A 20-year record of recovery, community, grace, and growthBy Rachel Letcher | August 2016
Mary Hall Freedom House empowers women to break the cycle of addiction, poverty, and homelessness for themselves and their children, housing and serving more than 200 women and 80 children on any given day. With their recent 20th anniversary event, which raised over $100,000 for the organization, they celebrated the work that’s helped more than 12,000 Georgians since opening in 1996.
To find out more about the nonprofit’s two decades of service, we spoke to founder and CEO Lucy Hall-Gainer, who started Mary Hall Freedom House following her own recovery, and who named the organization in memory of her mother, who she lost to alcoholism when she was just six years old.
How were you able to channel your experience into help for others?
I felt really clear as to my assignment in life: Once God delivered me, he said, "Now go back and help others." Helping women defeat addiction, poverty, and homelessness has become both my mission and my passion. We were created to live life as mothers and daughters and sisters, not as subjects to the darkness of life. I'm grateful to be able help a sister recover: God did it for me 26 years ago, and I watch God continue to help our clients, and me, every single day. I thank God for every woman and child that has crossed the threshold of Mary Hall, and I also thank them for teaching me awesome lessons and making my life richer.
How has the organization grown over the last 20 years?
It’s grown beyond anything I could have imagined. We started with one apartment on Roswell Road, and a meeting with Peachford Hospital’s detox center and Dekalb Addiction Clinic. I was amazed at how many ladies they sent: Within 90 days, we went from one apartment to three. By the next summer, I was looking for help writing a grant. The gardener of our first donor overheard me saying I didn't know how to write a grant proposal, and volunteered to reach out to his sister, who had experience. That’s how we won our first grant, for $80,000, providing services for six women and their children. In the past 20 years, we've served 5,500 women, 1,500 children and 5,000 families. Right now we have five different locations and seven different programs, including treatment for addiction, emergency housing, a veterans’ support program, and two permanent housing programs. I'm so excited about the future of Mary Hall, it overwhelms me.
How do you build a productive community?
I grew up in a loving community with people I saw every day, who said hello and knew my name. People who had nothing to do with my mother or father fed me, combed my hair, and took care of me. That's what Mary Hall Freedom House is: A community providing love, hope, support, and miracles. Alumni come back to support the women here, and our partners, supporters, and board members all add to our community.
A number of organizations have been our partners since day one: St. Joseph's Mercy Care has always provided for our medical needs, and Community Advance Practice Nurses is another long-time supporter. When I first moved here, Georgia was behind on a lot of issues, but today it’s a leader. No, we haven't ended homelessness or addiction, but we don't see it the way we used to—as this ugly beast, rather than a challenge to recover from. Everyone that I know has recovered from something: Now that we can see addiction in terms of our own struggles, we can grow our community and make a greater impact.
As a seasoned leader who built an organization from the ground up, what’s your advice for people who have just stepped in to a leadership role?
First and foremost: Know who you are. Secondly, you need a strong faith and trust in God and where he is leading you. Through all the obstacles I’ve come up against over the years, staying strong in my faith, knowing what I was called to do and knowing who I am has sustained me. If you are passionate about something, you must live and breathe it: those who do are unstoppable.
You also need good people to do what you can’t. I remember saying to our first donor, "I have to go back to school to get my master’s degree." He said, "No, you don't. You have to think like Thomas Edison: Hire people smarter than you.” That advice has been very helpful in building my board and staff.
Like most in the nonprofit world, my love and passion came first: I didn't come into this because I wanted to run a business, but we have to make money if we want to help people. This is where a good board is important. I cannot put a price on how blessed I have been with my board of directors. There's only one Lucy, and I do my part, but I give kudos to the many people who make my vision a reality.
What plans do you have for Mary Hall’s future?
The two newest parts of my job description are establishing sustainability and succession. I am ecstatic to say that we are now owners of our property, thanks to Mimms Enterprises and the ROI Foundation. That is part of what will sustain Mary Hall beyond my days. Another major factor is funding diversity. We are in the process of creating what I call “profit centers,” including a thrift store on Roswell Road, selling furniture and items designed and made by our clients. We’re also making profit from our daycare center by opening it up to the public, which also provides work experience for our clients. To that end, we’re forming new relationships that prepare our clients for successful careers, including a new partnership with Northside Hospital. Getting our clients into careers, and not just jobs, also adds to sustainability, allowing alumni to become donors.
Rachel Letcher is communications coordinator at Georgia Center for Nonprofits.