Path United

The Path to Flourishing

Path United | March 2024

Another Country Down the Street

Langley Road is easy to miss. It’s one of those small turn-offs that doesn’t quite constitute a full intersection (in fact, the first time I tried to find it, I did miss it). There is nothing along Athens Highway to suggest that fewer than 800 feet down Langley Road sits a neighborhood of 200 mobile homes.

Gwinnett Estates has been on that plot of land off Athens Highway for 40 or 50 years, current residents estimate. In the 1970’s, these mobile home parks served as starter homes for young, white families trying to make a life in the greater Atlanta area. Over time, the demographics shifted, and by the 1990’s such living arrangements offered more affordable housing for folks who had recently immigrated to the United States. Neighborhoods like Gwinnett Estates became vibrant, but isolated, communities.

A little further down Athens Highway live Jim and Melinda Hollandsworth. Jim and Melinda have spent their whole lives in Gwinnett County. Jim says, “We're both from here—grew up just a few miles from this neighborhood where we're standing right now. But we both grew up in very suburban, but also really southern, white culture. We didn't have any friends who were outside of that.”

Jim projects a reliable confidence. Maybe it’s just his joggers, but he looks like the person you hope will coach your kid’s soccer team. Melinda strikes me as the kind of teacher folks move school districts for. Her voice is welcoming. Her eyes are bright—they light up when you speak and you feel like you’re in second grade again.

As I sit in front of them, I can’t help but imagine them twenty-one years ago when they married, how much they must have looked the part of a wholesome southern couple. Jim worked as a pastor and Melinda taught elementary school.

(Left) Melinda Hollandsworth with a group of high school students at the Path United building. (Right) Jim Hollandsworth, Founder and Executive Director of Path United at their program in Gwinnett Estates.

Photo by: Whitney Porter

In 2008, their small group at the church where Jim worked sponsored Christmas gifts for a nearby family—“A really unhealthy thing that back then we didn’t know,” Melinda remembers. The Hollandsworths volunteered to drop off the gifts. So they got the address and made their way to a trailer park that they had never heard of. “I didn't even know it was even here until we drove in to deliver gifts. We felt like we were driving into another country. 100%.”

On that evening in December, the young couple arrived at the home of Aurora Ramirez to drop off presents. They ended up staying later than they expected with Aurora and her children. “At this point, we knew nothing about toxic charity,” Melinda remembers, “but we totally enjoyed our time with the family.” Jim describes the scene, “Mom was there, didn't speak English. There were a few kids running around. The kids helped translate. They were in school—wide age ranges of kids, like six or seven kids in this family. Teenagers, we found out later, had dropped out of school. Younger kids were in school.”

Melinda continues, “Something about it felt yucky to us, that we showed up with things. We couldn't articulate it then, but we decided to come back and visit again. We enjoyed the relational time.” So they did. They came back. “It didn't seem weird at the time. It just kind of seemed like… this is just what we do.”

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The Gwinnett Estates community in Loganville, Georgia, where Path United first got their start.

Photo by: Whitney Porter

When are You Leaving?

Over the coming months, in the unlikely haven of Gwinnett Estates, a real friendship blossomed between this young southern couple and this family from Mexico. Despite a language barrier, the Hollandsworths and the Ramirezes became close.

Over time Melinda, ever the educator, began to realize that the kids were struggling in school. “They're bringing us the Friday folders and it's like, oh my gosh, they're failing everything! All their grades are low. Their conduct is not good. I mean, there were just so many things happening in this really small space.” At this point, Melinda and Jim had gotten to know that small space. They had a real sense of what the kids had to manage on top of school, including instability in their family and the many transitions of an immigrant to the US.

It was then that Aurora asked a direct question.

“¿Vienen ustedes a ayudar a mis niños con su tarea?”

“Would you come help my kids with their homework?”

Even at the time, this felt like a decisive moment for Jim and Melinda. “So that's when we got in the car and we were like, ‘Okay, we either need to do something or not come back.’” Melinda pauses to ask me, “You know what I mean?”

I think we all know what she means. Community means commitment. It’s long-term.

Jim and Melinda had this sense—however inchoate—that their relationship with this family was going to change. Their quick, irregular visits had developed a real trust with the Ramirezes. They either had to honor that trust by saying yes to Aurora’s question, or they had to rescind whatever their presence had implicitly offered. They decided to come back.

They’ve been deciding to come back for more than a decade.

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Melinda Hollandsworth, Founder and Gwinnett Estates Site Director, hangs out with a group of high school students.

