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Like the Fellows, Good Friends breaks record attendance and money raised

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This time there was no sitting in bleachers to eat their lunch.

Instead, each of the record 1,030 members and guests at the all-female Good Friends club’s yearly luncheon Thursday sat at the same tables in the same Charlotte Convention Center ballroom as their male counterparts, the Good Fellows Club, did the day before.

And like the Fellows on Wednesday, the Friends on Thursday dropped a record amount – $170,387.33 – into the bags of 10 Santas at their 27th luncheon. Combined with Good Fellows’ haul of $397,135.92, the two charities gathered more than half a million dollars ($567,523.25 to be exact) in a matter of minutes to help working families that can’t get help anywhere else.

“We’re thrilled, very excited by the attendance and the amount of money we raised to help people,” said Friends luncheon Chair Joanne O’Brien Beam.

Added Good Friends President Velva Woollen: “The spirit that came through today was wonderful. What we did today is going to help a lot of people next year.”

The Friends had been piling into creaky Grady Cole Center for its past several December luncheons, reasoning a cheaper rent would allow them to use more of the money they raised to help families.

But last year, the crowd pressed the edges of the old gym, with tables crammed together on the floor and a stage – forcing dozens of members to give up their seats for guests and eat in the bleachers.

“We were splitting at the seams,” O’Brien Beam said.

So the Fellows and Friends split some of the costs of putting on both luncheons.

During the event, Woollen set a $200,000 goal. The collection fell short but beat last year’s record by nearly $14,000.

Their auspicious start

Because of the new record, it’s worth repeating how the Friends came to be.

They are an indirect outgrowth of the Fellows. For most of the 97 years of the all-male club, women were included but had to sit in the back – at one point behind a curtain.

That galled many women, including Patty Norman, Alice Folger and Sally Saussy.

So in 1985, the three Charlotte women paid a visit to Col. J. Norman Pease, the then-99-year-old civic lion who had run Good Fellows for 30 years.

They told him they wanted to start an all-women version of his club. Politely, Pease told them they wouldn’t be able to raise big money.

That’s all the challenge they needed.

Their first luncheon on Dec. 8, 1987, drew 415 women with a goal of raising $16,000. They raised $32,205.

Two years ago, they passed the $2.5 million mark, and if they keep breaking records will hit $3 million soon.

‘You guys are great’

On Thursday, the crowd seemed more relaxed at the convention center. With more than 800 dues-paying ($65 a year) members, the Convention Center gave the Friends room to grow.

“We’re going for 1,500 next year,” Woollen said. “If we get more, we’ll just have to move to the (larger) Crown Ballroom.”

Before the seated were asked to dig deep, Debra Plousha-Moore, chief human resources officer for Carolinas HealthCare System, and Charlotte lawyer Dianne Bailey gave them two examples of how their money changes lives.

Plousha-Moore told them about Shannon, a woman who aspired to be a nurse and won a scholarship to college, where she “met a wonderful guy.”

She got pregnant and left school.

They married and had two more children, Shannon’s dream of nursing fading.

Over time, she said, Shannon’s husband grew aggressive and abusive, and they divorced.

“She lost her self-confidence and self-esteem,” Plousha-Moore said. She also ran out of money and “hope for further education.”

Then she went to United Family Services (now Safe Alliance), sought help from a social worker and began to piece her life back together.

Soon Shannon got a job and began to dream again – this time of living in a space “beyond a homeless shelter.”

Good Friends paid the first month’s rent on “a clean apartment ... full of laughter, warm meals and a good schedule. Shannon has found hope through you.”

Bailey told them about 10-year-old Mani, a fifth-grader at Druid Hills Academy, whose mother is raising three boys working a job that makes $8 an hour.

There was no way she could send Mani to camp.

But Good Friends did, paying the $200 to send the boy to the Salvation Army’s Camp Walter Johnson at High Rock Lake near Denton in Davidson County.

“It’s a safe haven for children where eyes are opened, lives are enriched and souls are nurtured,” Bailey said.

She then called Mani to the podium. He shyly thanked them for the help, then said as he unleashed a smile: “You guys are great.”

Before calling out the Santas, Wells Fargo Bank executive Madelyn Caple told the crowd that the Good Friends proves each year that the “gift of giving can change the world around me. I always leave (the yearly luncheon) a little less burdened with the realities of work” and world problems.

Then the Santas worked the crowd for donations. It took them a mere eight minutes to collect a new record.

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