As the world started changing in March of 2020 and the first shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic began, Keller Williams agent Jennifer Barnes awoke with fear, compassion, and service in her heart and a particular concern for 10 families within her community.
“I was panicked because these kids are hungry sometimes on a good day,” Barnes recalls. “They were getting their breakfast and lunch at school, but in-person schooling was getting canceled. So, if they didn’t have that, they were going to be hungry pretty quickly,” she says.
Over the years, Barnes had gotten to connect deeply with these families, as she sponsored as many as 30 of their children’s camp fees each summer. So, she made a commitment to care for them during the uncertainty. “We thought, well, this pandemic thing can’t last more than two weeks, can it?” she recalls.
A Calling to Serve
Barnes lives and serves in one of the highest capita ZIP codes in Georgia, yet there is a community largely composed of underserved families working in the service industry. As more and more service workers were laid off as businesses closed indefinitely at the beginning of quarantine, Barnes and her fellow volunteers – a group of 15 moms – took on the charge of keeping those families from food insecurity. They collected food donations, set up a website to keep operations going, and prepared to launch their first food pantry offerings on March 27, 2020.
“We thought we had so much food,” Barnes says. “We served 60 households, and we ran out of food with 30 people still left on the sidewalk. That was just a snotty-boohoo-mom-cry at that point.”
After what she describes as a “15-minute pity party,” Barnes got back to work, fueled by the experience. Alongside fellow volunteers, she made calls, posted on Facebook, and asked everyone she knew to donate food. The next day, they served 105 families.
“We have never left anyone on the sidewalk after that,” Barnes says.
Now open Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon, the Solidarity Food Pantry is housed in a former Publix grocery store and serves approximately 150 families each day it is open. To date, the pantry has fed more than 26,000 people since March 2020. As the number of families who have received food from the pantry increases, so have the numbers of donations and volunteers that come pouring in.
“People just want to help, and they just want to know what to do to help,” Barnes says. Thus far, they’ve had more than 1,300 unique volunteers donate their time and efforts to the food pantry. “It’s become a community movement … It’s heartwarming.”
Caring Starts at Home
What’s now a movement has humble roots that can be traced back to Barnes’ career with KW.
“You have all these little tidbits in life, and you have no idea what it’s for, and then all of a sudden everything kind of falls into place,” Barnes says of how her real estate business led to her work with the food pantry.
Early in her career, she opened four different KW franchise offices, where she learned business-building skills like spreadsheets, budgets, and bookkeeping, not to mention gaining access to a number of employees with a variety of skill sets. For example, two weeks before the first pandemic shutdowns began, Barnes and her real estate team hired a full-time marketing associate, who then ended up devoting much of her early weeks to developing signage, branding and logos for the food pantry.
“Because of the Keller Williams background, we knew how to create a whole brand and a whole culture and a whole feeling, and I think that part of it has permeated into the reason people want to be here,” Barnes says. “We’re a culture of abundance, kindness and gratitude.”
In addition to providing a model for creating a culture of abundance, KW quite literally gave Barnes the means to help create the food pantry through the profit share the company offers its associates.
“The reason I can do this is because I have a seriously healthy profit share,” she says. “I have an interest in multiple offices, and I have a team of people behind me. I’ve got seriously talented people on my team.”
While Barnes goes on a few listing appointments these days, she’s mostly removed from the day-to-day aspects of the business since the pandemic began and her days became focused on feeding others. Her team stepped up and recorded the same volume over the past year, even with Barnes’ participation drastically reduced.
“You reach a maturity level at some point where you get as much joy from watching other people succeed as you do in your own success,” she says. “When it quits being about you and starts being about the team, it brings so much more gratitude in life.”
Thanks to that leverage, Barnes now spends her days growing the food pantry with plans to expand into offering her local underserved communities legal assistance, health care opportunities, and more.
“Our goal is to work ourselves out of our business, and I’m truly living my best life right this minute,” she says. “We’re all put here to lighten the burden of other people and just to create joy and to make the world a better place to be.”