Building a non-profit is not a task for the faint of heart. It takes patience, persistence, and dedication. Building a one-of-a-kind non-profit that other organizations travel to see and replicate takes a truly brave soul — an innovative, strategic thinker with a dynamic, genuine personality and a huge heart. Someone, in fact, like Cathy Berggren, Director of the Real Life Center in Fayette County. It’s taken long years of hard work, but she’s grown the center into an amazing facility we can all be proud to have in our community.
Understand that Cathy is no stranger to hard work. She grew up on a Nebraska dairy farm where there were always animals to be fed, a garden to be tended, and vegetables to be canned — along with the myriad other duties that come with farming. The youngest of five girls, Cathy started early.
“My poor dad ended up a farmer with no boys,” she laughs. “So we girls drove the tractor and herded cows — whatever had to be done.”
Chores were part of school life for Cathy as well. From kindergarten through eighth grade, she attended a one-room schoolhouse with no running water. Pumping water, cleaning the chalkboards, and sweeping the floor were daily tasks. Yearly attendance ranged from 2 to 20 students. One year, the entire school consisted of Cathy and three of her older sisters.
“You learn to be a team,” she explains. “You learn to work together. That’s incredibly valuable.”
Cathy’s life changed dramatically when she started high school. She went from a school of 2 to a class of more than 400. Yet the habit of pitching in remained with her. She was the first to volunteer to read to the blind and seized every opportunity to give or help out in her school and community.
“I think it’s how I was made, the way God made me,” Cathy says. “But it was my parents, too. I watched how they gave, how they loved people. You always knew when the neighbors needed something and you helped. That’s just how we lived.”
After high school, she earned her degree in social work from the University of Nebraska. She got married, had four kids, and traveled with her military husband. Over the years, she lived in a dozen places and worked as a hospital social worker, at a community action agency, and in the adoption field, helping people wherever she went. She home-schooled her three oldest children through about the fifth grade. She even started a home school group to expand their experiences and provide them with a social network. Eventually, she earned a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of West Georgia. In 1996, her family relocated to Fayette County and it became home. Two years later, she joined Braelinn Church, now Dogwood Church. As she had all her life, Cathy looked for ways to pitch in, asking the pastor how she could help with the church’s ministries. He led her to a trailer in the parking lot where church members had been gathering donations to begin a clothing closet.
“I just stared at that trailer, completely full of black garbage bags of clothes,” she recalls. “And I remember thinking ‘I have four kids and I can’t even get my own laundry done half the time. How am I ever going to do this?’”
But she and the other volunteers pulled it together and the clothes closet opened soon thereafter. The Real Life Center was born and soon added the gathering and providing of day-old bread to needy families. Yet the vision went far beyond these important basics, and the effort gradually began to grow. A food pantry came next, set up like a store where those in need could “shop.” As the project grew, the group began a unique follow-up program to check in with clients and see how they were doing. In 2003, the charity took another huge step forward by moving into its own building. It started out small, open just one morning per week. Cathy worked that one morning from the beginning. Today, of course, she serves as director.
The center’s growth has been impressive. While still a primary mission of Dogwood Church, it has become a non-denominational collaboration between several local churches and community groups and it serves both Fayette and Coweta counties. More than 100 volunteers per week help more than 450 families per month. The center is open four days and one evening each week. The clothes closet has evolved into a full-blown thrift store. The food pantry includes fresh vegetables provided by local farmers and master gardeners. The center also provides financial assistance, primarily for basic utilities and rent or mortgage payments, and has established cooperative partnerships with a broad range of local and regional charities to help better serve their clients.
What Real Life doesn’t do is hand someone a check and wish him or her the best of luck. Their mission goes far deeper, as their tagline clearly shows. They are “providing necessities for living while equipping people for life.”
But what does that mean, exactly? Well, for each family, the picture is a bit different. Some families simply need help through a brief rough patch while others need assistance getting their lives back on track. Volunteers work with each family to find out not only what they need that day, but what life circumstances are causing the hardship. Sometimes, an illness has led to job loss. Other times, the problem began with a divorce or other life change. No matter what’s happened in the past, the Real Life Center’s goal is to help families focus on the future.