Photo by: Whitney Porter

If you talk to Jim and Melinda, they tell their version of Path United’s origin story with a sense of haphazardness. They weren’t trying to do any of this stuff. They just kept saying yes, kept showing up. There wasn’t a plan, just a willingness—a willingness that seems to have, at times, surprised even them.

Melinda remembers one such moment when Sophia, who at the time was in middle school, asked Melinda when they were leaving.

“What do you mean? Like today?” Melinda asked.

“No, no. When are y'all leaving? Not coming back… Well, that's what churches do. They come and they stay for a while… This church comes in and they give away turkeys and they have a nice time and then they never see the people again. They come to a festival and then leave.”

Melinda says her reaction was quick and unmeditated—surprising even to her. “Oh, well not until after you graduate, Sophia. I'll be here until you graduate from high school.” That was 13 years ago.

"Everybody kind of decides what flourishing is"

Path United started small. It was just one couple helping the Ramirezes with homework in 2008. But homework-help led to a school supply drive, which launched a weekly homework club on Thursday afternoons. Club grew and so the need for space resulted in purchasing one of the mobile homes (it cost them $1,000 in 2009) as a permanent location, eventually growing to eight sites in Georgia and Tennessee with thousands of kids’ lives impacted.

In its 15-year lifespan, the organization, its philosophy, and even its name have gone through several iterations. No one seems shy about that; they seem somewhere between relieved that they know better now and excited to share what they’ve learned. At first, they were Hope Center, then Path Project. But they’ve settled on Path United. “We do love it. The name has heart and meaning for us,” Melinda admits. “It's a really cool visual,” Jim says, “of this idea of a journey towards flourishing.”

Path United empowers young people in mobile home parks to flourish. They operate community centers that organize after school programs for students, kindergarten through 12th grade. All their programs give young people access to what Path calls the Five Ingredients to Flourishing: relationship with God, multiple positive adult relationships, strong reading skills, social and emotional health, and a vision for the future.

When the staff members of Path talk about what they do, you can feel that they have earned both a confidence in and clarity of their mission that you just can’t get the fast way. It took years to distill their vision down to these five ingredients. They learned that so much of what they were focusing on in the early days was simply not what these folks needed.

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Miss Laura Soto’s class explores the idea of going to a new place through a virtual trip to Walt Disney World.

Photo by: Whitney Porter

At first, they were known for their homework club. “We don’t do homework anymore,” says Laura Soto with a kind of chuckle. She’s the site director in Gwinnett Estates for kindergarten through second grade. She’s laughing because, to this day, people still say that Path helps kids with homework. To be sure, that was true. “The help with the homework was very big,” Laura remembers. Parents who did not speak English very well needed someone else to help their kids do the actual work of homework. But over time, it became clear that homework help was a patch over deeper issues. “What we’ve learned is, relationship is key,” Jim explains.

It’s not about homework—it’s about relationships.

It’s not about grades—it’s about self-confidence.

It’s not about success—it’s about flourishing.

So, what does flourishing mean?

Like just about everything in their story, Path has thought through and measured flourishing in different ways over time. They used to track success by grades. Then it was how many of kids graduated high school. But now they approach it a bit differently.

There’s a whiteboard in the Path office, a giant chart. On the left column are the names of seniors in Gwinnett Estates. Across each row are their goals and checks that mark their movement forward. That’s where Melinda helps the soon-to-be-graduates keep track of what they want to accomplish and how they’re going to get there. That’s her full-time position now. She’s something between a college counselor and a life coach. “It's asking the kids, ‘Hey, what's your goal? What is your goal in life? Can we help?’ And some kids don't have a goal. And it's like, ‘Okay, well the goal is that you can find a goal that you're working towards.’”

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The high school program, led by Melinda Hollandsworth, includes not just community building and mentorship, but also college preparatory assistance. Here Melinda tracks the process for her students.

Photo by: Whitney Porter

It was amazing, frankly, what the students at Path said about their hopes, what they thought they wanted to be. One wanted to be a NICU nurse, another a neonatal nurse practitioner. One wanted to be a firefighter. After Path took a trip to the local courthouse, one of them wanted to be a judge—that was until she saw a TikTok of a judge getting punched in a courtroom. She’s considering other options now. To greater or lesser specificity, Path has helped young people to think about their futures with a seriousness that’s inspiring.

