Tamara Carrera, who has led the Community Assistance Center in Sandy Springs through a period of incredible growth, is calling it quits.
Carrera, who joined the center as a volunteer in 1993 and is its current CEO, is retiring. The center is a nonprofit that provides services to Dunwoody and Sandy Springs residents in need, including rent/mortgage assistance funds, food and clothing.
“I think it’s time,” Carrera said of her retirement. “It’s been a great ride for the organization and for me. (But) I need to focus more on my commitments, my family. I am getting older and have grandchildren.
“The other part is I think it’s good for the organization at this stage of development. It needs to move in a new direction. I’ll be 69 next year. I want to embark in a whole new creative process. We need new leadership, fresh leadership.”
The center opened in 1988 from inside a Boy Scout hut at Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church.
“The whole building was 1,000 square feet, and we were occupying a third of it,” she said. “Eventually, we would ask Mount Vernon to give us more space and they would give it to us. By the time we left there in 2005, we were occupying the whole building.”
According to a news release, the center’s budget has gone from $24,000 a year to more than $5 million. Today it has 18 employees, over 400 volunteers and the backing of several local congregations. The center has gone from serving about 280 families a year to helping more than 6,500 individuals a year from 3,000 households.
Carrera discovered the center after her family moved to east Cobb from Long Island, New York, and she heard more about it at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church’s Mission Sunday event, where it and other nonprofits sent representatives.
“The CAC was there and I fell in love with the organization,” she said, adding the center was seeking volunteers, including bilingual ones. Carrera, a native of Ecuador who speaks Spanish and English, quickly signed up.
“I worked there every Thursday and I was trained to do intake for clients,” she said. “I was interviewing families coming in for assistance. I talked to them to see how we could help them. At that time, we were doing a Band-aid (service) because you could (only) give $100 or $200 or a bag of food and some clothes.”
Carrera was hired as executive director in 1997 and her title was changed to CEO in 2012. In 2005, after the center had outgrown its space at Mount Vernon, it moved to its current location on Hightower Trail. Since then it’s opened an upscale thrift store and expanded food pantry nearby on Roswell Road and an office in Dunwoody.
“It has been a really interesting ride,” she said. “We’ve learned a lot about the different cultures. … We’ve added computer classes, which have helped women who were out of the workforce and then coming back into it.”
The center also offers adult education, youth programs and tax return filing help.
“In 2008 we started our adult education program with the English as a second language program … to help families who could not speak English, which was a stumbling block for getting a job,” Carrera said.
She said what she’ll remember the most about her tenure there is helping residents get back on their feet, like a man from India who was attending Emory University.
“He was on a scholarship and working,” Carrera said. “We helped him and told him about the food pantry, and he started coming to the food pantry. But then he stopped coming for a few months. But then he called and said, ‘I want to let you know I survived because of the CAC. I am so thankful for you. I am now at a university in New York (working) as a professor.’”
Carrera added she’s also proud of the way the center has treated some clients who were embarrassed about coming in to ask for help for the first time.
“They said, ‘Everyone in your organization treated us well and treated us with kindness,’” she said. “That’s something I’m very proud of – the ability to have empathy and to help give people a leg up and not just charity. It’s very empowering for people. It’s something that really touches me.”
Carrera said some of the center’s clients find themselves in tough situations not because of bad decisions but because of circumstances, including those who lost their jobs due to the pandemic.
“In March it was lowest-income residents (seeking help), but now (it’s) middle or moderate-income residents,” she said.
Carrera informed the center’s board of her intentions to retire two and a half years ago, and a search for her replacement will begin the week of Nov. 9. She will remain at there until her successor is hired.
Cece Webster, a longtime volunteer at the center, has been a board member for about three years and is leading its CEO search committee.
“Tamara is a very unique individual,” said Webster, who has known Carrera for about 11 years. “I came out of the corporate world. I spent 32 years at Coke, and I’ve got a very businesslike approach to things. But for me, Tamara is both heart and head.
“She can go from passing out socks or food or necessities to homeless people in the street to standing in front of the city council and articulating both in terms of what the community we serve needs in a strategic way and what needs to happen in order to do that.”
Webster, who said she has volunteered in just about every department within the center, has seen how well Carrera has managed it.
“I think what Tamara has done is built a foundation that we can grow from,” she said. “We aren’t going to find another Tamara. We need to take someone who’s going to take the legacy she’s built and take it to the next level.”
Carrera, who with her husband has homes in Sandy Springs and Quito, Ecuador, said she plans to spend more time with family in retirement. She has five sisters in Ecuador and plans to move to Washington to be closer to her daughter, who has one son and is expecting another. Her son lives in Seattle. Carrera compared her retirement to a parent sending a child off to college.
“I think it’s when you get to college and you have the biggest smile, and as soon as you turn around, you start crying (because you’re leaving),” she said. “You know the child is mature and ready to fly. (The center is) kind of my child. I didn’t take it from the beginning, but it’s been my child for a long time. It’s a bittersweet thing. I feel very good about letting it fly but I’m also sad about letting it go.”