Terry graduate has a Bigger Vision to tackle homelessness in Athens

Andrew Wilkin aims to move homeless toward sustainable housing through education and free job training

Chris Starrs | Mar. 04, 2019

Andrew Wilkin
Andrew Wilkin

Andrew Wilkin (BBA ’12) has some pretty radical views when it comes to nonprofits, specifically agencies and organizations that aid the homeless and impoverished.

“The goal of nonprofits should be to go out of business,” said Wilkin, who in 2016 was appointed executive director of Bigger Vision of Athens, a winter emergency shelter a few blocks from downtown. “If we’re successful tackling homelessness, then we would close down.

“But not all nonprofits operate with that being the goal. If you look at the way many nonprofits operate, their efforts are short-term focused and they never reach the long term. But entrepreneurs are all about the long-term goals.”

The 29-year-old Newnan native leads Bigger Vision with an entrepreneurial bent, seeking unconventional ways to address the homeless transition toward sustainable housing.

Wilkin operates with the understanding that nonprofits not only compete for dollars with other nonprofits, but also with for-profit entities in retail, entertainment, etc. — for funding.

“I have to convince someone not to spend all their money on Netflix and at Walmart and to have some money left to donate, and then I get to compete with all the other charities,” he said. “So it’s a very uphill battle when it comes to convincing people to contribute to you.

“That’s the state of the nonprofit, and I realized before I got this job that nonprofits need entrepreneurs more than any other industry because we need more outside-the-box thinking that comes from an entrepreneur to tackle the issues in our community.”

Wilkin has presided over a host of infrastructure changes for Bigger Vision. The organization opened in 1998 as a ministry of St. James Methodist Church of Athens. Known back then as the Community Overflow Shelter, it provided overnight lodging for up to 16 individuals during the winter months.

After hopping from space to space for several years, the agency bought a 5,000-square-foot building on North Avenue and can now provide beds, showers, laundry and breakfast for up to 34 guests.

Perhaps the most notable achievement of Wilkin’s tenure at Bigger Vision has been the development of Abundant Life, a job-training partnership with Athens Technical College, Bread for Life and the East Athens Goodwill Career Center.

Abundant Life makes it possible for Bigger Vision’s clientele to pursue a GED certificate and receive free job training in fields ranging from nursing to construction to hospitality.

Wilkin said the program utilizes the strengths of each partner because few job-education programs also have a housing component.

“We’re good at providing a safe and comfortable environment for individuals with homelessness,” he said. “And Athens Tech is good at what it does with GED education and certified job training.”

Wilkin believes some of the affordable housing issues in Athens could be addressed in a meaningful way with skilled workers earning as much as $15 per hour.

“In this community, a big issue is affordable housing and most people are tackling that from the idea that we need to lower our apartment rates,” he said. “But affordability is partly based on the individual. Abundant Life is helping raise the bar of what they can afford”

Although Wilkin earned his degree in accounting, he said his involvement with the Entrepreneurship Program led by former director Chris Hanks (BBA ’90) was the guiding light of his undergraduate experience.

“I use accounting in my job, but I’m not an accountant,” Wilkin said. “I got my education and was able to use what I learned in the Entrepreneurship Program to forge my own path.

“UGA was such a great opportunity for me. Accounting is one of the hardest programs. I walked out with a wonderful education, and I was able to use that in an entrepreneurial field, which was a little different.”

And the Entrepreneurship Program also left him with a lasting understanding — that failure in execution is entirely more profitable than the failure to execute.

“In the Entrepreneurship Program I found out that failure is a beautiful opportunity to learn,” he said, “and success is a staircase made from all the failures you learned from.”

For more information about Bigger Vision of Athens and its Abundant Life job-training program for those in homelessness, visit www.biggervisionofathens.org.