Campus News

Terris Thomas helps build better neighborhoods

Terris Thomas, director of neighborhood engagement for Family Connection - Communities in Schools, is a 2024 recipient of the Fulfilling the Dream Award. (Photo by Chamberlain Smith/UGA)

Fulfilling the Dream Award recipient makes sure people get what they need

Terris Thomas loves people.

“I try to show that no matter where my feet land,” she said.

Now, as director of neighborhood engagement with Family Connection – Communities in Schools, she works with 19 other neighborhood leaders, one for each school zone in Athens-Clarke County, to make sure every neighbor has access to the resources they need.

Her efforts to build a better community were recognized recently with the President’s Fulfilling the Dream Award. Presented at the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Breakfast, the award recognizes students, faculty, staff and community members who exemplify the words and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“This award means that I’m living my purpose, that my life matters, and that I’m fulfilling the dreams of my ancestors,” she said. “He dreamed it, and I’m now fulfilling it.”

Thomas moved to Athens in 1992 and has been involved in the community in various ways since then. In particular, her focus is on helping hurting children. Her mother and grandmother were murdered when she was a child, and she made a vow at a young age to help others in pain.

“That’s always been my driving force—helping others,” she said.

For Thomas, the key in serving the community is community capacity building.

“The definition is to find out what’s needed in your community—to find the gaps. Then, as an organization or agency, you fill it. Whatever is missing, you assist with that,” she said. “Understanding that lit a fire in my heart. Wherever you find a gap, fill it.”

Through her work with Family Connection – Communities in Schools, she’s found a way to do just that.

The organization received the Federal Promise Neighborhood grant in 2010 and established The Whatever It Takes program providing wrap-around services and support to local children, with a cradle to career continuum focus, so that they achieve success in life. Thomas, who previously worked at UGA for almost 10 years, applied for the position of resident engagement facilitator. Eventually, she transitioned to lead the Neighborhood Leaders Program.

In that role, she not only gets to work with children and their families, but she also gets work with community members. The neighborhood leaders are Athen’s residents, who live in their respective school zones and understand the need of other residents. By building relationships with fellow residents and connecting them to resources, they’re invested in improving their own neighborhoods.

They work using the Bridges Out of Poverty Framework, which asserts that poverty isn’t the lack of finances, but the lack of sustainable resources. That connection to resources is the basis of the organizational program’s work.

“I absolutely believe the model is phenomenal and works because of the healthy relationships neighborhood leaders build,” she said. “Honestly, people don’t care what you know until they know you care, and neighborhood leaders provide caring relationships.”

One of the things Thomas enjoys most about her work is the collaboration it fosters. For example, the neighborhood leaders host zone and community events and, as SNAP Outreach Partners, enroll residents in SNAP, WIC, CAPS and Medicaid using the Georgia Gateway System. Focusing on food insecurity, they work with various food distribution organizations to get food to residents who need it.

They’re also aiding organizations like the Athens Wellbeing Project, Athens Area Community Foundation, Envision Athens and others collecting and entering data to better define each neighborhood’s gaps so that they can be filled. That work enables them to have a seat at tables to provide input and resident feedback.

Thomas and her team work with and help others with the goal of ultimately preventing financial and mental poverty.

“I think it’s most beneficial for everyone to have what he or she needs to live a full, active life,” she said. “That’s how our communities grow.”

Thomas’ work with Family Connection – Communities in Schools isn’t the only way she’s making a difference.

She’s also actively involved in her church, Timothy Baptist, where she helped develop its youth program as youth pastor and still serves as assistant to the pastor. At Timothy, Thomas directs the summer community youth day program, Camp Timothy.

Thomas’ own life is dedicated to service, and she believes everyone can help King’s dream move forward by living a life of service.

“In whatever role, in whatever it is you do, if you can decide to do it with a focus on serving others and making that your calling, that helps us build community and be a community every day,” she said.