In a city where 34.9 percent of residents live in poverty, Donna Wade is doing everything she can to make a difference. This Athenian native and University of Georgia alumna has been on a mission to reduce poverty in the Athens-Clarke County area since 1996 when she began to work with The Ark, a local nonprofit organization.
The Ark, established in 1984, helps diminish poverty by providing emergency financial assistance to low-income members of the Athens community. This includes assisting people with rent and utility payments, medication fees, transportation and food. The Ark is largely funded by congregational churches in the area and ran almost entirely by volunteers.
“The volunteer core here is really what makes this place so very special. Most of the volunteers here are very inspiring to me,” said Wade.
Wade began at The Ark almost 18 years ago as a part-time employee. She built her way up to become the assistant to the director of the company, a paid position she held for over five years before leaving to raise her two children and pursue a career as a real estate appraiser. However, in 2007 she came back to The Ark as a volunteer on Tuesdays, dedicating her time to the organization while continuing her work and juggling motherhood.
When asked about her return to The Ark, Wade said, “It is really a testament to what The Ark does here that they could bring me back without pay. This is just a really special organization. The people here are special. The work here is special.”
On a normal Tuesday at The Ark, Wade serves as an interviewer during a four-hour shift. During this process she meets with “neighbors,” a term The Ark uses to describe clients, and asks questions about their income expenses. She then finds out what the neighbors need assistance on and presents this information to the director for review.
“It’s a good process. I always like to let [neighbors] know up front that I’m not making any sort of judgment on their situation,” Wade said.
It is up to the director and a set of strictly written guidelines on whether or not neighbors can receive monetary assistance from The Ark. However, Wade tries her best to help out any person that walks through the door.
“Donna likes to think outside the box and she’s good at trying to fit neighbors into our policies. We want to help everyone that walks in, but not everyone is going to qualify, so she’s really good at finding an unexpected expense,” said Stephanie Cockfield, The Ark’s program coordinator.
In addition to interviewing, Wade is also involved in numerous other daily tasks at the organization, such as writing food bank referrals, answering phone calls, filing paperwork, serving on the board and fundraising.
“I am definitely a better person for coming [to The Ark] once a week. It really puts my own problems, whatever they might be, in perspective,” said Wade.
Wade also stood in for Director of The Ark, Lucy Hudgens, when Hudgens was on pregnancy leave. During this time, Wade managed the payroll of The Ark and worked with the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia to hand out free turkeys on Thanksgiving with food bank referrals.
“She’s my mentor,” Hudgens said of Wade. “She doesn’t know this, but I value her judgment, reasoning and personality. She’s a ray of sunshine that truly encompasses what the Ark is all about.”