Alondra Cardoso started with Path when she was in fifth grade. She’s 19 now, and she’s working towards a nursing degree with a passion that is, simply put, fierce. “I was a preemie. I was born at 26 weeks old. And so actually before me, my mom lost two children in Mexico, but they didn't know what she had. They never diagnosed her of anything. She just kept losing kids. And so they came to the United States to find a family. They had heard in Mexico, hospitals here do better. They do better to save the baby's life.” Alondra spent her first three months on this earth in a NICU. “I had two open heart surgeries because my arteries weren't connected to my lungs, so I would forget to breathe.” But she made it, due to the skill and hard work of a couple nurses. “I want to become a new lead nurse practitioner. I feel like that was my calling… If 19 years ago someone was there to help me, I want to help out people.”

She says she always knew she wanted to be a nurse, to help people like people helped her. But Path played a pivotal role in helping her realize that this was a real possibility. Path took her to Georgia Gwinnett College—where she’s currently a student—for a campus visit. “I liked that. They gave me options… I was like, well, I always knew I wanted to be a nurse. And I knew that it was a four year program… but there's also a tech college, which is only two years… I am thankful that Path gave me that opportunity, not just to me, to all the kids that were there. They were preparing them.”

Of course, Alondra was then left with the same question almost every college aspirant has: how am I going to pay for this? And Path stepped in there too. “I remember I was stressed about [money]. I knew about it because school would bring up FAFSA and all the things that you had to fill out, but I didn't know how long it was going to be or how long it was going to take.” So one Path volunteer organized a girls’ night. “We sat down and we worked for scholarships all the time for two or three hours.” In the end Alondra got financial aid from Path of all places. “I won the Path Scholarship.”

From fifth grade student to ambitious teenager to college applicant with the stress of tuition—Path was with Alondra every step of the way. They have guided as she worked to answer the simple yet difficult questions that so many young people ask: what do I want to do? What can I do? What options are there for me? What does a good life look like?

“So I think that's the key to flourishing,” Melinda says. “Everybody kind of decides what flourishing is.” Path is there to make sure that no young adult in their community has to make that decision alone.

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Soto leads a small group of students in a Bible verse memorization activity, including song, hand motions, and a group craft.

Photo by: Whitney Porter

The Solution, Exactly

JoAnn Holmes is an emerging technology lawyer and a mother. But she also, somehow, finds the time to serve as a “very proud member of the Path United Board of Directors.” When you ask her what exactly Path United does, she responds with clarity and charm. “Path United builds community to support children of immigrant families to thrive, initially in Gwinnett County, Georgia, but now also in Tennessee, and–should the Lord tarry–in additional places potentially in the future.”

Without someone like JoAnn who can reframe your vision, you might find it hard to recognize that mission when you first engage Path. That’s not because their messaging, their vision, or their work is not clear. It’s because certain preconceptions might cloud your judgment.

Whatever may come to mind when you hear “mobile home,” there’s a good chance that what you’re thinking doesn’t reflect the reality of things terribly well. Maybe the term conjures images of shows like Trailer Park Boys, or My Name is Earl, or Roseanne. If you ask ChatGPT to analyze language associated with the phrase “trailer park” you get the likes of low-income, rural, transient. Not to overstep here, but that aligns with my own experience of what people think about mobile home communities.

And yet, when asked, residents of the Gwinnett Estates neighborhood tell a different story.

“The neighborhood is fun,” says Alondra—with a touch of cheekiness. “You'd be hearing parties at night or people would be like, ‘Oh, I'm having a party. You can come to our house.’ And everyone knows each other. A lot of people are related here. I have a friend who has 50 cousins and I'm like, how are you related? Again, everyone's related.”

Laura puts it plainly, “People might have the idea… ‘Oh, it's a trailer community. Oh, they're poor. Oh, this and that.’ They're not poor!” Many of these families are not struggling for money, in fact they are doing quite well. “They have very good skills. It's not like ‘Oh, poor little kids in the trailer community.’ And I just don't like when people think that that is what they are, and that is something that I think is important to say.”

Andrea Chadwick visits homes in the neighborhood monthly. She’s the Gwinnett Estates site director for third through fifth grade. She’s been with Path for nine years. “Every home I go in is amazing. Every home I go in, there's love and there's presence.” And it’s not as though folks are stuck there, she says. “Sometimes I have had conversations where parents have asked me, ‘Hey, I have enough money for a house. What do you think?’ I'm like, ‘Okay, you want my honest opinion? I think that technically you're living the way that God meant for people to live, and it's kind of like a little village, and I would love to live in a little village.’”

