
“You left your country, you left your friends, your family, your language, and you start from ground zero,” Morelli said.
Update: This story has been updated with more information from Los Niños Primero.