Pastor Paul Palmer of Atlanta Dream Center
Where are you from and how long have you lived in Atlanta?
I lived in Northern California for 51 years and moved here in 2003.
What were you doing before you founded the Atlanta Dream Center?
I was pastoring in Northern California.
What brought you to Atlanta?
We came to visit a grandchild. We stopped here on Ponce De Leon and saw a woman get in a car, drove past a shelter and just saw a great need here in the Old Fourth Ward. We had just built our dream house and lived in it for about a year. Sold our home. Resigned from the church. Didn’t know anybody and came out and funded our first year ourself.
I know your mission is to reach the homeless, commercially sexually exploited and at-risk, underprivileged children. That’s a lot of faces and people in Atlanta. How do you keep yourself and your staff invigorated to focus on those individual stories without becoming overwhelmed with the need?
Personally, I don’t become overwhelmed because I have a great staff. They’re focused into their arena and calling. Yet, every department works closely together. We work with the children, so they don’t have to be ministered to in our Out of Darkness for sexual exploitation or for homelessness or drug addiction through our iAm program. A lot of families we deal with are involved in all of those arenas: addiction, homeless, sexual exploitation and children at-risk.
With so many different missions under one roof, what does volunteering look like at Atlanta Dream Center?
There’s a great opportunity, because we do so much. A lot of avenues and arenas that someone can get involved with whatever their passion is, and we have a volunteer coordinator, Abigail. It gives the church a place to be mobilized. A lot of churches hear about situations or are blinded to them or don’t know where their locations are or how to get involved. We’re just that avenue. We’re an open door across denominations to get involved at whatever level they choose. Whether it’s making a sandwich for someone who’s homeless or being on the street with a woman who’s being trafficked.
I know that you say love is an action word at Atlanta Dream Center. So what does it mean to you to live life where love is an action word?
We can express love through words but without it being defined in action it’s just a four-letter word. We define it by loving the unlovely, seeing those that have become invisible in our society and trying to do something tangible for them. Not just quoting I love you but doing something tangible. Whether it’s rescuing them or feeding them or restoring them to their families or just back to their dreams.
What would you say to someone who says — “You’re crazy. You’re in a bad part of Atlanta. Why would you intentionally put yourself here in danger?”
Two reasons. One — I do what I do, because someone once loved me when I was unlovable. Two — I’m a firm believer that some things are worth dying for. And some of these kids and ladies are worth dying for.
Can you share a story or two about the impactful changes you’ve seen over your time since 2003?
This is the shank of the first woman that we rescued out of trafficking. This is a piece of rebar. Rachel* came here from another state with another couple and a boyfriend. He dropped her off on Ponce De Leon and said make some money. She became very abused after 7 or 8 years, so nobody would prostitute her anymore. So she went solo. She would come to our office which then was a crack house on Linden Avenue, and she’d come get clothing almost everyday. One day she came, she was full-blown AIDS. She was robbed and raped. She was bleeding, and one of our students got a wet rag. We had a bench on our front porch. Rachel laid down in her lap, and she started washing the blood out of her hair. Rachel fell asleep. She’d been running for a couple days on dope. The girl that was washing the blood out of her hair sang over her for 6 hours. Never got up to go to the bathroom. Never moved. Rachel got up and stumbled off the porch. Never said thank you. Next morning I pulled up, I thought she was there for clothing. She came off the porch to meet me on the curb. She had in her hands condoms, her crack pipe and all the paraphernalia, and she said, “Nobody’s ever loved me before.” She just hung out with us everyday. Never prostituted again. She’s clean nine years. Restored to her daughter that she gave up at age one. They can’t detect any AIDS in her body. That is probably one of the greatest stories.
Another story is James*. He came to Atlanta 30 years ago. He left his family in Texas and was traveling doing a job and just never went home. Never contacted them. Started smoking crack on the street. He became a crack addict. Seven years ago he broke his ankle climbing a ladder three stories to get dope for a dope boy. It was during the ice storm. He slipped and shattered his ankle. The doctor said if you don’t find a place to get off your leg, we’re going to have to amputate your foot. He went into a halfway house, and someone invited him to the Atlanta Dream Center. We grabbed onto him and said James hang out with us. He’s been clean 7 years. A year ago, we discussed about sending him home to see his family. He made contact with them. He flew home to Texas. His children are grown now and have children of their own. He has a 17-year-old grandson he had never seen. They welcomed him with open arms. Christmas he went back home to see them and met his wife that he hadn’t seen in 30 years. They never divorced. They just talked about how lonely they were, and after 30 years they reconciled. So after 30 years of running crazy, God not only saved him but got his car, got his own housing, got his kids, his grandchildren, his wife all back in his life — all with no condemnation. That is a God of restoration.