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Gwinnett Estate Site Directors Laura Soto and Andrea Chadwick stand outside of the mobile home Path United uses for their community programming.

Photo by: Whitney Porter

Laura jumps in, “Oh, that's why I love it here!”

Most of the residents of Gwinnett Estates are immigrants, and the majority are immigrants from Mexico. In fact, “Everyone is from almost the same part of Mexico, which is funny,” Alondra says. “That's why they refer to it as a little Mexico, and everyone knows each other.”

In total, the neighborhood is a diverse place: racially, ethnically, socially, economically, even religiously. Folks from all kinds of backgrounds live here. But they share the warmth, familiarity, and mutual trust that you can only find in small communities. Path has tried to be an active part of that small community. Alondra Cardoso knows she’s got something special. “Ms. Andrea tells me all the time, ‘Not just you, but all the kids in this neighborhood are blessed to have a neighborhood that y'all can go outside and play and talk and be kids and adults can talk and stuff. Because people in white neighborhoods don't do that… everyone's in their own thing, in their own world.’” Alondra smiles when she thinks about it. “It's fun and it's different. I know I can count on people in my neighborhood and maybe up the street. I don't know anyone, but I know everyone in my neighborhood. And so I feel like it's fun—especially here at Path.”

In fact, it’s the world beyond Gwinnett Estates, a world without Path, that seems to unnerve the young people. “Me personally, I am scared. Every time I look at the news and I see those presidential debates and all that, I get scared personally,” says Alexa Cassarubias. Alexa is 17 and she’s been with Path since elementary school, so long she can’t really remember her introduction to the organization. Path has been, you can tell, a place of joy and safety for her. “What makes me nervous is them trying to take our rights as US citizens here.”

In more recent years, Path has become invested in making sure that Alexa and the friends she grew up with can look forward to a future in this country.

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Photos from Path United events decorate their site in Loganville, Georgia.

Photo by: Whitney Porter

Jaime Rangel is a DACA recipient and the current Regional Relations Director with “We are a national bipartisan organization that focuses on breaking through political gridlock and finding common sense solutions to our broken immigration and criminal justice system.” At the present moment, is especially invested in a piece of legislature moving through the state government of Georgia: the In-State Tuition Bill for DACA Recipients.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Kasey Carpenter (R) from Georgia’s rural 4th Congressional District. If passed, this would allow DACA recipients to receive a 90% discount on out-of-state tuition costs at Georgia’s public universities. Jaime says, “It just lowers the tuition cost to make it more affordable for students who have lived in this state, who have lived in this country throughout their whole lives, who have graduated from Georgia high schools to attain a higher education, to get a higher paying job.” The goal here is to keep the young minds that have grown up in Georgia from fleeing the state when they leave high school. “So at the end of the day, we believe—a strong workforce development bill—that's what it is.”

Jim Hollandsworth is invested in what this bill could mean for the hundreds of young people that Path journeys alongside every day. “These kids have been here their whole life, that's why I'm advocating because I've known these kids for 15 years now who just want to go to college and get a job, and they are legal US citizens. They're DACA recipients with social security numbers and they work, some of them work for me. So it's very personal.”

But it’s also bigger than personal. It’s about how an entire county celebrates difference.

When asked to reflect on the word ‘united,’ JoAnn Holmes says, “It means recognizing difference, not pretending we're all the same, but making a deliberate decision to come together if for no other reason than recognizing that when our children–our collective children succeed–we all succeed.”

We all succeed. When the children of Path United are free to flourish in their new homeland, Gwinnett County, GA and Williamson County, TN flourish with them.

So work on the level of state policy actually feels like a natural extension of Path’s work—both in content and form. You don’t get the sense that the Hollandsworths are itching to get into the technicalities of Georgia politics any more than you get the sense that they were planning on working full time in Gwinnett Estates, 15 years ago. They’ve just kept walking the path (sorry) of the ‘next right step.’ And along the way, it seems that—fundamentally—they’ve always done this one needful thing: they have removed the barriers that block the children of mobile home communities from flourishing.

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Sofia, a student in Soto’s class, poses with her bravery badge bag.

Photo by: Whitney Porter

"You have to get hold of what the real world has to offer"

Path spends years building relationships with the kids growing up in these mobile home communities. From the time a student is in kindergarten to the day they graduate high school, they can expect regular, reliable programming with committed adults. Where does anyone find that kind of consistency anymore?

