+ By Patty Speakman Hamsher
This summer, dozens of children from disadvantaged areas in Annapolis will smell the salt air on Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York, and dip their fingers in the Chesapeake Bay on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. They will giggle at movies in a theater and dance at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. But if one man had not changed the course of his own life, none of these children would be doing such things.
Larry Griffin is the man behind We Care and Friends, a nonprofit outreach organization based in Annapolis. The organization is, in its own words, “dedicated to supporting the building blocks to create strong families and communities in areas affected by drugs, poverty, and crime in Annapolis and Anne Arundel County.” School on Water, one of the organization’s summer projects, is a camp for children between the ages of 7 and 15 who are at risk of academic or social failure. Through engaging experiences with instructors and field trips to places beyond their neighborhoods, the children are encouraged to think more broadly about life.
We Care and Friends began as a food and clothing drive that was held at Middleton Tavern in 1990. Over the next several years, it operated primarily out of Griffin’s house. There was overwhelming support from the community for what Griffin was doing, and there were plenty of people in need of what he and his volunteers were offering—food, clothing, and help in finding affordable or no-cost rehabilitation programs.
By 2000, We Care and Friends was relocated to the Stanton Community Center on West Washington Street, in the Clay Street neighborhood, where it operates today. Former Annapolis mayor Dean Johnson was a huge advocate of the organization, and provided critical assistance to ensure that it was located where it would be most accessible to those needing its services.
Griffin brings a deeply rooted empathy to the organization through his own life experiences. A regular in the Annapolis music scene, he has been a percussionist since the early 1970s, when he saw and then sat in with a street performer in New York City’s Washington Square. He then left New York with the goal of learning how to play drums, and planned to get a kit and listen to tapes.
It would, however, take Griffin more than twenty years to come back to such motivation, as he had become a victim of drug addiction and homelessness. When he overcame his addiction and left treatment in 1987, Griffin had a new focus that served as a tonic to keep himself clean: making music and helping people.
As a percussionist, Griffin has performed with the likes of Tina Turner and Carlos Santana. He continues to be an integral part of local Annapolis bands such as XPDs Band and Show, Michael McHenry Tribe, and Mama Jama. But above all, Griffin dedicates his life to listening to people who are looking for a receptive ear and helping them get what they need, whether it is short- or long-term counseling, access to addiction programs, summer camps for their children, or food. His tireless work is pro bono, as he makes his living by catering, working security, and playing music gigs.
Last year, about one thousand people enjoyed a Thanksgiving meal—with turkeys and food provided by area restaurants—served by dozens of We Care and Friends volunteers. Nearly six hundred children received Christmas presents through its toy drive. During the cold winter weather, many homeless people found a bed at the Stanton Community Center, and Griffin was often up all night, helping people to feel safe and offering counsel.
In partnership with Bay Area Community Church, We Care and Friends administers a lunch program, providing free sandwiches and water to children and others who drop in. When people sign in to receive food, Griffin is there to talk to them about how We Care and Friends can help them improve their lives.
“It’s a hard business, because you just see so many people out here that are having a hard time living,” says Griffin.
Luanne Phillips, a We Care and Friends board member and licensed clinical professional counselor, has been offering free counseling at We Care and Friends for nearly five years. “I often describe Larry as a cross between Superman, Mother Theresa, and Santa Claus,” she says. “It’s hard not to support someone like that.”
Through city and county grants, donations from the general public, and partnerships with local businesses and organizations, We Care and Friends has enough money to run its programs and keep a small emergency fund to assist people in dire need of shelter, medication, or help with overdue utility bills.
Musicians and artists around town often hold benefits for the organization. Don Hooker, who puts together the annual Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival at Sandy Point State Park, gives proceeds to We Care and Friends in exchange for security services provided by Griffin and others during the festival.
In many ways, Griffin has stepped out of his own cycle of poverty and into the cycle of inspiration. He was inspired not only by musicians he encountered in his youth to pursue music, but also by overcoming the low points in his life so that he can help others. Now he is inspiring people to walk the high road and help themselves out of poverty and destructive behaviors. He steadies his life through his music and a promise: “I’m going to be doing this until the day I die.” █