Kay Whithear wasn't even Christian those 30-some years ago in England.
But the director of will tell you life takes strange turns.
"This is the last thing I would have imagined doing," the 64-year-old said after one of her longest days last week. "Things like this weren't something that crossed my mind very much."
Whithear, a civil servant in greater London before her husband took a job in Florida 32 years ago then Georgia 16 years ago, became involved with Lilburn Co-Op somewhat by happenstance. Not needing a job, she joined and began volunteering at the then months-old co-op initially housed with Habitat for Humanity in a small home behind the church.
She initially was struck by what she considered the co-op's lack of organization. She said it was wasn't even sure which four churches supported it, had no marketing plan and often failed to open on time. So, for $400 a month in 1994, she jumped in and hasn't looked back.
Whithear saw the co-op through its move to larger quarters in what's now the Kroger shopping center on Rockbridge Road near Five Forks Trickum, then in 2003 to its current location a quarter mile north on Five Forks. It's now supported by nearly 40 churches, serves Lilburn and parts of Tucker and Stone Mountain, involves about 200 workers and includes a food pantry and thrift store.
Known for her still distinctive British accent, Whithear works long Mondays through Wednesdays, but remains always the ambassador, often speaking at church and school food drives and networking with area businesses.
"I was petrified when I first started, but I love it now," she said of public speaking. "The first time I [spoke], it was at my own church, and I didn't sleep the night before."
Providence Christian teacher Gayle Franklin said Whithear's talks there have inspired students' families to donate car loads and help stock the pantry's shelves. Just weeks ago, they donated about 1,200 cans of food.
From arriving at 8 a.m. to accept food from grocers and restaurants, to overseeing the thrift store, to screening, counseling and providing money to pay residents' bills, Whithear's days are a whirlwind. Seems there's always an evictee who needs an immediate appointment, even on days she's completing applications for grants or addressing tax issues 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations juggle.
She chuckles at notions of lunch.
"Some times I have a sandwich in my drawer and eat it between appointments," she said. "Usually there's not a lot of down time around here."
Compassion is essential to co-op work, and having nearly achieved a psychology degree helps her understand how stressed, demoralized and desperate some are. She's known for compassionately hugging even the most slovenly, but also for sniffing out those undeserving.
"She can decipher between a real need and a con artist faster than anyone," co-op volunteer Judy Wilkes said. "If you say [on paperwork] you've got a cell phone and a home phone, and you have a brand new set of acrylic nails, she doesn't miss that. She's very astute."
Volunteer Dot York considers Whithear one of the most giving people -- but to a point.
"There were two women taking loads of free stuff we had out [on tables] and they'd already gone to and from their cars several times," York recalled. "Kay told them they were taking advantage and needed to leave some for others."
Whithear is known for doing some of everything -- from interviewing residents and determining need, to shuffling inventory, to drumming up community support. Most often smiling, she sometimes isn't, like after snaring a shoplifter or cleaning up after burglars threw a large piece of concrete through the door one Sunday night and stole a couple hundred bucks.
Even then, her overall faith in people came through.
"[Whoever broke in] probably would have done better if they asked for help," she told the Gwinnett Daily Post then. "We probably would have given them more than they got [from the cash register]."
Mostly, though, Whithear sees the positive in people. She's proudest when those the co-op has helped become long-time volunteers.
"When I first started, I was consumed by it. It took all my time and energy," she said. "I loved it and still do. It's adictive."