“The investment piece that the kids are getting… you just don't get that in schools, and it's even hard in churches.” That’s Andrea Chadwick again. When she thinks about the consistency that the adult community provides the kids, she marvels. “The children know that they can go back to the teachers they’ve had before… The fact that they have their pre-K teacher, their kindergarten-to-third, their third-to-fifth, their middle school teacher, their future teachers… you know what I mean? Even the founders are there! I'm like, do y'all understand how loved you are?”

On any given weekday afternoon, you’ll find all those folks in the two side-by-side Path trailers, running programs. The logistics are not uncomplicated. Kindergarten and first grade meet Tuesdays 4:00-5:30. Second and third grade meet on Thursdays. The kids get off the bus at 4pm—depending on the bus driver—and then they have level-differentiated lessons. There is always a spiritual element, an academic element, and plenty of time to connect with the adults that surround them. The alumni of the program can still name their favorite teachers several years after they may have stopped volunteering: Ms. Tiffany, Mr. Juan, Ms. Summer. They talk about them as cherished legends.

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The middle school boys' class learns perseverance through a lesson in trick shots.

Photo by: Whitney Porter

The older kids are playing a different game. Their time is less programmatically structured, but they are working towards goals with Melinda. They also have quarterly trips. “They would expose us to different things,” says Andres Cambron. He’s in the high school program now. “I think recently last year we went on a trip to the Lumistella Company, and they set us each up with a person that does a certain job there. Like me, I was put with a 3D animator, and we learned about how he does his work and how originally he didn't think he was going to.”

Path has taken kids to pack meals for the hungry and to spend a week at summer camp, to tour Georgia universities and to get an inside look at the local courthouse, to the Aurora Theater and the local jail. Over the years, dozens of such offerings have helped the students of Path see the world beyond their neighborhood and their school. More profoundly, they have helped the students of Path start to catch a vision of what they might want their futures to look like.

Path also works to help kids follow their passions. “It helps them think of their future bigger. It gives them an opportunity. They give out scholarships and they help you to get to where you want,” said Andres’ sister, Alondra Cambron. Path has helped kids build networks, get drivers’ licenses, and secure internships.

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Sister and brother, Alondra and Andres Cambron, at the Gwinnett Estate site.

Photo by: Whitney Porter

Ms. Sherri—Path United Director of Operations—even made Alondra Cardoso go through a mock interview to get a job that Path was going to give her regardless. “She was like, ‘Because it's your first job, I'm going to make you go through a job interview.’” They put Alondra through the ringer. “She was like ‘You have to get hold of what the real world has to offer.’ And I was like, ‘I get that.’ And I understood that, and I went through the whole process.” They made her submit a resume and answer interview questions. “She was like, ‘We need a void check.’ And I was like, ‘What?!’” In the end, they gave her the job she’d had all along. But more importantly, they helped the daughter of Mexican immigrants learn to take one more sure-footed step on American soil.

It’s hard to think about what Path does and who they serve without thinking about the other kids you know. It might be students you teach, players you coach, children you parent, or even just a younger version of you. It’s not easy to be a kid in America in 2024, even if you’ve got all the privilege in the world. But how much harder must it be if, on top of the tricky business of growing up, you have to navigate an unrelenting network of the blocks and barricades of a foreign culture? I’m not sure you can answer that question if you haven’t lived it yourself, but you can imagine.

You’d need even more deeply what we have all always needed. You’d need a community to embrace you, to surround you, to raise and support you. You would need someone to walk the path with you.

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Editor's Note

I think often of the handful of adults that invested in me at a young age. I think of the doors they opened, the solutions they offered, and the sense of stability they symbolized in a hormonal sea of uncertainty. I’m acutely aware of the impact they had on the quality and direction of my life and can only hope for something similar for my son and the rest of his generation.

Path United is committed to ensuring this is every kid’s experience, by being present in often overlooked and misunderstood communities—mobile home parks. I find Path United’s deep humility, their willingness to admit their mistakes and missteps, and their commitment to center the unique hopes and dreams of each student inspiring. It’s long, messy work, but its mentors such as these—willing to be a human link between past and future—that change the world.

Thank you to Peter and Whitney, for lending their significant talent and drawing on their own life experience to make this first story of 2024 really shine. And thank you to Jim and Melinda, and the rest of the Path United staff, as well as the youth of Gwinnett Estates for their openness and transparency as we sought to tell this story.

AM Headshot Eric Baker

Avery Marks

Features Editor

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