I write this letter for informational purposes. Having worked in the Forgotten Child Fund from 1966 to the early 2000’s I know the fund's purpose as I’m very concerned about the organization's future.
Officer Johnny Wright founded the fund. His idea came about in 1962. In those early days Officer Wright got a lot of help from then WRGP, Channel 3, Roy Morris, Tommy Eason, Bill Nash and the News Free Press. I joined the fund in the winter of 1966.
When the fund started to grow, businessman Harry Edex joined the organization. He had a furniture store on Main Street and turned a room into a toy shop. Photographer George Moody helped Mr. Edix and took the idea to the newspaper. Charlie Reno, E.F. Vandergriff and other officers and firefighters quickly joined the Forgotten Child Fund in addition to the School Patrol. Jeanette Wilkerson and Peggie Bullard led the school patrol into FCF.
The School Patrol office was located in that old school building at the end of the police services center on Amnicola Highway. A Forgotten Child Fund office was set up. There was a large empty room in that building that became the FCF toy shop. We quickly outgrew that facility so the toy store operated out of a gym belonging to the fire or police department in the Amnicola Highway complex. Our office was still in the School Patrol quarters but the gym was large enough for FCF needs and packing boxes for needy children. We used the gym several years but it limited police and fire training during October, November and December so the city moved us to the old safety lane building down the street. That was a great facility. FCF stayed there until the city decided to use that building for something else.
Our office moved from the old school building when the city expanded the police services center. At this time, city leadership didn’t forget us. They made it a priority to find FCF a new home. During this period businessman Sam Swope joined FCF and provided valuable assistance from a business perspective. Mr. Swope remained with the fund until his death.
I can’t remember exactly where we went from there but we ended up in an old building on 10th Street owned by the telephone company. That building more than served our needs. It has a bay in the back for loading and unloading. There was an adjoining parking lot. They were very gracious and allowed us to stay there many years. With changes, the phone company decided to sell that property, but they gave us more than adequate notice.
The school patrol chiefs and I went to see Mayor Gene Roberts who in five minutes secured the old #12 Fire Hall on Forrest Avenue for our new home. I decided to leave the fund, I believe in early 2000, for a variety of family reasons. By this time, it had become a Chattanooga institution.
When the city decided to sell the old #12 Fire Hall building I understand the fund sought help from Mayor Ron Littlefield. The current building on Main Street then was donated to the city with the intentions of it becoming the permanent home of the Forgotten Child Fund. A conversation with the former mayor can provide valuable information about this structure. The warehouse is currently used for several benevolent organizations. As we both know nothing is permanent with the changing of administrations. That apparently brings us to where we are now.
When I joined Forgotten Child Fund, the fire and police commissioner, police and fire chiefs were members of the FCF board. They were not able to make all the meetings but were just a phone call away. When the government change took place the fire and police commissioner position switched to the mayor but the police and fire chiefs remained the same. We maintained an excellent relationship with city leadership. They knew the fund's objective and took care of our building needs. Our job was to raise money to pay for the toys. To my knowledge, thanks to the community, the fund never failed to pay a bill.
School patrol officers worked closely with school principals who usually knew which children needed help Cases were investigated, then the two school patrol chiefs would pick out 10 of the neediest cases for the Santa train on Christmas Eve. FCF expanded with Hamilton County Sheriff H.Q. Evatt joining in. Sheriff Evatt organized several fundraising golf tournaments. When John Cupp was elected sheriff he continued what Sheriff Evatt had started.
Now Sheriff Jim Hammond is very involved. Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger is also well acquainted with the fund. When County Mayor Coppinger was with the fire department he investigated cases and went with us on several Santa Trains. The late City Councilman Jack Benson, who was with the school system, worked closely with us. Mr. Benson went with us on the Santa Train. He was a great resource. I walked into a City Commission meeting one day. The late Commissioner Paul Clark interrupted saying, “There’s Earl. Get out your checkbooks.” We raised over $1,000 in 15 minutes.
During my time at WDOD we did broadcasts from Northgate, Eastgate and Brainerd Village. Both city and county leadership got involved. Hamilton County Commissioners Bill Hullander, Ralph Barger, Larry Henry and Curtis Adams raised thousands of dollars. The Forgotten Child Fund organized a barbecue in front of WDOD radio when it was located on Baylor School Road. Congressman Zach Wamp helped organize that event. Rep. Wamp even served up the barbecue. Although FCF became a community charity, it was still an arm of the Chattanooga Police and Fire Department and our board always took their Q’s from city leadership.
I think the fund now gets a lot of support from WUSY Radio’s Christmas fund.
FCF has a very strong presence in the inner city. It’s a great public relations arm when police and firefighters led by Santa go into poverty stricken homes.
The Forgotten Child Fund has grown beyond my imagination. FCF provided Christmas for about 15,000 children last year. We were averaging 3,000 to 4,000 children each season when I was involved. With our structure that was about all we could handle. It was a well-greased machine. If the weather is not too bad, the Santa Train on Christmas Eve has record crowds. There have been many many changes since I left, but the objective remains the same - The Children.
FCF is covered by all three TV stations each season. They have been so generous and helped get the word out. The late Don Welch gave so much of his time and money. FCF was under the arm of the Chattanooga News Free Press Christmas fund for many years. Roy McDonald and Lee Anderson made this charity a priority. I picked up checks at the paper for thousands of dollars.
I can’t tell you all the important people who have supported the fund because there were so many. Attorneys Jerry Summers, Russell Bean, Leroy Phillips, the late Bates Bryan and many more raised thousands of dollars each year for FCF. City Judge Walter Williams sent us a generous check each season. I know of no other charity that has such a community heritage.
I strongly urge the city find a solution. I really don’t know where the breakdown has occurred. I don’t think any of us what to see FCF close up shop and that could happen leaving thousands of children without any Christmas at all. If the fund is forced to move again, maybe there is space at one of the community centers or a closed school.
We must remember the volunteer men and women who operate the fund are professionally trained for emergencies. They provide us public safety and save so many lives. These men and women don’t have a lot of business experience. Their objective with FCF is to make sure needy children have a Christmas. I think FCF has the organization. The fund just needs a home to work out of. Officers and firefighters take their leave during November and December to work in the fund.
I feel the city should use this charity to their advantage. I understand that this year is very different because of COVID. I understand FCF has a plan to respond doing the best they can. Being optimistic, things will be back to near normal in 2021.
Other police agencies, including the Walker and Catoosa County Sheriff’s Office, started the “Stocking full of Love”. It was patterned after the Forgotten Child Fund. I think East Ridge and Soddy Daisy have similar organizations. Other police agencies have requested information on how Chattanooga did it. I think there is an Empty Stocking Fund.
It’s important to remember it’s Johnny Wright's idea that started most of this. FCF led the way. There’s a YouTube video I did about FCF with founding father Johnny Wright. I invite you to view it here at your leisure.