October 4, 2013

Werner Braun: 60-plus years of caring at Friendship House

— Tonight is Friendship House’s annual spaghetti supper, but if you don’t have tickets yet, don’t miss out because you assume it’s too late. Just stop by Dalton’s First United Methodist Church and join hundreds of others who celebrate this annual tradition.

Friendship House’s fall fundraiser is always a big success, and it’s become a part of the, pardon the pun, fabric of our Dalton community.

My guess is that most people who live in Dalton and Whitfield County have heard of this remarkable child care organization for years, but I’m not sure how many know about its rich history and the strong connections Friendship House has long had with carpet, our primary industry, and with the many families who populate our great town.

I recently had the chance to chat with Mary Thelma Norris, who has served as the director of Friendship House since 1985, and she filled me in on some of the highlights of the center’s 60-plus years.

Did you know?

• Friendship House was started by women from area churches in the 1950s to provide half-day kindergarten programming for children who lived in what was then called the “Happy Top” area because “providing a good start for those children was the right thing to do.”

• From this effort a program sprang up to provide adult education for the moms of the children served, and Whitfield County’s adult education program actually evolved from that effort.

• First Presbyterian Church of Dalton leased Friendship House’s “first home” to the organization for $1 per year, and churchwomen from area churches provided food, snacks and clothes.

• When urban renewal in the late 1960s and early 1970s caused many Friendship House families to relocate, Friendship House board members sought a new location, eventually relocating on Fifth Avenue.

• Full-time child care began in 1981.

• A capital campaign, led by carpet industry leaders, was initiated in late 1991, and by 1993 had resulted in a yield of $1.1 million, all but $100,000 of it coming from inside Whitfield County. The vast majority of the money was raised by pillars of the carpet and rug-related industries and through corporate contributions.

• Also in 1993, the center moved into its current state-of-the-art facility.

• More than 3,000 children have been served through its programs since moving into the new facility 20 years ago.

• Currently, 91 children, ages six weeks to five years, are cared for in the program.

• Parents of children who are served at Friendship House have to be full-time students or full-time employees in order to take advantages of child care services.

• All parents pay something for their children to attend, based on their ability to pay.

These are just a few of the program’s “facts,” but when talking to Mary Thelma you pick up on more than just the “particulars.” You pick up on many of the “warm and fuzzies.”

Besides telling me that she works with “the best people in the world,” all 23 of them — staff and teachers alike — Mary Thelma praises our community as having provided “incredible support” of Friendship House since its inception way back when.

“So many people in the industry and our community have supported us through giving of their time, their talents and their money,” she told me.

“Over the decades, hundreds, if not thousands, of people in this community have helped us, either by coming by to read to the children, contributing clothes, serving as volunteers on our board, chaperoning field trips, providing services like nursing, dental care and ‘creative movement,’ and helping with fundraisers,” she added.

Fundraisers, like tonight’s spaghetti supper and May’s Derby Day event, have evolved over time, she said. In the beginning, the women who started Friendship House made vats of their own special spaghetti sauce, stored it in one volunteer’s freezer, and combined it all into one big melting pot of sauce that volunteers “dished out” generously during the annual fundraising dinner.

Today, the spaghetti sauce is prepared in one location, but scores of volunteers still bake cookies and brownies to accompany each dinner served, and volunteers still serve up both in-house plates and to go orders by the thousands.

And this year, in addition to the two major fundraisers, Friendship House will be partnering with the Creative Arts Guild to host a Festival of Trees around Christmastime, in which fully decorated trees will be displayed at the Guild and will be for sale.

“I feel so lucky to be in a community like Dalton, that cares so much about other people,” Mary Thelma said.

“We believe that we provide incredible services for our children and their families, and we plan to continue to do so for years to come. Friendship House is a place for all of us to be proud of.”

And I couldn’t agree more.

Werner Braun is president of the Dalton-based Carpet and Rug Institute.