He is credited with creating the chicken sandwich and his company is known for the wildly popular “Eat Mor Chikin” ad campaign. When Truett Cathy, 89, isn’t busy with his duties helming the Chick-fil-A fast food chain empire he founded, he’s busy serving as “grandpa” to hundreds of needy children. Since 1987 his WinShape Homes have served more than 300 kids in three states. The Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges has presented him with the Martha Glaze Service Award for his efforts. JJIE’s Chandra Thomas sat down with Cathy (who donned a burgundy tie plastered with his signature Chik-fil-A cows) to discuss the honor named for a retired Clayton County judge and his lifelong commitment to serving children.
What initially inspired your work with children?
About 30 years ago, all three of my children were in college at one time and that left a huge void in my life. I had always been around children. I have been teaching Sunday school for 52 years. I had someone bring a boy to me. His parents had gotten divorced and we realized that this boy was brilliant and a quality individual. Within a few years he moved in with us and my kids adopted him like a brother. He’s a Harvard MBA now and has a key position with Chick-Fil-A. He’s married now with three beautiful children. That made me realize that there are a lot of children out there who are in need through no fault of their own. They’re just victims of circumstances. That’s how we started the WinShape Homes. We’re licensed as a group home. Now we have 11 of them in total (eight in Georgia, two in Tennessee and one in Alabama). We keep siblings together and have 10 to 12 children in each home. We don’t work with kids with severe behavioral problems. We’ve had about 50 of our foster kids graduate from college. We give them a place to stay, feed them, clothe them, send them to private school, give them scholarships to college and buy them a car when they turn 18.
Most kids “age out” of the foster care system when they turn 18. What happens with WinShape Homes children?
When they turn 18 they have the option of whether they want to stay or not. Most of our kids stay through college or technical school until they can live on their own. We provide them with everything they need -- but natural parents. They all call me grandpa. I tell them that you don’t have to call me grandpa but those who do, get more! [Laughter.] We match every dollar for every dollar they earn working and put it toward the purchase of a car when they turn 18. One boy ended up saving $15,000 so we matched his money, which gave him $30,000 to purchase a car! [For the record, he didn't use all of the money for the car.]
I know you hire “house parents” to operate your homes. What role do you play with the kids?
We provide these kids with love. I used to rock the little ones to sleep at night and put them to bed. A lot of them would come back from college and ask me if I could still rock them to sleep. [Laughter.] Back when we started this we had 88 kids from DFACS (Department of Children and Family Services), now we just have two. Now we take only private placements from families in need. We help a lot of grandparents who are having to raise their grandchildren and can't do it any longer because of their health or financial problems. We give [the kids] two weeks at camp every year and two weeks at my vacation home in New Smyrna Beach. A lot of the kids have never seen the ocean before. I had one little girl come up to me and point [toward the ocean] and say grandpa, what’s over that hill over there? Next year we’re going to have 26 kids in college. This year we have 14. A lot of our kids go to Belmont, Samford and Auburn (universities). If they make the grades, we put them through school. Some of our kids have come back as house parents. They tell us that they want to give back what was given to them.
Why is working with disadvantaged kids so important to you?
A lot of the rewards that you get back, you can’t buy with dollars and cents. You see them grow up and it’s very rewarding. There are also disappointments when you see kids getting mixed up with the wrong crowd. Some have gone astray and they come back to me and say grandpa, give me one more chance and I do. A lot of them come to us so anxious to make decisions and they don’t want anyone telling them what to do. I tell them to be patient; eventually you’ll be able to make the biggest decisions of your life. You’ll get to decide your life’s work and who your mate’s going to be. Some kids make bad choices, but I believe you can do anything you want to if you want to. You will reap the rewards later in life. We like to work with kids who want to he helped. We don’t work with kids with major behavioral problems. I can’t help them if they don’t want to help themselves. My time is better spent with those who do.
Some people feel that a person has to make a choice between being professionally successful and helping others. How do you manage to do both?
One time I was speaking to a group of kids. I asked them all what they wanted to be when they grow up. Some of them said teacher, doctor, fireman or nurse. Then one kid said he wanted to be a zookeeper and every kid after that said they wanted to be a zookeeper too. I said to them, that I wish I had a job where I could get paid to play with animals. [Laughter.] When I got to this one little six-year-old boy, he said “when I grow up I want to be just like you.” I picked him up and held him in my arms and I told him that was the highest honor I had ever received. That made me realize that I have to be careful of the things I say and how I live my life. Now he works for Chick-fil-A. A few weeks ago, I attended his wedding.
How have you managed to integrate a culture of giving into your company?
We give scholarships to the kids who work for us at Chick-fil-A. If they work 20 hours a week for two years, we give them $1,000 scholarships for school. So far we’ve given out 26,000 of those at a total of $26 million. Two-thirds of our (franchise) operators grew up in Chick-fil-A. We also work with another program called All-Pro Dad’s Day, where we encourage dads to take their kids out to eat once a month. We believe that children need to have a strong relationship with their father.
Are they encouraged to go out to eat at Chick-fil-A or any restaurant?
Preferably Chick-fil-A, but they can go to McDonald’s on Sundays because we’re closed. [Laughter] Nowadays parents work all day and they’re not spending enough time with their children. Time is in the best need of a family. Parents need to love their children, but give them time too. Some times parents try to spend time with their kids and [the kids] don’t have much to say. If they keep spending time with eventually [the children] will start talking about what they want to talk about. It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality time. Take them out to eat once a month.
What do you think is the root of these problems that you describe?
I got this [flier] that says 85 percent of children that go through juvenile court come from fatherless homes; 90 percent of all homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes; and 85 percent of youth sitting in prisons grew up in fatherless homes. I don’t know where they got those numbers from, but I do believe a father has a major impact on a child’s life. Nowadays they can’t have prayer in (public) schools; they took that out. They took the 10 Commandments out of the courthouse. Back when I was in third grade we were required to read a Bible verse every morning. Mine was Proverbs 22:1, “a good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.” One time a little boy was brought to my office and the woman said to him, tell him your favorite Bible verse. He stood at attention and said “a good name is rather to be chosen than A LOT OF MONEY!” [Laughter.]
Finally, how does it feel to be honored by the Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges for your life’s work helping children?
As long as I don’t have to buy it; I’ll accept it. A lot of people come to you wanting to name things after you, but you have to give them some money to do it. If I don’t have to spend money, I’ll accept it. If somebody wants to honor me with no strings attached, that’s fine with me. I’ll accept any award given to me whether I deserve it or not!
Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at email@example.com. Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Fox 5 News in Atlanta and Atlanta, People and Essence magazines.