In March 2023, Friends of Gwinnett Seniors celebrated its 25th anniversary. A milestone for a nonprofit that has truly been making a difference for seniors in need.
Some of the volunteer-governed group’s earliest contributions to Gwinnett were donating the county’s first Meals on Wheels vehicles, equipment for their commercial kitchen and their new facility. But their mission includes supporting any nonprofit that provides needed services to seniors in Gwinnett.
“Friends of Gwinnett Seniors started out of state legislator Renee Erman’s passion for seniors, in order to help Gwinnett County’s senior service organization do things they couldn’t do on their own,” said Brad Culp, long-time board member of Friends of Gwinnett Seniors.
And with the 65+ population growing more quickly than that of any other age group, Friends’ services are needed more than ever before.
“There are a lot of aging people in Gwinnett, and many don’t understand their plight,” said Gary Galloway, long-time Friends board member. “In one particular round of funding we applied for, of the 285 grant recipients, only 11 were organizations serving the needs of seniors in Gwinnett.”
Friends provides services to seniors in need. And almost every dollar donated goes straight to that mission.
“If you look at the fact that the aging population in Gwinnett County is almost equal to its school age population – you can see what’s wrong with this picture. And interestingly, the needs of children are not that indistinct from the needs of senior adults,” Gary said.
“After being entirely volunteer run for 25 years, just within the last year, we hired our first part-time bookkeeper. The other 95% of donations to Friends goes to the end recipients.”
For Friends of Gwinnett Seniors, who became a fundholder at the Community Foundation over 10 years ago, it’s the big things – and the little things – that make being a fundholder worth it.
“We look at our fund with the Community Foundation as having two main benefits,” Gary said. “Number one: letting more people know what we’re about.”
“Being a fundholder allows us to have interactions as a nonprofit with other fundholders that hopefully have some common ground with us,” Brad said.
“And number two: Our fund is easy to access and is a sound investment,” Gary said.
Friends of Gwinnett Seniors is made up of many people who truly care for seniors and the struggles they face. Gary and Brad are two perfect examples of that mindset.
“I think giving back is in my DNA,” he said. “Growing up in the cultural diversity of California made me realize that not everybody was going to be on the same page,” Gary said. “My dad used to work to help Japanese Americans who had been relocated to the West Coast. This perspective on giving back really influenced me from a young age to help those in need.
“I worked with seniors in various ways for over 33 years before retiring. My wife is also a retired nurse, and as she says, ‘I love my seniors.’ My affinity for seniors is because they’re kind of the forgotten class, and I’ll always help the underdog.”
“In my home growing up, we were raised in church. I was taught that giving back to and serving others is a part of our faith. I do that through Friends of Gwinnett Seniors and my family business,” Brad said.
“My wife and I own Griswold Home Care serving seniors every day. Our job is to let sons be sons, daughters be daughters and spouses be spouses – we take on the heavy lifting of in-home care for people who need it.
“My mom passed away from cancer at the age of 54; I was 25 at the time. And back then, there were really no options for in-home care. She spent many of her last days in the hospital, and while we would’ve loved to have kept her at home, we just didn’t know any better at the time. My wife’s mom went through the same thing about a decade later, so from our own personal experiences, we wanted to make sure that our seniors get the best possible care.”
Both Brad and Gary have many years of experience with Friends under their belt. After being instated as vice president, Brad immediately took over as president the next day following the resignation of the then-president, serving two terms. Gary has been involved since the turn of the millennium, only a year after Friends came to be. In that time, he’s served in numerous capacities and currently works with Brad on the Gifts and Grants subcommittee.
For many older adults, Friends of Gwinnett Seniors may be their last hope – and that’s not something they take lightly.
“Many times, seniors are referred to us as a last resort; they’ve been passed around the system, and past a certain point, there’s no plan B left,” Gary said. “People don’t stop and think about the fact that seniors have to pay fair market value for goods and services just like anybody else, but on a fixed income of $513 a month, that’s tough.
“One senior was having septic tank issues, and the quote she received to have it pumped every couple of months was four times the going rate. This company even went so far as to give her an estimate on the cost to restore the drain fields, which was almost $25,000 higher than it ended up being after we stepped in to help. It was very satisfying to help her!”
Working with Home Repairs Ministries – another organization who serves a number of seniors in need throughout Gwinnett County and surrounding areas – Friends has been able to help a number of seniors they otherwise would never have been able to reach.
An especially satisfying service Friends and Home Repairs have collaborated on is identifying home repair and modification contractors who are, in Gary’s words, “less than righteous – who get what they can and then get out of town”.
Interestingly enough, sometimes those providing help aren’t immune from needing help themselves.
“One of Home Repairs’ volunteers had been helping with repairs for various seniors, and after awhile, we were alerted to the fact that this individual needed help at his own house,” Gary said. “We pooled our funds and shared the costs to make this young senior’s house habitable again.
“A couple of years later, this same man called Friends needing a ride home after a triple bypass heart surgery. After talking to a lot of people at the hospital to get back in touch with him after he’d been transferred to different units, we were able to get him home. All that to say: we don’t give up on people.
“We’re not a bottomless pit in terms of financial support or assistance, but for people who truly have needs, we want to do whatever can be done. We put our money where our mouth is, and we’re there to fight for those that can’t fight as hard as they used to!”
Sometimes, the perfect opportunity seems to drop out of the sky, giving people looking to help – like those a part of Friends – the chance to act quickly for those in desperate need.
“We once had several families at once who needed roofing work done, and Gary came across an opportunity to buy some roofing supplies at a deep, deep discount,” Brad said. “He was on vacation, but he immediately called me to ask my permission, as I was president at the time and it would cost a lot.
“I knew he was out west somewhere at the time, so I jokingly told him to swing by Silver Oak, grab me a bottle of Silver Oak Cabernet, and I’d say to get the supplies. And he said to me, ‘I am actually standing inside the Silver Oak Vineyard as we speak.’ So he brought me a bottle, we bought the roofing supplies and used them very quickly to make a big impact on multiple families.”
“And no need is too small if it’s a big deal to the person receiving the service,” Gary said. “I still think of a man who had a hornet nest outside his door who was so scared of those hornets. We got a professional out there to remove it, and while it was very inconsequential in terms of the cost, the satisfaction and the relief it brought that senior was tremendous.
“I can’t begin to tell you the number of little things that have been so important to the recipients of our help over the years – through our collaborative involvement and funding.
“We have to realize there are a lot of people with gray hair and a wrinkle or two. They’re your neighbors, the people you worship with, the people you shop with – we need to appreciate them for their wisdom and experience. And while we’re specific to serving Gwinnett seniors, the Community Foundation supports a lot of causes throughout Northeast Georgia.
“The Community Foundation provides an avenue to be a good steward of the money that you hold on behalf of your constituents and doesn’t require you to be a financial experts or to spend all your time on how to invest that money within your mission,” Brad said.