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‘We can reach the people’: We Care and Friends celebrates 30th anniversary with Thanksgiving dinner in Annapolis

Rachel Griffin didn’t sleep Sunday night.

The 67-year-old executive director of We Care and Friends, an Annapolis nonprofit celebrating its 30th year since Griffin’s husband, Larry Griffin, started it in 1991, worked through the night writing a grant in hopes of securing desperately needed funds for the organization. After submitting the application at 7:30 a.m., Griffin headed to the Stanton Community Center to prepare for the nonprofit’s annual Monday night Thanksgiving dinner.

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The holiday event is a staple in Annapolis, attracting local politicians, employing hundreds of volunteers and feeding thousands of residents in years past. Annapolis police officers cooked 32 turkeys for Monday’s dinner, while Calvary United Methodist Church, grocery stores and local restaurants donated side dishes.

Larry Griffin, the organization’s leader who became a local icon for his nonprofit work, was diagnosed with dementia in 2018. Griffin’s health has steadily declined, and the 71-year-old is now unable to run the organization he founded to address homelessness and drug addiction and engage Annapolis’ youth. The Community Foundation of Anne Arundel County recognized Griffin’s decades of contributions this month by awarding him a Lifetime Achievement Award.

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The past two years have been some of the hardest in the organization’s 30-year existence, members of its three-person executive staff said. The nonprofit almost lost its decades-old office in the Stanton Community Center on Clay Street due to inactivity. Its board of directors dismantled, and volunteers walked away.

Rachel Griffin, her son Shelton Willett and his uncle Chris Towns are committed to rebuilding the organization with fresh staff, a new board of directors and modern initiatives to invest in the neighborhoods they’re serving. Monday’s Thanksgiving dinner marked, in part, a debut of “We Care and Friends 2.0,” new chapter for the Annapolis institution.

“We picked up the mantle and we’re out here in the community. I believe the tide is going to turn because a lot of people know we’re out here doing the work. A lot of organizations you’ll see, they get the funding, but they can’t reach the people,” said Towns, who serves as director.

“We can reach the people.”

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New ambitions

We Care and Friends has always run on a tight budget powered by Larry Griffin’s charisma and resolve for helping Annapolitans with any problem they had. If the Griffins didn’t have funding to put a homeless person in a hotel or connect them to a shelter, they would open their home.

Rachel Griffin, surrounded by volunteers bustling to fill takeout boxes of Thanksgiving dinner for residents at Annapolis senior homes, explained Monday that her husband’s individual efforts using small grants and donations to handle residents’ problems have transformed into a new method: teamwork.

The organization’s new staff includes Towns and outreach coordinator Samir Footman, who walk the streets of Eastport, around Clay Street and in Annapolis Gardens daily interacting with and building trust with residents.

Starting in May 2019, Towns and Willett, Larry Griffin’s stepson and CEO of We Care and Friends, set up tents on corners where drugs are sold. They bump music while handing out lunch and naloxone in overdose prevention kits. If a person is interested in drug treatment, the men will shepherd individuals into addiction treatment centers.

A poster of Larry Griffin is often positioned next to We Care and Friends booths. Griffin’s image is quickly identified on Annapolis streets, Willett said, because many adults remember participating in youth programs Griffin ran, such as his “Box of Rain” camp where kids experience sailing and other water activities.

“When we show up with a picture of [Larry’s] face, I see them light up. I see dangerous guys turn into kids,” Willett said. “I know he had an impact, and they remember him from being a child.”

At the Stanton Community Center, Rachel Griffin said her family-run nonprofit has a distinctive approach of asking residents directly what need and how they can best be helped, such as paying a phone bill.

“We’re very unique. We’re so unique we work with no money,” she joked to Footman, who sat across the table at the center.

The seven-person staff went three weeks without pay this October. But they went to work every day without complaint, Footman said, because the ability to help the communities they live in has been a life-changing experience.

“I love it,” Footman said of his two-month tenure working as an outreach coordinator.

“Everybody knows me and I’m friendly to everybody in every neighborhood. I’m out here helping my own people out. I came from the same type of neighborhoods,” he continued, adding people approach him to ask how to get job training and other services.

“I say, ‘How can I help you get out of this situation? Let’s get you clean. Let’s put you in school. Let’s put you in a job,’ ” Footman said.

Along with acting as a safety net for residents, one of the organization’s new initiatives is offering business advice to aspiring entrepreneurs and encouraging people to become skilled in a trade through the Annapolis Police Department’s Positive Impact job-training program.

Rather than convincing people to get a different job, the staff motivates people to invest their time and money in starting their own business or a career that won’t result in prison time.

“You can’t just say, ‘Stop selling drugs.’ You have to replace it with another opportunity, and it has to make sense,” Towns said. “A lot of these guys are business owners; they’re just doing the wrong business.”

Willett, a business owner himself, is leading by example. Willett is co-owner of a new Main Street cigar shop, Vitola 121. He, along with other business owners in Annapolis, are renovating a Clay Street building into a coffee and smoothie shop. We Care and Friends plans to hire Annapolis residents to work construction and offer workers equity in the business.

Through this process, Willett will teach workers how to manage their finances and eventually how to start their own coffee brand, he said. He also plans to connect residents with business owners interested in mentoring people in trade skills.

Crime is caused by poverty and desperation, Willett said, echoing the mindset of Annapolis Police Chief Ed Jackson, who promotes a community-based model of policing by tackling the root causes of violence. By investing in the economic development of Annapolis neighborhoods, Willett believes the community can reduce crime.

“I lived in Baltimore a good amount of time … 300 murders is regular. Six murders is an uproar in Annapolis,” Willett said, adding that the city’s size and its current leaders, including the police chief, can contribute to correcting the city’s inequities.

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As We Care and Friends enters its 30th year with new ambitions, the nonprofit celebrated its anniversary in the way Larry Griffin started it — with the community eating dinner together while performers played music in the background.

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