By Todd Cohen
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In the fall of 1987, while working as a volunteer to build a house for Habitat for Humanity of Charlotte, Catherine Browning struck up a conversation with a fellow volunteer about the Good Fellows Club, an all-men’s organization formed 70 years earlier that raises money for needy people in Mecklenburg County.
That conversation inspired the two volunteers to assemble a group of 20 women for a breakfast to talk about creating an all-women’s group modeled on the men’s group.
That December, the newly-formed Good Friends sponsored its first luncheon, attracting 400 people and raising $32,000.
When the group meets Dec. 14 at the Charlotte Convention Center for its 20th annual luncheon, it hopes to attract 1,000 women and raise $130,000, says Browning, who is president of First Charlotte Properties and still chairs Good Friends.
“All women are invited,” she says. “Every penny we raise at the luncheon goes to those in need.”
The luncheon will feature stories about needy families Good Friends’ members have visited; Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory and nine other men dressed as Santa Claus; and a video, shot at WBTV and produced by Mike Collins, that focuses on a woman who received support from Good Friends.
Good Friends, which in recent years has held its annual luncheon at the Charlotte Merchandise Mart, provides support for roughly 400 families a year, says Browning.
Over the years, Good Friends has raised a total of over $1.8 million, including $105,000 last year from 700 guests, and aims to pass the $2 million mark this year, she says.
Each quarter, the group gives one-fourth of the funds it raises to Polly Needham, community resources administrator for the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services, to provide support for needy families.
Based on referrals from nearly three-dozen local nonprofits, and from social workers and case managers, Needham says, she uses the funds to try to address families’ needs.
Those can range from assistance for medication to used refrigerators or stoves that families need to qualify for funds from a federally subsidized program to help pay their rent.
“Good Friends’ funds really do help fill the gap,” Needham says. “There are never enough resources to meet the need.”
Needham estimates that funding from Good Friends, which now benefits roughly 2,000 individuals a year, has provided support over the years for 15,000 to 20,000 individuals.
The average gift from Good Friends totals $150, and Needham has the discretion to make any gift up to $350, and can ask Good Friends’ executive committee for permission to make larger gifts, Browning says.
No cash is distributed to families or individuals, she says, and gifts have ranged from paying to change the locks on the homes or apartments of battered women to buying school books or musical instruments that parents might otherwise not be able to afford for their children.
Good Friends is trying to help needy people bridge the gap between needs and resources, Browning says.
“We’re trying to take care of those with needs who cannot find funds through other sources,” she says.