Volunteers start by evaluating the client’s existing situation. Does anyone need medical attention? Are the adults in the family out of work? Are they at risk of losing their home or apartment? Do they need emotional or spiritual help? Then the counselor asks each client what he or she wants life to look like in a year. From there, it’s a natural step to goal setting and beginning to form a plan to meet each objective.
“We really want people to start thinking about their lives instead of trying to survive day to day,” says Cathy. “The planning process renews hope. You can see it in their faces when they start to believe things can and will change.”
Change isn’t always easy, but Real Life Center is here to help by focusing on the whole person, not just one specific area. Clients work with certified financial counselors to understand their situation and create realistic budgets. Career assistance is available through resume coaching and a local job list. Referrals to community partners connect clients with needed medical and emotional care, job and life skills training, and other critical support services. For one full year, the center “walks beside” each family, helping them stay on track and assessing progress at three, six, and twelve months. Yet families are ultimately accountable for their own progress. The goal is to “help, but not enable.” Results are strong. Cathy reports that about 70 percent of families meet at least half of their goals. The number of cards, letters, and phone calls they receive from grateful families is astounding.
Real Life’s system is pretty revolutionary and it is one that more and more non-profits are beginning to model. “Cathy has built something very impressive,” says Larry Herman of the Midwest Food Bank. “A lot of organizations don’t treat the individual as a whole. Real Life looks at the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs along with the financial. They’re focused on training and coaching and they hold their clients accountable. It puts hope back in people.”
Part of that hope also comes from the relationships formed between volunteers and families. The center truly values each client and helps them value themselves again.
“I always use the washed twenty-dollar bill analogy,” Cathy says. “If you fold a crisp, new twenty-dollar bill and put it in your pocket and then run it through the washer and dryer, it will come out wrinkled and worn. But it will still be worth the same as when it was new. People are the same way. We all have journeys and we all go through hard times. The beauty is that we’re all still valuable no matter what we go through. Real Life is somewhere safe to get back on your feet.”
Protecting dignity and promoting value are key tenets at the center. They never give out expired food and try to provide options for creating fresh, healthy meals and making good decisions. And they’re always looking for new ways to complement the services already available in the community.
“We’re not in competition with other organizations,” Cathy stresses. “We’re all here to help people. If someone else is providing a service well, we’re not going to try to replicate it. We’re going to look for what’s missing and try to fill that need.”
Cathy is well known for this forward-looking attitude.
“Real Life wouldn’t be where it is today without Cathy,” says John Warnock, Chairman of the Real Life Center’s Board. “She really helps our church meet its mission of loving others. And she’s always looking for ways to grow, both by increasing the number of people we serve and expanding our services. She’s always looking into the community to see what will be needed next and how we can help.”
The newest innovation is an orchard, designed and planned by a dedicated volunteer who researched the project thoroughly before training squadrons of other helpers and beginning to plant. This fall, volunteers harvested a range of fruits, including blackberries, blueberries, apples, and pomegranates. Since fresh fruits are hard to come by on a limited budget, the orchard will be a huge blessing to client families. The center is also moving from its current location in Tyrone to a larger space with more parking in south Peachtree City, and Cathy has a few ideas up her sleeve for future projects.
But she points out that all these great changes are made possible by donations and volunteerism. While it’s certainly thriving, the center always needs donations of items and funds. Businesses and clubs can organize food or clothing drives. Volunteers are needed to sort merchandise in the thrift store, man the food pantry, deliver furniture, perform administrative functions, and assist clients with resumes and other tasks.
“It’s really pretty simple,” Cathy says. “It’s just neighbor helping neighbor. Most people are willing to help, but it’s not like when I grew up. People often don’t know their neighbors and they don’t know when someone needs help. Even if they do, they’re often not sure how to help. That’s where we come in. We give people a chance to help others in their community in a way that benefits everyone.”
In addition to her work at the center, Cathy volunteers as a mediator and maintains a blog titled “The Everyday Leader: Live a Life of Intention.” She’s had her share of ups and downs in her personal journey, including many moves with small children and a difficult divorce. She frequently reminds people that “God uses the hard things to strengthen us as much as the good things — maybe more.” She’s also adamant about the options we all face each day.
“We, as people, we can choose,” she says. “We choose how we spend our money and our time and our resources. We can live our lives intentionally. When we see someone in need, we can look the other way or we can do something. Whenever we have the option to help, we can choose to do so. We can choose to love and value people for who they are. And we can all choose to influence the lives of others.”