Patrolman Johnny Wright saw a need, filled it; 50 years later, Forgotten Child Fund keeps the promise

Patrolman Johnny Wright saw a need, filled it; 50 years later, Forgotten Child Fund keeps the promise

December 21st, 2013 by Yolanda Putman in Local Regional News

Capt. Kelly Simmons, president of the Forgotten Child Fund, sorts toys for the group at its headquarters on Friday in Chattanooga.

Photo by Maura Friedman/Times Free Press.

HOW TO GIVE

Gifts to the Forgotten Child Fund of Chattanooga are tax deductible. Donations are always needed.

By check: Mail to: FCF, 3000 Alton Park Blvd., Chattanooga, TN 37410

Online: Go to www.forgottenchildfund.org/

Chattanooga Police Patrolman Johnny Wright didn't have to look for the address when he answered a "drunk and disorderly" call on Flynn Street, an alley off M.L. King Boulevard. The yelling was so loud he knew exactly where to go.

Before he could knock on the front door, two small children ran out, crying. Wright's partner, Officer E.F. Vandergriff, went inside and started talking with the adults. Wright focused on calming the kids.

Wright asked the youngsters what they got for Christmas. One lifted an apple. The other showed him an orange.

"It was pitiful," said Wright. "These kids didn't have anything but two drunk parents that we almost had to put in jail."

It was Sunday, Christmas morning, 1961.

Wright and his partner warned the parents about their behavior and Wright promised the kids that Santa Claus would come to their house.

To make good on his promise, Wright contacted a friend who managed a Sears department store. Even though the store was closed for the holiday, the children got their toys. The children and their parents all were pleased, said Wright.

That was the beginning of a charitable nonprofit, the Forgotten Child Fund, that has lasted a half-century and served countless thousands of kids. Wright worked with other Chattanooga police officers to eventually get a charter in 1963. Today, the fund is in its 50th year and 49th Christmas.

"Naturally, you wouldn't think something like this would go for this long, but when God is behind it, it can't fail," Wright said in an interview.

The Forgotten Child Fund is providing help for more than 6,000 children this Christmas.

Forgotten Child Fund President Kelly Simmons said his goal isn't just to give gifts, but to make a difference in children's lives. The organization is staffed by volunteer law enforcement offers, firemen, school patrol officers and emergency medical service workers.

"We're out there in the general public and see the struggle that people are going through and we try to make their life a little easier," said Simmons, a 22 year-veteran of the Chattanooga Fire Department.

Only Wright, 82, and one other original member of the Forgotten Child Fund board are still living. He is retired from the Chattanooga Police Department. The other original member, Jeanette Wilkerson, is ill and could not be reached for comment.

After noticing the Flynn Street children, Wright kept seeing kids in need. By the end of 1962 he had promised Santa's arrival to more than a dozen local children, yet didn't have even five dollars in his wallet.

He stopped at television station WRCB Channel 3 to ask for help. He talked with the anchorman, the late Roy Morris. The staff said they would support him on anything that he decided. Other media outlets also started assisting in collecting donations for needy children, said Wright.

By the time the season was over, Wright again had what he needed to make good on his promise. The first financial donation of $85 to buy toys came in 1962 from his wife's Highland Park Church Sunday school class.

Today, the Forgotten Child Fund has a warehouse off Holtzclaw and Main streets that is filled with toys for needy children. Yet donations are always needed.

People give about $60,000 a year, but that buys only about 25 percent of the toys, said board member Clay Ingle. Most toys are donated. This year Ingle estimated that each child got five or six toys. Some 6,000 to 7,000 children a year are helped by the fund.

Ten children, the ones deemed the neediest, will get a spectacular Christmas and be visited by the Santa Train, a parade of law enforcement vehicles, firetrucks and emergency vehicles with sirens blaring and a waving Santa Claus riding in a limo. Police, firefighters and EMS workers wear their uniforms and sing Christmas carols while carrying gifts into the children's homes.

Seeing the children's faces brings instant gratification, said Ingle.

Lytona Blue's family wasn't chosen among the 10 neediest, but she was among thousands of people who came to the Forgotten Child Fund warehouse this year to pick up gifts.

The 56-year-old grandmother has no job and her food stamps got cut. But she's grateful to the Forgotten Child Fund because her three grandchildren will have toys for Christmas.

"It makes my children happy," said Blue.

That's what the giving has been about since Johnny Wright made a promise to two kids on Flynn Street way back in 1961.

"Our goal is we just don't want any child forgotten at Christmas," said Ingle.

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfreepress.com.