Thursday, October 29, 2009

Celebrating 100 years of commendable service

In the prehistoric year of 1909, 100 Charlotte business and religious leaders each pledged to chip in $25 a year and established Associated Charities to help what was then called "the floating needy."

They delivered food baskets by horse-and-buggy. They took people coal and wood to stay warm and cook by, and made sure they were adequately clothed.

Their work is a reminder of how Charlotteans have long reached out.

Over the next century, Associated Charities evolved its services depending on the needs -- for years it was an adoption agency and once home to Big Brothers Big Sisters -- and underwent four name changes to become United Family Services.

Now United Family Services is one of the city's longest-running nonprofits and it is on the brink of evolving again -- dramatically expanding its primary service.

The agency runs a 24-hour domestic violence hotline and provides counselors to work with people about to lose their homes. But it is chiefly known for its 29-bed shelter for women and children who are victims of domestic violence.

The facility is 30 years old, and in disrepair. The past year, it served 617 women and children, but had to turn away 2,000.

"There simply were't enough beds," said Libby McLaughlin, the nonprofit's development director.

So on Nov. 7, the agency is hosting a centennial celebration and kicking off a capital campaign for $10 million to build a new shelter with 80 beds.

The event at the uptown Westin hotel is called the "Aperture Gala." The campaign is being co-chaired by retired Springs Industries CEO Crandall Bowles, and Mecklenburg County Commission Chair Jennifer Roberts.

United Family Services will share land with the Charlotte Rescue Mission, and collaborate on services such as security and parking.

Eighty beds would allow clients to stay at the shelter longer. At present, 30 days is the limit.

"That's a band-aid that we're able to offer women," McLaughlin said. "We'd like to be able to keep them for three months to a year, to allow them access to safety and to become self-sufficient before they return to the community.

"It's a lot easier to get a new beginning if you have time on your side."

Want to go? The Nov. 7 "Aperture Gala" begins at 7 p.m. at the uptown Westin. There will be a photo exhibit by Charlotte photographer Lisa Holder, and photos and journals by shelter clients. Tickets are $200 a person; sponsorships are also available. To buy tickets or for more information, contact Elizabeth Connor at 704-367-2799. If you can't go, but would like to donate to the new battered women's shelter, click here, or send a check to United Family Services, 601 E. Fifth St., Suite 400, Charlotte NC 28202.