Sandy Springs teacher Nicole Gray went above and beyond for her students by starting a grassroots nonprofit dedicated to helping the families of Lake Forest Elementary School.

Gray is a third grade teacher at Lake Forest Elementary school and said she never planned on starting a nonprofit, but that changed when she began taking bags of food to families of students at her school. Upon knocking at one door, she found the student — a 5th grader serving as translator — and three small siblings, along with their mom who was pregnant with her fifth child. Gray discovered that scarcity of food was not their only problem as they could pay neither their electric bill nor even their apartment rent.

After that moment, Lion Pride was born —“Emergency Assistance & Support for Families of Lake Forest Elementary School.”

“Lion Pride is a combination of myself and many other Lake Forest teachers and community members who are trying to fill in the gaps of needs not meet by other organizations,” Gray said. “It is the village of teachers and neighbors that made Lion Pride happen.”

This grassroots organization first connects families with charitable organizations such as the Community Assistance Center and the Solidarity Food Pantry for support. Next, Lion Pride assists with any needs not met by local organizations, or supplements the support already in place, as necessary.

In twice-monthly zoom calls, teachers would report on the dire needs of their students — needs not met by other charities — and through a Facebook page set up by Gray and her pride of teachers and friends, hundreds of dollars for food, rent, utilities, medicines and everyday necessities poured in.

Teachers and community members alike helped pitch in and raise funds through bake sales, lemonade stands, bike-a-thons, art sales and more.

By the end of 2020, over $40,000 in donations had been received, and dozens of citizens donated actual food, clothes, supplies and services.

“The real miracle was the countless number of people that when I said, ‘We have a need,’ jumped and said, ‘Tell me what you need’ and got it done,” Gray said. “That to me is the blessing and miracle in this whole situation.”

Gray said the selection process is largely relational since Lake Forest Elementary is such a tight-knit school. The school has a low teacher turn-over rate so many of the families and teachers have known each other for years.

“One thing you will hear all our teachers say is how hardworking and family oriented our community of families is,” Gray said. “They just don’t have extra money and this pandemic has hit them hard.”

Many of the parents work in the service industry — restaurants, hotels, and construction companies — and had either lost their jobs, or now had reduced hours because of the pandemic.

“Our little scrappy startup charity,” as Gray calls Lion Pride, continues to fill students’ needs — everything from eye exams and glasses; to supplies for victims of a devastating fire; to assistance for grieving families who have lost a mom or dad. Community members recently pitched in to send 30 students to summer camps.

In recognition of Gray’s accomplishments with Lion Pride, the Sandy Springs Society awarded Gray the Spirit of Sandy Springs Award, along with a check in her honor to Lake Forest’s Lion Pride fund. Lion Pride has officially officially been granted its official nonprofit status and will continue to help Lake Forest families.

“The positive community response has been so heart warming,” Gray said. “The Lake Forest teachers are absolutely amazing. There is so much negative news out there and this whole experience has reminded me about the massive amount of good there is in the world.”

To donate to Lion Pride, visit https://lionpridelfes.com/.

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