Friendship Center day program serves adults in the margins

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

On a warm early spring day, Elaine Lyons was sizing up tiny sprouts of basil growing inside a hobby greenhouse in an East Atlanta neighborhood.

She is at the Friendship Center, a free day program for adults with severe mental illness. Working with the organic plants grown here year-round gives her peace. It’s an urban oasis with beehives, raised garden beds, blueberry bushes and a strawberry patch fighting to survive against the weeds.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

“We are a big happy family here,” said Lyons, who participates in the program and is also employed here.

“I love working in the greenhouse,” she said. “It teaches me how to be stable and confident. I can take these seeds and see them grow into something big. It’s very spiritual. You never know what you’ll get.”

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Similar growth can be seen in the adult participants, who range in age from mid-30s to their 70s. Funded through donations and grants, the center operates Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in the Ormewood Park neighborhood.

The church started the center in 1997 when many similar publicly funded day programs were shutting down. Its mission has always been to promote the mental, physical, and spiritual well-being of those marginalized by poverty and chronic mental illness and disability.

Now a separate nonprofit, the center still operates with the same foundational wellness and recovery programs of gardening, art therapy, and skills development. In addition, they provide transportation, serve breakfast and lunch and promote recreation and socializing, all wrapped around a family atmosphere.

For the 50 to 60 regular participants, “this is their place, their home,” said Executive Director Tameka Baker, noting that some have been attending the center since it opened.

“We say we’re a unicorn,” Baker said. “There are a couple of other places that have similar programs, but nothing quite like this.”

It’s an inclusive environment. The nine part-time staffers, including Baker, and 40 regular volunteers, work alongside the participants. Whether painting, creating mosaics, or gardening, everyone learns together.

They also look out for each other. About 85% of participants live in personal care homes without family support or resources. Food insecurity is common. To ensure someone is monitoring their health, Georgia State University nursing students take blood pressure and other vitals on both days.

“You have the mental illness on top of extreme poverty and sometimes homelessness. So it’s all those things coming together that create a crisis,” Baker said.

The center’s most popular program is Recovery through the Arts, which allows participants to express themselves through drawing and painting, beading and mosaics, woodworking or textiles.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

On a recent Tuesday, long-time participant Kathy Estes was beading a bracelet. She usually creates mosaics, which she sells, but likes to do most of the arts and crafts.

She might get help from art director Charlotte Cameron or long-time volunteer Barbara Jamison. There’s a woodworking studio with lathes and other wood carving tools and a weaving area where textile artists teach those who want to use the looms. Participants create fabric and make pillows and scarves, among other items.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

“If there’s something they want to do, we help them figure it out,” Cameron said. “Then they can take it home, give it away or sell it.”

Art is showcased at exhibits and festivals, even at local businesses. The artist receives 75% of the purchase price, with 25% returning to the program to offset costs.

“The art offers a way of recovery but also allows them to make a little money,” Baker said.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Another way participants can earn money is through the center’s Seedtime and Harvest organic gardening supportive employment program. The center hires eight to 10 participants to work at the greenhouse with the raised beds and to handle other gardening chores. They operate as a team, supporting one another in their work and other areas of life.

Gardening director May C Brown works right beside them.

“It’s a really level playing field,” she said. “Everybody here plants the seeds and waters the plants.”

The center hosts six plant sales annually, setting out the goods on long tables in the driveway as a walk-up event for neighbors. During the summer, vegetables go home with participants, who don’t often get fresh produce. And on Sundays, baskets of harvested goods are available to anyone who wants them.

Baker wants to expand operations so that more people can participate and come more days in the week. Growing into a five-day program would mean increased staffing, volunteers, and the funds to keep it going.

Early in the pandemic, the center was closed for 15 months, but Baker and the staff kept the programs alive. They delivered a week’s worth of meals at a time and art kits to keep participants engaged. Now that everyone’s back, Baker wants to resume field trips and other community activities such as hiking, bowling or the movies.

“We want to give them experiences they can’t get on their own,” she said. “Going to a movie is a luxury; it’s just not something that would ever be a part of their lives.”

Baker has been with The Friendship Center for seven years, starting as an intern when she was in seminary at the Mercer University McAfee School of Theology.

She had never heard of the center before, but now it’s become part of her family. Participants always ask about her three kids and when they will visit next. Her husband was at the last plant sale. They’ve taken up gardening and art as a family, learning new skills taught at the center.

“It’s not a thing we do; it’s a part of us,” Baker said.

“I love what I do,” she added. “It’s purposeful. I feel like whatever I do has to have a purpose, and this fits that perfectly.”


Seedtime and Harvest will have a plant and garden sale at the center on April 15, from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., 737 Woodland Ave. SE, Atlanta.

Volunteers and donations are needed. Get more information at: