In 2010 Sonya Renee Howell unexpectedly found herself and her young children homeless and in need of some help. She first turned to her church who got her off of the street and into a hotel for a short time while she started to piece together a plan to get back into a stable situation. Just three days later Sonya and her family went to a place called My Sister’s House a branch of the Atlanta Union Mission that specializes in helping women and children.
Sonya and her kids went into that shelter with only what they could fit into two pillowcases. To say that is a humbling experience is an understatement. Despite that feeling, she felt her life returning to normalcy in the first couple of weeks there. After those few weeks of healing, she wanted to dive deep into the programs that were laid out in front of her by the staff of My Sister’s House. She is proud to say she earned client of the month after 23 months of steadfast work and determination.
During her time at the mission, she learned about an opportunity to network and find a job. After taking advantage of those opportunities she was able to land a part-time job at the Georgia World Congress Center. After five years of dedication, she was able to secure a full-time position there that helped offer more stability in her life.
From there Sonya was able to move into living at St. Jude’s Center where she and her family lived for seven years. Both the stability provided by the center and the determination to land a full-time job lead to Sonya thinking about bigger and better things for herself and her family. She and her family also volunteered thousands of hours with Habitat for Humanity to both give-back and benefit from the local community.
After all that hard work Sonya and her family decided to go in and buy their first home. In 2018 they entered the first-time homebuyers program and purchased their first home. Now we all need to remember that is not the end of the story. Sonya still works hard and has run into household updates and improvements. We know that her dedication and perseverance will continue to carry her through those tough demands. We hope through telling her story that it will inspire all who hear it to never give up and when you make it to a place in your life where you can help others that you do.
This all leads me to say that the Hospitality Industry, no matter where you are in life, has a place for anyone to grow into a fruitful career. That said, there are a ton of resources and people who work hard to help the Atlanta community to this day. I would love to recognize just a few of them for their help in this particular story:
James Reese (President and CEO at Atlanta Mission) and Ivan Rouse (Formerly Manager of Volunteer Services for the Atlanta Mission) work hard in helping to get people looking to improve their situation in front of people willing to help as well as organizing all day-to-day needs of the mission. Frank Abbinanti (VP of Culinary, Levy Convention Center Division) — after volunteering– saw a great need to help provide a better food experience in the mission. Chef Frank organized leftover food to be given to the mission and continued to volunteer to help out in the kitchen. Patrick White (former Director of Building Services at the Georgia World Congress Center) was Sonya’s direct boss and was dedicated to creating the best work environment and, in turn, the best services for the building. Patrick saw the best in people and knew how to bring the best out of everyone.
I am thankful to just have been involved in such a life-changing story. I want to encourage our Atlanta Hospitality Industry to try serving, donating, caring and hiring those in our community who are on the right path to improving their own lives and the community around them. Together we all can make a big difference in our community.
Mark Zimmerman is the former general manager of the Georgia World Congress Center. He currently operates Zimmerman Consulting, a full service venue and event management company.