Patrice Wuerth, COO and Co-founder of local non-profit “Hearts to Nourish Hope”, is on a mission to provide work and education opportunities to troubled youth in the community. With a new center in Lawrenceville that focuses on ages 16 to 24, Patrice sees all kinds of possibilities to make a difference for those in DEFACS, the Juvenile Court system, and out-of-school teens in Gwinnett.
“We’re always looking for new partnerships and work experience opportunities to help the kids,” Patrice said. As a theater graduate from New York University, Patrice found her way to Georgia about 30 years ago. She and her sister, Deborah Anglin, shared a vision to start their own organization after years of working together in youth camps. In 1995, they co-founded Hearts to Nourish Hope or just “Hearts” as they’ve come to refer to it.
“We wanted to make sure everything goes straight to the kids,” Patrice said. So, they started with high school suspension centers, working to get students back on track. As the organization grew, the sisters were able to expand their reach, providing court-mandated counseling, career guidance, and educational support. They offer transitional housing and a variety of vocational programs out of their center in Clayton, and Patrice hopes the Gwinnett center will follow a similar trajectory.
Now funded by the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), they started the Clayton Center with a $5,000 grant and opened a food pantry where they “struggled”, as Patrice recalls, to feed 33 people a month. “Now we feed over 300 people each week in our Clayton center,” she said. The sisters are still overwhelmed when they step into the 74,000 square foot building in Clayton.
“We just grew. My sister and I walk into the center and giggle. Just, holy smokes! Look at where we are now! And we want the same thing for this center in Gwinnett,” Patrice said.
Upon their funders’ request, Hearts began looking for a center in Gwinnett. They started holding GED classes, as well as parenting and work skills courses in Norcross about two years ago. Now, many of those students have followed them to the center on Old Norcross Rd. where they celebrated a ribbon-cutting on July 22, 2019.
“We’ve already almost outgrown the space,” Patrice admits. Over 100 students participate in programs at the Gwinnett center, and while many spend most of their time in the community at jobs and internships, resources do not meet the demand. There is a waiting list for the new center, and the transportation budget is depleted.
But the center hardly reflects these woes. Positive quotes and art are posted on the walls as colorful reminders of the kind of attitude students need to be successful at Hearts. “You have to have the right attitude to come to class. You have to have your pants pulled up, and you have to be this high,” Patrice said, pointing at a line made of construction paper taped against the wall. “It’s a reminder to set their minds straight so they can better participate.” And Patrice encourages participants to make their own mark by splattering a colorful handprint on a wall by the front desk.
The Gwinnett facility features two classrooms, both a large and a small one; a counseling center; a kitchen, which they hope to remodel in the near future; a computer lab and a workshop where students take construction class with the opportunity to receive maintenance certifications for hotel management or other maintenance work.
Working with teachers from Gwinnett Technical College, Hearts offers GED classes where participants can receive one-on-one attention from tutors who either volunteer or intern from Georgia Gwinnett College. Through the program, 37 Gwinnett locals have graduated with a GED, and ten more are close to completing their final classes to take the test.
“It’s really our partners who make this great,” Patrice said. “We work with different organizations, and they scholarship the kids into different things like CNA class and different programs where they have options for certifications and exposure to different work environments.”
Patrice explained the nonprofit’s finance model allows them to pay students for their work in the community. “It gives the opportunity to get that work exposure to youth who don’t have a career path or don’t have a realistic idea of what it’s like day-day. Some chose other fields they hadn’t thought of before.”
Seniors from Discovery and Central Gwinnett High School have had similar opportunities with Hearts’ Summer Impact program. Through a collaboration with Impact 46, Hearts extended opportunities for students to be paid for eight weeks of work during the summer. “Some of our kids worked for the City of Lawrenceville, the Aurora Theater and even for Impact 46. And this was our first summer to work with the Gwinnett Drugs pharmacy. It was such a great opportunity! The pharmacy showed kids everything so many have made the decision that’s what they want their career to be. Many have jobs for when they’re out of college,” Patrice said.
When he moved to Georgia from Washington last year, Nathan Peña wanted to be a tattoo artist. Now at Hearts, he’s able to live out his dream of being an artist while completing court-ordered work experience credits. Working with well-known Atlanta artist Miriam Robinson, Nathan helped paint and design an abstract mural by the front office. He’s currently working on a larger mural by the large classroom, an interpretive piece that visualizes his belief that the power to create change comes from within. “I figure it’s a great idea because it’s bold. It makes a statement. And that’s what I’m in it for,” Nathan said.
Patrice is on the lookout for new and unique opportunities that will motivate her students. Gwinnett Tech offers higher education opportunities, although not all students want to attend college, as some would prefer to gain experience working. “We’re always looking for new opportunities, for professionals to come to speak at the center about their career, and for volunteers,” Patrice said.
Having a support system to explore his interests gives Nathan hope that he can turn his life around and make something of himself. “Honestly, I thought my life was ruined when I was locked up, but they were like, ‘Hey, this is a second chance for you!’”
Hearts to Nourish Hope is located at 585 Old Norcross Rd. and sits a few doors down from the Camp Bow Wow of Lawrenceville. Visit http://www.heartstonourishhope.org, or call (770)910-7733 for more information.