ATLANTA (AP) — Just two miles west of the Georgia Dome, the Atlanta Falcons are bringing hope to one of the city's most troubled zip codes.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank joined 180 volunteers from his family businesses on Thursday to improve conditions in a neighborhood — "The 30314" — that has too many problems to overcome by itself.
Tony Johns, COO of the nonprofit City of Refuge, says no community in Georgia has a higher rate of homicides, drug transactions, poverty and children from single-adult homes. Only 49 percent of the neighborhood's high school kids graduate.
"A lot of markers here, along with having the highest rate of infectious diseases and highest infant mortality," Johns said. "In fact, our infant mortality rate is higher than many African nations."
Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, coach Mike Smith and his entire staff worked to double the size of the City of Refuge's garden space, build an indoor playground in the nonprofit's warehouse and improve onsite residences for single women and approximately 80 homeless children.
Smith helped build benches and haul mulch. Dimitroff and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan helped construct and raise a retaining wall.
Team president Rich McKay helped paint a wall mural for a 6,000-square-foot indoor playground funded by a $60,000 grant from Blank's foundation.
No players were present, but that hardly affected the spirit of Dimitroff, who just one week ago was immersed in the NFL draft.
"Yes, you're doing everything involved with putting a team together — the financial side and personnel side — and then you jump outside into something like this, it's so incredibly heartwarming," Dimitroff said. "It's something that touches everyone at so many levels."
Local businesses Coca-Cola, GE Energy, Georgia Pacific and the Atlanta Hawks have brought plenty of volunteers for previous work days at City of Refuge. But Johns had never seen so many projects started and finished in one day, thanks in part to help from Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and his staff.
"I have to say this is the largest effort we've had to date," said Johns, who joined the nonprofit in 1997. "We've had more volunteers, but this has been our biggest development yet."
Two years after launching a regional fan promotion that featured movie star Samuel L. Jackson, the Falcons have expanded their "Rise Up" campaign to raise awareness for volunteer service by partnering with Hands on Atlanta, one of the nation's largest community-based volunteer service organizations.
Thursday was the first day that Falcons fans could log on to RiseUpAtlanta.com to sign up for a variety of volunteer opportunities. The team promised a free T-shirt to those who sign up and attend a volunteer activity.
Efforts can't come soon enough in the neighborhood. Just there blocks from City of Refuge on Joseph E. Boone Boulevard, Johns says a major corridor for heroin usage and trafficking has emerged.
"It's a crisis of resources right now because of the lack of investment," Johns said. "So a day like today, when the for-profit world and government agencies make an investment in an underserved, under-resourced community, it makes a big difference."