Children living in shelters, abandoned buildings, cars in parking lots, extended-stay motels and safe houses after their mothers got out of abusive relationships—they’re the ones that drive Linda Lipp to continue on in the face of exhaustion and hardship.
“These children do not have a refrigerator to put their artwork on when they come home from school,” the West Cobb woman said. “Often, these children only have what they can fit in a suitcase or a backpack.”
Listening to God’s calling, Lipp gave up her job as a successful loan officer to found a ministry that helps clothe the hundreds of homeless children in the Cobb County School District.
Our Father’s Hands started in 2005 with just a storage building at Lost Mountain Baptist Church. Gaining 501(c)3 status in 2009, the nonprofit now has a 800-square-foot store on New Macland Road near McEachern High. It is perhaps most recognized by its giant mural of skyscrapers at night with the words “God is in this city”.
At the store, families buy clothes that were donated or, in the case of underwear or socks, are brand new. Cobb school children are allocated free clothes worth $25 for each school year, and if there aren’t shoes available that fit, they’re also given a $20 shoe gift card.
Along with the day-to-day workflow, Our Father’s Hands is prepared to spring into action in cases of disaster. When the 2009 floods struck, 125 McEachern High families were “totally clothed" by the organization, Lipp said.
All donated clothes must meet a standard, which includes no stains or rips. But no items are thrown away; they’re instead given to other area ministries and shelters, and have even made it as far as Mexico. Additionally, all clothing is on racks instead of in boxes or paper bags.
“That was a big thing we wanted to make sure of: that all our families had the same dignity in getting clothing as you and I do,” Lipp said. “These children get to come to the store and shop for their own stuff and try it on.”
Our Father’s Hands has grown from only being able to help a few nearby schools last year to all Cobb elementary, middle and high schools this year. During that time, the homeless children in the 106,000-student school district have increased to 1,600 from 1,288, Lipp said.
Lipp didn’t have figures on how many children and families her store has helped, but for an example, she noted how $300 in $20 shoe gift cards had been given out during the first nine days of September alone.
The average homeless child changes locations three times a year and oftentimes has items stolen, Lipp said. But by providing fresh clothes, Our Father’s Hands allows them to stay “under the radar” so other students aren’t aware of their situation, she added.
“The emotional scars you can’t see,” she said, “but we can look like everybody else.”
Help Beyond Clothing
While clothes and food are commonly donated to Cobb schools and money is much harder to come by, Paulette Herbert said the former items are nonetheless essential.
Speaking about Our Father’s Hands, she noted how the school district can get items “very quick.”
“If we need something, we can get it from them immediately,” said Herbert, a supervisor for the district’s social work department, which has 31 total social workers.
Another of those social workers, Antoinette Frazier, also described the help the organization provides: “Many of our families are experiencing extremely challenging situations. Whether it's loss of housing, unemployment or under employment, they struggle day to day to meet the most basic needs of their children.
“I think that it is refreshing for these families to have the opportunity to walk into a clothing store and shop for quality clothing for their children.”
Most social workers are assigned to four or five schools, but in areas of more widespread hardship—Austell, Powder Springs and parts of Smyrna—the number is dropped to two or three, Herbert said. Areas near interstates are usually also in need, she said, because they’re along the path of public transportation and thus subsidy housing.
Some families do approach the social workers, Herbert explained, but the department mostly picks up cases after hearing about possible situations from the schools, like if a child mentions living in a tent or car.
The department works with many other ministries, nonprofits and donors to help not only the homeless, but any Cobb school family in need. Assistance ranges from clothing, food and help filling out paperwork, to preventing truancy, paying for utility deposits and locating a job, affordable housing and transportation.
The department is also involved with the Housing Authority and the Department of Family and Children Services. The stereotype that the latter organization just takes children from their homes isn’t true, Herbert explained.
“But in fact," she said, "if we find a family who’s living in a car in a parking lot, DFAC is going to be one of the first organizations we’re going to call … because they’re going to help us find at least temporary housing.”
Providing such stability for a family is the end goal, Herbert said, but pointing back to organizations like Our Father’s Hands, essentials like clothing must be met first.
Helping the district with the basic need is “exhausting and fulfilling at the same time,” Lipp said.
“I just feel like I am being true and faithful and doing what God has called me to do," she said. “Yeah, I get tired and there’s a lot of need out there, but once you’ve helped one of those kids and you’ve seen that smile, it makes it all worthwhile.”
To donate to Our Father’s Hands, you can drop off clothing at the store at 2120 New Macland Road or give money online.
To help the school district’s social work department, visit the Cobb Schools Foundation donation page.