In 1987, four Charlotte natives decided to start an all-female version of the all-male Good Fellows Club that had for 70 years been raising money for the needy during the Christmas season.
Patty Norman, Alice Folger, Catherine Browning and Sally Saussy took their plan to Col. J. Norman Pease, the longtime Good Fellows leader, who bluntly shared his belief that women could never raise enough money to matter. “He said, ‘Good luck, girls,’ ” Norman recalled. “And we took that as a challenge.”
They called their group Good Friends, and the first brown bag lunch in the fellowship hall at Christ Episcopal Church drew 415 women and raised $32,205.
Thursday’s 30th anniversary luncheon was quite the contrast.
About 1,600 members and guests packed a Charlotte Convention Center ballroom, seated at tables with floral centerpieces and formal place settings. And, despite what Pease said years ago, the group raised a record $511,434 – besting last year’s record of $312,091.
The haul came in about 10 minutes as women dropped cash, coins and pledge cards into sacks carried by a dozen Santas – all members of the Good Fellows Club – and in tin buckets on the tables.
Good Friends President Sherrard Georgius gave a nod to the Good Fellows, who celebrated their 100th anniversary Wednesday, congratulating them for raising more than $1 million.
But there remained a simmering battle of the sexes. After announcing a Wells Fargo Foundation donation of $100,000 for Good Friends, Madelyn Caple generated a murmur of laughter when she added: “Female clients tend to give from the heart, versus male counterparts who tend to give for recognition and the spirit of competition.”
Georgius welcomed the Good Friends in her final year as president and spoke of helping to unify Charlotte after recent struggles.
“We’re trying to give a helping hand up to people,” she said. “One hour of charity translates into an entire year of giving.”
Good Friends partners with 71 nonprofit agencies, including Goodwill, YWCA and the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services. All the money raised helps people who are “struggling in some way,” Georgius said. “They’re trying hard. It’s just that life’s throwing them a curve ball.”
Before the collection began, the crowd heard stories of three people who have been helped in recent years.
▪ Shanon Murray moved from a shelter to an apartment three years ago and received assistance from Good Friends to pay rent and utilities. She also received help with expenses for her three children, now 5, 6 and 8. With that boost, she began attending Central Piedmont Community College and then transferred to UNC Charlotte, where she is now a graduate student. She has applied to begin her doctorate and hopes to become a college professor. Murray thanked the group for help during “a very rough transition in my life.” The work of Good Friends “helps families like mine move forward.”
▪ Raunaq, a 17-year-old with autism, is getting music therapy at Queens University of Charlotte that helps him “express himself and relax,” said his mother, Shagun Gaur. When he was about 16 months old, she said, he started regressing and stopped talking. Today, he claps and stomps and plays the drums, and music has become “the voice for a child who doesn’t speak,” said Good Friends member Carrie Cook. When he’s playing music, he smiles and makes eye contact. “He’s a different person” when he’s in music therapy, Gaur said. “He’s full of life. He can express himself. … Good Friends has given my son that environment, and for that I am very grateful.”
▪ Melody Moye rode a bus to Thursday’s lunch so she could say thank you in person for help. Good Friends member Jill Flynn told the story: After going through an acrimonious divorce, Moye was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease that led to a sore on her foot that would not heal. Because of the itching and pain, she couldn’t sleep and eventually had to quit work. She lost her home and couldn’t afford medicine to stop the disease from worsening. Good Friends paid for the medicine and also for the cost of an exam to become a certified nursing assistant. She passed the test and is back to work, Flynn said. With her lupus under control, “the next goal is to find a place of her own.”
The stories drew tears and standing ovations. After performers with Carolina Voices sang “Put a Little Love in Your Heart,” the Santas fanned out across the room, collecting hugs and contributions.
Among the oldest was Sally Van Allen, 95, a civic leader who has attended every Good Friends lunch. “I think it’s incredible,” she said. “It’s grown like Charlotte has grown.”
The Charlotte Observer has sponsored the Empty Stocking Fund since about 1920. In recent years, Observer readers have contributed an average of nearly $370,000 annually to buy needy children gifts for Christmas. All money contributed goes to the Salvation Army's Christmas Bureau, which buys toys, food, clothing and gift cards for families. To qualify, a recipient must submit verification of income, address and other information that demonstrates need. For five days in mid-December, up to 3,000 volunteers help distribute the gifts to families at a vacant department store. The name of every person who contributes to the Empty Stocking Fund will be published on this page daily. If the contributor gives in someone's memory or honor, we'll print that person's name, too. Contributors can remain anonymous.
How to help
To donate online: www.charlotteobserver.com/living/helping-others/empty-stocking-fund. Send checks to: The Empty Stocking Fund, P.O. Box 37269, Charlotte, NC 28237-7269. Questions about your donation: 704-358-5520. For helping families: 704-714-4725.