Starting as passion projects, these awesome Atlanta-based organizations help community members across metro Atlanta and beyond. From home makeovers to public pianos to mamas and their babies, three founders are impacting lives through their hard work and visionary ideas.

Kelly Brett, Play Me Again Pianos

In 2013, the Brett family took a trip to Europe. Their son, age 7 at the time, had made a  commitment to practice every day that he ate, so the family tried to find pianos on their route, so he could continue to practice. They found public pianos in London and Paris and were inspired to bring public pianos to metro Atlanta. They hope to bring 88 pianos, available year-round, to the community to inspire people and encourage connections in public art and music.

The organization started with their own piano. “Our first piano was named Janssen. Janssen was our family piano, handed down from my mother-in-law. She had her childhood lessons on it, as did my husband and his siblings, then our son, and then, it become our first public piano,” Kelly Brett says. “Janssen is the brand name of the piano, but it became our nickname for it. That inspired us to anthropomorphize all of our pianos.”

There are currently 21 active pianos in metro Atlanta. Each piano is designed and painted by an artist, but some communities and schools have helped, including Springmont School, the Chamblee community and Midtown International School.

Some pianos stick out to Brett for their design or their location. She guesses that the piano that gets played the most is Cornelius in Ponce City Market. “It’s a fabulous piano in an equally fabulous location. Vincent is in the lobby of the Sewell Mill Library and Cultural Center in Marietta and is modeled after Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night.’ Vincent is not only gorgeous, he’s a high-quality studio piano, and he’s located indoors. Most of our pianos are outdoors, but we’d love to lean more toward indoor locations, because they’re so much easier to maintain and last a lot longer.”

Public spaces have become crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Play Me Again Pianos maintains an amazing community impact. “Piano studios have not been able to have recitals during the pandemic, since it requires lots of people to gather,” Brett says. “We know of at least four studio recitals and one solo recital that have taken place at our outdoor pianos.”

But the pandemic has also affected the organization negatively. “We could place a lot more pianos out than we have, but we don’t have enough donations to keep them all playable, so we’ve slowed everything down. The pandemic has really hit us hard,” she says.

You can volunteer to place and maintain a piano, paint a piano or host a piano. Monetary donations are also appreciated.

Holly Ranney, Sunshine on a Ranney Day

Having your own space can be an important way for each family member to relax. Sunshine on a Ranney Day was created in 2012 to help children with special needs have their own unique and accessible space.

“I was in the furniture industry, and my husband was in construction. A sermon inspired us to help others,” Holly Ranney says. “We felt that we could use those skills to help kids, and we gravitated to children with special needs.”

For their first project, The Brain Tumor Foundation for Children recommended 11-year-old Mathew. He wanted to be in the Air Force, so they designed and created a military bunker-themed bedroom for him.

As word got out, they started doing more room makeovers. In 2013, they made renovations for Tripp Halstead’s home, which is how most people found out about SOARD, Ranney says. “We renovated their entire home to make it an accessible home. It helped us create a larger platform for what our mission was, and we got more into construction and creating wheelchair-accessible rooms and bathrooms.”

In 2014, the Ranneys quit their corporate jobs to take the charity on full time. Turning the charity into a full time job allowed them to take on more projects, and they eventually decided to do one special community project a year. Their first project was renovating the parents’ sleep wing at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston to make it feel more like a boutique hotel. In 2022, they plan to renovate the therapy rooms at The Drake House. “For a lot of these places, the focus is on their mission, not the design and construction, so we can really come in and help with the needs they’re not able to do,” Ranney says.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, they were able to open the Sunny & Ranney Home Furnishings and Décor store. “It’s helped us expand out to further areas,” Ranney says. “We’re raising money more consistently, as 100% of the funds go to the charity.”

One of the best parts of the organization is the community that it created. “Even families that we’ve helped seven or eight years ago still give us updates,” Ranney says. “It turns into a really large family, where they’ll come out and help support other families. We get to see the long-term impact on these families, see where they are now, and see these kids growing into adults.”

