When Elizabeth Omilami took over the Atlanta-based food bank that her father started more than 50 years ago, the organization already had the reputation of being a place that people in need could count on. Founded by Hosea Williams — who worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the civil rights movement — Hosea Feed the Hungry & Homeless lived up to its name.
After Hosea’s death in 2000, his daughter Elizabeth stepped up to take the reins — even though that meant putting her acting career on the back burner. Mrs. O, as she’s affectionately called by her staff, has acted in a number of movies and TV shows including The Blind Side, Ray, and We Are Marshall, but she knew being at the helm of her father’s food bank was a bigger and more important role.
During her tenure, Mrs. O., with her husband Afemo Omilami by her side, has expanded the food bank — now called Hosea Helps — into a national organization that feeds, clothes, houses, and provides other services to people across the country and around the world. Hosea Helps offers food, rental assistance, emergency shelter, employment assistance, and more. Even when Hosea Helps was uprooted from its headquarters, the staff kept serving while searching for a new home. Now settled on a four-acre property in Southwest Atlanta, Hosea Helps serves over 50,000 people each year.
We are honored to introduce our newest FACE of the South, Elizabeth Omilami.
During the time you’ve been at the helm of Hosea Helps, what major changes have you made and what changes are you most proud of?
The building is something that I’m very proud of, having a $2.5 million capital campaign and raising $2.8 million. When we first got in this building, it was just a shell. It had to be completely designed and built, which my niece and my son helped design. It is a family effort, and I’m very proud that the family was able to come together. And I’m proud of raising the number of staff in the case management area from seven to 21.
What’s been one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
Raising this money. Fundraising is something that has to be in your blood. You have to be one of those people who enjoy the chase, someone who enjoys telling your story, enjoys the conquest. And that’s not really my personality. I’m a lot more artistic and laid back. I’m not that ‘chase it down and get that check’ kind of person, but I had to become that kind of person.
Before building your current headquarters, Hosea Helps had to bounce from warehouse to warehouse for about four years. How were you able to continue to serve without a stable base of operations?
I think that has to do with the brand. We have an excellent brand in the Atlanta area. So, people know that if they give to Hosea Helps, it’s going to be used for the people in need. And that’s where your faith comes in. You just suck it in and keep walking day by day, trusting God, knowing that you’re doing God’s work.
How did Hosea Helps respond to the pandemic?
It is our natural inclination to fight back when our backs are up against the wall. You get that from coming out of a civil rights background that says “I ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round” – those songs that say nothing will stop us. That takes a lot of faith because if you look at the danger of the pandemic – we had never experienced anything like that before – it didn’t say that. It said close up and run.
But we are at our best when people have nowhere else to go. Hosea Helps is there nationwide, not just in Georgia. We were there during Katrina. We served more people in Atlanta from Katrina than any other organization. We were there for Flint, Michigan, sending 28 tractor-trailer loads full of water. We were there for storm disasters that happened in Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee.
How did the pandemic impact Hosea Helps?
During COVID, starting in March or April of 2020, smaller nonprofits that had never come to us for food and supplies before started showing up at our warehouse. They would come and pick up pallets of food, and they were getting masks and hand sanitizers. And they would take that back to their community. It’s not about competition. It’s a disaster. People can’t get food. This was an emergency.
So, our numbers tripled in terms of the number of people we were able to serve because we started utilizing these smaller nonprofits. And as a result of that, we now have about 200 community partners.
Why did you decide to keep serving even in the face of the pandemic?
The decision was made by the staff. I never pulled everybody together as CEO and said we’re going to stay open during this pandemic. They just kept coming in, and they just kept serving. We are blessed to have that kind of staff.
Through the years, how have you balanced your acting career with leading Hosea Helps?
I absolutely didn’t balance. I lost jobs. I have auditions sitting on my desk right now that my agent sent me last week that I didn’t do. You can’t do everything. You make a decision. It was a sacrifice. Sometimes it makes me sad, but I am the protector of the legacy. That’s the role that I’ve taken.
My prayer is that my acting career can kick back in now that I’ve got the organization a bit more stable. Everybody needs an auntie. Everybody needs a grandma. It will pick up again. We have plans for things moving forward.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I love my grandchildren. I have five grandchildren between the ages of five and nine. They come in the door and it’s like a big ball of energy just rolled in your house.
I love the beach and the ocean. My name Omilami means “water heals me.”
I like reading and watching videos about anything that has to do with healing, mind/body connection, and how to maintain your sanity in this crazy world.
I love swimming, and I love chasing down my husband trying to make him take me dancing. We’ve been married 44 years.
Wow! Do you have any marriage advice to offer?
We’re both actors, so that helped the relationship. We both understood each other. And we both understood the sacrifice that Hosea Helps was going to be. My husband is the COO. We both made that sacrifice together. We walk this walk together, and we decided to stay together. It wasn’t that nothing bad ever happened. We just decided to stay together.
What’s the best life advice you’ve been given?
I think that the best advice I was given was to just believe. That’s how I’ve lasted the past 21 years here at Hosea Helps. I did not know what I was doing. I didn’t have an MBA. I had a degree in theater, which has nothing to do with what I’m doing. My faith is what’s gotten me this far. It doesn’t mean I’m not fearful sometimes, but I go right back to believing we’re going to make it.
Name three things you can’t live without.
A day to stay in bed all day, which I try to do a couple of times a month; butter pecan ice cream; and aggravating my husband by being there to remind him that he doesn’t have to be so serious.
Thank you, Elizabeth! All photography courtesy of Hosea Helps.
Meet more inspiring women from across the South in our FACES archives.