Life with Gracie: How an interior designer built a Rainbow Village for homeless

The year Nancy Yancey arrived at this place now known as Rainbow Village, the nonprofit was doing its best to help change the lives of homeless families in a single-story wood-frame house in Norcross.

Rainbow House opened its doors in 1991 thanks to a $25,000 gift to Christ Episcopal Church as an outreach mission that amounted to about four months of respite care for some of Gwinnett County’s homeless. Yancey was a member of Christ Episcopal Church and an interior decorator with three small children, going about fulfilling what she believed was God’s plan for her life.

Today Rainbow House is Rainbow Village. The red brick complex off Ga. 120 in Duluth includes five apartment buildings and a community center that’s home to a preschool, a chapel and a resale shop. And Yancey is its beloved executive director, helping create a soft landing for as many as 30 families down on their luck. How the two came together to help move families from homelessness to self-sufficiency is beyond remarkable and proof of what can happen when we look past people’s faults and see not just their need but their potential; when we give people the educational tools needed for success and hold them accountable for changing their lives.

RELATED: High homeless population makes Atlanta one of the neediest cities in America

Just two years after Rainbow House opened its doors, the rector at Christ Episcopal began a search for an executive director and tapped Yancey on the shoulder.

“I was befuddled,” Yancey said. “I didn’t have a social service background or any knowledge of homelessness.”

Yancey said no but a still small voice kept calling her to pursue the opportunity. She agreed to fill the position as an interim.

That was a head change. Yancey, though, would soon have a change of heart. The more she got to know the people who showed up needing help, mostly single moms with children, the more she fell in love, believing they deserved the same quality of life she and her children enjoyed. A safe place to call home. Food to eat. A good education.

What she soon learned was that if there are any true victims of homelessness, it is children. For a child who has been uprooted one to two times a year, who has lived with strangers in places most of us wouldn’t allow our pets to stay, who has lived in a car and gone to three or four different schools, the trauma can be insurmountable.

More than a half million Georgia children live in poverty. Of those, more than 60,000 are homeless each year.

RELATED: You won’t believe how poorly metro Atlanta’s children are doing

Yancey has seen many of those children make the leap from feeling alone and hopeless to being excited about having a home in the same community every day, excited to have a bike to ride in a safe place.

“They catch up in school and their entire worldview is changed,” she said. “Instead of living in fear, they realize the world can be a safe place full of opportunities.”

Thus it became her mission to see that they had the same opportunities she and her children enjoyed.

Yancey has been fulfilling that mission nonstop now for 24 years.

She has received as much as she has given.

“The families who live here are our teachers,” she said. “They inspire me every day.”

In 1995, Rainbow House began offering life skills training to its residents, contracted with the Division of Family and Children Services to provide case management services, started an after-school program and added a financial component to teach families how to create a budget and save.

In 1998, Scott Hudgens, a developer and astute businessman, told Yancey the village wouldn’t be successful long term until the nonprofit owned its own property.

With a $500,000 gift from Hudgens, Yancey purchased an eight-unit apartment complex in Duluth.

RELATED: How did Gwinnett County become a hotbed for homelessness?

In 2008, the nonprofit broke ground on a new $8.8 million campus that opened eight years later in 2016 with 30 apartments tucked off Ga. 120. Under its programs, adult residents are required to participate in, among other things, parenting classes, career counseling and workforce readiness. Early childhood education and after-school programs are offered at the campus’s state-of-the-art community center.

Families, some fleeing domestic abuse, some homelessness or both, can stay up to two years, long enough for the adults to address the issues that led them there. They are charged $250 to $300 a month, depending on their income, to help instill good financial habits and put them on a path to success. Child care is also provided on a sliding scale.

Karla Neptune, a 39-year-old mother of five, was about to be evicted from her rental home when a friend told her about Rainbow Village.

By then, her husband Aubrey Mohabeer, who worked as a forklift operator and carpenter, had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and could no longer walk or talk. When he was forced to quit work in 2011, Neptune, a nurse’s aide, tried to keep the family afloat, but her salary wasn’t enough.

In the fall of 2014, she got an eviction notice.

“That was the point where I realized I couldn’t fix everything,” she said. “I had to let go and believe something better was on the other side.”

Sometime around Halloween that year, she and her four youngest children moved into Rainbow Village.

Mohabeer, 43, died the following month in hospice care, but Neptune was at peace. Rainbow Village saw to that.

“I got the mental rest I need,” she said. “They gave me the time I needed to grieve and provided counseling to me and my children.”

When they left five months later, Neptune, a now a member of Rainbow Village’s board of directors, had regained her financial and emotional footing and was ready to pursue her dream of becoming a registered nurse. She will graduate this fall with an associate degree in science from Gwinnett College, then hopefully pursue a nursing degree.

Neptune’s is among some 400 families — about 1,200 individuals — that have completed the program. Of those, more than 85 percent remain self-sufficient five years later.

That’s enough to shout about, but there’s more. By year’s end, Rainbow Village will retire all of its debt, a testament to Yancey’s leadership.

And so at 65, you might understand why she has chosen this year to retire, too.

She didn’t know who would succeed her when we talked last week, but there is no doubt they’ll have some pretty big shoes to fill.

RELATED: Nancy Yancey to retire from Rainbow Village

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