Across the street in our church, we have items that are made out of scraps. We have an old mattress and made a lamp out of it. We had an old piano and made a beautiful piece of art out of it. That’s kind of what God does with us and those that we deal with. The broken, the discarded — God makes something out of it. Rachel’s story and James’ story are just that.
In the entry way of the Atlanta Dream Center are three small display cases. Above each one is a story relating to the item beneath: drug paraphernalia, a discarded shoe and a report card. The stories are about people whose lives have been impacted by the Atlanta Dream Center. What you see here are just a few examples of the incredible impact that the ADC has had through one-on-one relationships with the community since 2003.
How has your time with ADC shaped your view of helping those in need?
It has been very progressive. We came in to actually deal with children, drug dealers and addiction. One of the programs we have here is entrepreneurship for drug dealers. Get them off the streets and start their own businesses, and then it progressed. We saw women on the streets, so we started working with women in trafficking. Then we saw this poverty level here in the Boulevard that was overwhelming. So we found a need and met it. If we could do something, do something. We recognize that we have no holes in our hands. We’re not Jesus. We can’t do all things, but through Him we can do a lot. So it’s progressed a lot. You met a kid and find out he hasn’t had any breakfast or lunch, and he’s eating Cheetos. We recognized there was a nourishment factor. We’d meet kids and ask them to spell their names when they registered when they’re eight years old, and they didn’t know how to spell their last name. They didn’t know their address. We knew there was a lack of education, and we started an after-school program. And the volunteerism and the willingness of people to work for little to nothing gave us the means to meet those needs.
What would say breaks your heart the most about Atlanta?
I’m more optimistic than that, so I’d like to say what blesses my heart.
Ok, let’s go with that. What blesses your heart most about Atlanta?
The cooperation of the fellowship of Christ. Churches coming together to work hand in hand regardless of things that used to separate us. The openness and willingness to share their issues and problems openly and really are sincere about wanting a change in their life — that blesses me. Society in itself, the communities around Atlanta want to see a real difference and starting to take some responsibility for it. Not responsibility because of things that have happened but responsibility to make a change.
If you could challenge and encourage people to step up and volunteer and be part of the change that you’re seeing, what would you say?
We believe that one person can make a change. Whether it’s volunteerism, helping with the financials of the recovery of somebody or just spreading the word. I really believe that everyone of us has an obligation to our community and our society to invest in it. On the 1-on-1 basis, I just encourage people to get involved. Learn of the issues in their community. Have an active part whether it’s through volunteerism or finances or their gifting. Just being a voice for those who have no voice.
Can you tell us about Ride for Change?
Ride for Change is our largest annual fundraiser. This is our fourth year. Usually I ride across the country. One trip was 11 days to California, and I spoke 27 times in 11 days. The next year we went to the Gulf to Canada and back down, another 11 days and spoke 29 times.
Last year, we just did the Southern states. What’s unique about it is that not only do we meet a lot of people and tell our story, but I get my motorcycle, or a different motorcycle, back every year. I gave it away one year, and the gentleman who won it — two weeks later it’s in my driveway with a big bow on it. I gave it away the next year to a pastor who won it, and he sold it and gave us the money plus another $7,000. The next day a guy from Idaho called and said God told me to give you my chopper.
I gave that one away last year. The gentlemen who won it wanted to sell it and help people in the church who needed money. He sold it to a guy, and the stipulation was that when he gave him the check that he gave the title back to me. So in the last three years we’ve raised about $250,000, and I need to raise $80,000 to $100,000 this year to meet our budget. It’s incredible.
What is your greatest need at the Atlanta Dream Center?
Because of the size of the ministry and the great need, it is finances. It has been said that we do much with little. Dollars go a long way with us. Second would be volunteerism. Although we have hundreds of volunteers each week, the need is great. We have the capabilities of putting hundreds more out there each week to do something that’s tangible. Third, I would say be a voice. I have found that the biggest voice in this ministry is just common people that want to make a difference. It doesn’t matter if it’s large or small, if somebody just gets involved it makes a big difference.
*Names have been changed for the individuals’ protection.
As told to Kristen Green on September 1, 2015.