A difficult part of the job is denying families. “We can only do so many makeovers. We’ve been around for almost 10 years and being out in the community and partnering with others, word has gotten out about us,” she says. “We get hundreds of applications, but when you can only do around 20 houses a year, it can be difficult to turn people down.”

These needs for accessible spaces for children are everywhere in the community. People can be confused if SOARD starts a renovation project in a nice neighborhood. “You really can’t judge a book by its cover,” Ranney says. “If the parent can’t work anymore because they’re a full time caretaker or the family is struggling financially to cover medical expenses, it can be difficult to find a reliable contractor. We do everything at no cost to the families, and we take care of them in the future if there’s a problem after we’re done.”

You can volunteer to work in the store or the warehouse, help with administration needs, or help with demolition and renovation. They prefer to work with ages 13 and older, but they can host family volunteers on specific days. In the future, SOARD hopes to perform makeovers in every state. “We want to create sunshine all around,” Ranney says. “We know the needs are out there.”

Jamie Lackey, Helping Mamas

Working as a social worker and being a mom herself, Jamie Lackey noticed there was a big gap in services. “There was no coordinated effort to get essential items to families that needed them. I had friends whose kids were outgrowing stuff, so I wanted to start collecting those items and giving them out to those in need. One in three moms have to choose between food and diapers, and I wanted to do something about that.”

She started Helping Mamas out of her garage in 2014 to help others. “It was really a grassroots effort. People understood the mission and the need, and it was a tangible way to give back to the community,” she says. Now, they’ve served about 120,000 children and distributed 3 million essential baby items.

There is no public support for essential items, as women cannot use WIC or food stamps to purchase diapers or period products. Women were unable to attend work or school, as they didn’t have period products. Helping Mamas added period products to their donation needs in order to help. “Period products have become our second most requested item,” Lackey says. “Last year, the cost of diapers has risen drastically, so it makes it harder to get donations in for those.” Donation items include diapers, pull-ups, wipes, clothes, books, toys and more.

Lackey loves the commitment to the cause. “I love watching the community come together and having people show up when we show a need. Having our community support other families is huge. We get to see the best in people.”

But the knowledge that this is a national concern can be hard. “It can feel like we’ve only put a bandage on a larger problem in our country. We know how very real this problem is, and it can be hard to know families are having to use plastic bags for diapers or are washing out and reusing disposable diapers. We’re grateful we’ve come up with a way to help,” she says.

Helping Mamas has volunteer opportunities in their warehouse and mobile events; you can also donate or purchase needed items. They have six drop-off locations across metro Atlanta. “One of our favorite things is getting kids involved,” she says. “It’s a great teaching moment and an opportunity for the child to give back and be active. Some of our best volunteers and donors are kids.”

Make Helping Others a Family Affair

Set an example. Show kids the value of volunteering, donating and helping others.

  • Start now. Starting something new can be daunting, but set goals for helping others in 2022. Go to your church, temple, school or a local organization to ask about how you can help, or research needs and organizations in your community.
  • Change it up. Take canned goods to a shelter, volunteer at a community garden, or donate unused clothes or toys. Showing kids that there are a variety of ways they can help others will demonstrate the needs and help them think of even more things they can do to help!
  • If they have a cause they’re interested in or passionate about, let them take the lead. Are they concerned about the environment? Do they have a love for animals? What suggestions to they have for your family about how to help?
  • Talk it out. Have conversations about volunteering, and when they ask questions, answer them honestly. Make it relevant to them. They’re able to wear a coat in the winter; what does it mean for kids who don’t have a coat? Empathetic conversations will help them start and continue thinking of others.
  • Reach out to local organizations to see if they have family days. In Atlanta, Pebble Tossers organizes volunteer opportunities for teens, kids and families. Their calendar lists a wide variety of projects, and you can choose one that suits your family.
  • Combine service projects with household projects. Unpacking your kids’ new toys and clothes from their Christmas haul? Ask them what old items they’re no longer interested in that they could donate to help other children. When they’re cleaning out their rooms, remind them to think of others and to donate instead of tossing items.

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