Pottery Plus Auction Observes Anniversary
David Allen, M.D., recalls a time when fundraising wasn't all that critical to the work of hospice in Moore County.
Volunteers covered most of the jobs - only the head nurse was paid - and the daily census averaged only about 15 patients. In fact, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the fledgling period for what is now FirstHealth Hospice & Palliative Care, much of the organization's work involved communicating the hospice story to a community that frankly didn't know a lot about end-of-life and palliative care.
The only fundraiser of note was a golf tournament, an activity similar to those embraced by just about every nonprofit organization within driving distance of a green in the golfing Mecca called Pinehurst.
"We floated the boat with that tournament, plus memorials, for quite some time," says Allen, a medical oncologist who was then Hospice's medical director.
In the mid-1990s, the original Sandhills Hospice merged with FirstHealth of the Carolinas, and the need for hospice services mushroomed. At the same time, supporters had begun to regard the golf tournament as more onerous than generous and to consider other, hopefully more lucrative ventures for supporting the growing demand for hospice care.
"Fundraising had to do with the quality of care we wanted," Allen says. "We weren't willing to compromise the quality to balance the bottom line. Around 1990, we acknowledged we were going to need to raise some more dough."
Enter the Pottery Auction, later to become the Pottery Plus Auction, the event that on Saturday, Oct. 2, will note its 15th year as the primary fundraiser for the FirstHealth Hospice Foundation and the work of FirstHealth Hospice & Palliative Care.
The Pairing of Pottery and Hospice
In the early '90s, as Hospice Foundation supporters brainstormed fundraising alternatives to their golf tourney, they also took on the task of identifying a solid donor base. Much of that groundwork was laid by Allen and Ellen Willard, M.D., his new colleague in medical oncology and his eventual successor as hospice medical director.
The group's second task involved junking the golf tournament in favor of a venture that would be both fun party and viable funding source.
"Whoever was smart enough to take advantage of Seagrove needs a gold star," Allen says. "The idea (of a pottery auction) was uniquely different from all other FirstHealth ventures for fundraising, and the very difference made it attractive."
As Allen recalls, the FirstHealth Hospice Foundation's Pottery Auction was a "huge success" from the very beginning. Hospice supporter and Pottery Auction stalwart Martha Owen has the same pleasant memory.
"Even in its infancy, it was successful," she says.
Raising Friends While Raising Funds
Like many people who helped plan the first pottery auction, Owen wasn't very familiar with the work of hospice, but she quickly learned about it. As she learned, she - and others like her - became eager to spread the word about and encourage financial support for the organization that Allen describes as "the group that nobody dislikes."
"I didn't really know anything about hospice, but I got involved," Owen says. "It really is a wonderful program."
According to Owen, organizers of the new pottery auction event believed that a fundraiser featuring the artistic wares of Sandhills Pottery Country should have two objectives: to raise money and to raise awareness and draw supporters from the northern communities of Moore County.
The first event, held at the FirstHealth Hospice building on Pinehurst's Aviemore Drive, was almost as much "friend-raiser" as fundraiser, Owen recalls, and focused on the live auction of donated pottery from area potters. After a few years, as the event outgrew the Aviemore Drive venue, organizers decided to give it a "garden atmosphere" and moved it to the Covington House in Horse Country and then later to the larger house and grounds of the Weymouth Center in Southern Pines.
Donations from potters grew as Pottery Country awareness grew.
"We kept getting more pieces of pottery," Owen says.
As organizers continuously evaluated the process in an effort to keep their event fresh, the increasingly successful fundraiser was eventually moved to the Country Club of North Carolina, where it remains today.
"We were trying to take it to the next level," Owen says.
The Next Level and Beyond
The evolving pottery auction reached its current level of unqualified success after a series of changes and modifications. The first involved the move to CCNC, while the second centered on the way the pottery to be sold was collected.
Hospice Foundation board member David Kocher, the retired president of Aetna Life and Casualty Insurance, served on the committee that decided the event's continued success depended on the vested interest of participating potters. He personally encouraged this goal by donating money toward that end.
Kocher's five-year donation had just one stipulation - that its only use would be to buy pottery for pottery auction resale.
"We thought we could make this pottery auction a big deal by doing it at CCNC and just getting the potters involved," Kocher says. "We wanted it to become the social event of the fall, and so it's become."
Although few knew it, Kocher had a personal reason for wanting the pottery auction to be as successful as possible. Many years before, while uninsured and gravely ill, his father had taken his life rather than face the prospect of continued, and expensive, hospitalizations with no hope for recovery. An organization like hospice might have made a difference to him, Kocher feels.
"It was like an angel calling," he says. "I could see some divine intervention here. I saw it as a way to make a difference in someone's life. I really believe in this organization; it's not just something to pass the time."
The Chairman's Choice
As the money from Kocher's donation allowed pottery auction volunteers to buy pottery for their fundraiser, area potters experienced a renewed interest in the event, often donating pieces of their work to accompany those that had been purchased. Sometimes the pieces were coordinating, Owen recalls; sometimes they were very different.
"Due to Mr. Kocher's generosity, the artistic quality of the pieces increased significantly along with the quality of the pottery," she says.
So did the designation of the Chairman's Choice, a specific piece of pottery chosen by the planning committee to promote the auction and highlight the work of area potters. The first potters to receive the honor, in 2003, were Vernon and Pam Owens of Jugtown.
In succeeding years, the designation has gone to Benjamin Burns, of Great White Oak Pottery; Ben Owen III; Fred Johnston, of Johnston & Gentithes Gallery; David Stuempfle; Daniel Johnson; Will McCanless; and, this year, Mo McKenzie and Sally Larsen, of Fireshadow Pottery.
"It does give the potters exposure," Owen says.
About the time the event moved to CCNC, the tried-and-true event achieved yet another level of success when it was rechristened as the Pottery Plus Auction. Jewelry, exotic vacation getaways, special parties and various other items were added to the list of auction offerings, complementing the traditional pottery theme and once again reviving a fundraiser that is never allowed to grow stale.
"It's always been a lot of fun," says Owen, "a lot of work, but a lot of fun, too."
Brenda Bouser works for the corporate communications office of FirstHealth of the Carolinas.
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