Friendship Center honors four decades of service

 JULIE HUSS/Staff photoThe Friendship Center in Derry is celebrating 40 years, serving those in recovery and being a big support system in the area. Pictured are family members of original founder Arthur Mills including Jayne Doyle, Kristen Bonacorsi, Felicia Mills, and Friendship Center board members and supporters Patrick Conway, Jennifer Rattigan and Carroll McCartin.

DERRY —  Back in March of 1979, a blizzard dumped about 18 to  24 inches of snow in the region. 

At a somewhat rundown entryway next door to a pancake diner on Broadway in Derry, a few people were digging out. Little did people engaged realize that it was the beginning of an enterprise that would literally make safe the lives and journey of thousands of people over the next 40 years. One man thought his effort would make a difference.

Arthur Mills, a retired executive of a large utility, had recovered from a life of alcoholism. He was so grateful for the program that turned his life around. He thought it a good idea to keep those programs in a permanent location, not one subject to removal for different use.

Most of the meetings were held in church basements or homes. At times, the church or homeowner needed the space back, and many recovery groups had to scramble to find other locations, causing concern for people in highly volatile transition.

Arthur had a better idea — find a permanent place where the groups could meet regularly. This was the founding of the Derry Friendship Center, now celebrating 40 years of serving tens of thousands of people from the Greater Derry, Londonderry, Chester and Salem areas.

The location was not the best location, but one Arthur and the groups could afford.

Many times the rent could not be made from the meager contributions of the various groups meeting on Broadway. Many times Arthur pitched in with his own money or "put the arm" on other donors for the rent.

In addition, as the center became better known in the recovery community, more and more traffic arrived on Broadway in Derry, and that began to annoy some people in the nearby business area. Motorcycles would show up in the summer. The Town Council often heard concerns of the business community. Friction ensued.

Arthur died in 2000 and the torch of his dedication was passed to others dedicated to keeping a resource that provided as many as 12 meetings a week, with an average of 10 to 15 people per group, and sometimes upwards of 40.

Finding a new location to satisfy both the volume and concerns of the business and local government became a major goal for the Friendship Center. The Center embarked on fundraising that eventually brought the possibility of a new home off Broadway with more parking and a larger building.

Part of the difficulty gaining support during those early years came from the still prevalent feeling that alcoholism and drug addiction were moral failings that people should be able to overcome, and politically supporting any initiatives related to drug use or alcoholism would show a softness on crime.

But as attitudes have begun to change about alcoholism and drug addition, so too did the fate of the fundraisers.

Money came in, and the new club building at 6 Railroad Ave. in Derry presented itself as that opportunity.

Ironically, the new building, had in the past been a club and a popular place for those enjoying drinks.

The new owners of the property expressed a willingness to negotiate a favorable price to allow the Friendship Center to buy the building.

Much remodeling, community involvement and more fundraising followed. Now the Derry Friendship Center hosts 20 meetings a week for those exploring solutions to the scourge of addiction. 

One man's dream and action followed by many committed caretakers has brought Arthur's singular act of thoughtfulness and kindness to its new level of effectiveness.

The actual bar remains intact, a wonderful witness to the phrase "mixed use."

Belly up to the bar, have a coffee and let's celebrate 40 years.

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