From the White Collar Rat Race to Blue Collar Service

By Maggie Fox

Gary Friend is concentrating hard as he shaves a small piece of wood to fit into the foot of a wrought metal chair.

“It just came in with this sign on it that says ‘broken chair,” says Friend, before he dashes over to the nearby housewares section to scavenge a broken bowl to mix glue in. It’s up to Friend to determine whether it’s even worthwhile to try to save the chair and, if so, how to repair it.

He deftly fits the wood, glues it into place, and replaces the bottom of the chair’s foot to fix a bad wobble. Two days later, the chair is on the showroom floor at A Wider Circle’s showroom and warehouse on Brookville Rd. in Silver Spring.

Friend has been a volunteer at A Wider Circle’s Ann & Don Brown Center for Community Service for just about a year. He left one career in Washington’s high-powered corporate world for a more rewarding second life with non-profits and hasn’t looked back.

He calls it being “funemployed.”

The former corporate strategist who specialized in wrangling boardroom egos now reigns over A Wider Circle’s repair shop. “I signed up to be here three hours on Wednesday and Friday. That lasted about a week,” he says, laughing.

When he’s not organizing tools or fixing furniture, he’s acting handyman at the sprawling warehouse, fixing balky freight elevator doors, cleaning up messy wiring, or tackling a leaking sink. “Those are the fun projects,” Friend says. “For me, just give me anything that’s mentally challenging. And it’s great.”

It’s 180 degrees from what he spent his paid career doing, and that’s what Friend likes about it. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful place,” he says.

Friend’s last paid job was as Managing Director at Housing Partnership Equity Trust, a real estate

investment trust (REIT) focused on the preservation of affordable multifamily housing. Before that, he was COO of a growing DC public charter school, a detour from his 30 years in officer-level roles at large, publicly traded corporations.

“I knew Washington was awash in nonprofits,” he said, having spent eight years as a volunteer for Compass Pro Bono, leading small teams on board development projects for area non-profits. “There was great joy doing work where there were no knives at your back. Everybody was working collaboratively,” he says.

In 2022, he cast around for something else. He wanted to work with his hands.

He remembered having volunteered for a day at A Wider Circle as part of a day of service sponsored by his synagogue and had especially fond memories of the workshop. He called and asked if he could volunteer.

He was immediately accepted.

“The truth was, I just wanted to do things myself,” Friend says.

“It’s just so profoundly gratifying. Everyone I meet, I just feel so very, very happy. I am using my hands. I am working with people who are just giving back, paying it forward. I am just blessed that I don’t need the income.”

Friend bounces happily through the center, greeting fellow volunteers and staffers by name, checking to make sure equipment is working smoothly.

“I like moving. I hate being still,” he says.

Not a bad place to play at retirement.

Click here to learn more about our volunteer program.

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