The Friendly Inn is one of the city’s first settlement houses. Serving the Central community for 149 years today, it stands as the longest continuously serving settlement house in the United States. Among the many services the Friendly Inn offers, the weekly community dinner  is one of the most popular.

Cynthia Thomas, 62, a six-year resident of Central, is one of the volunteers who helps serve the meals at the Friendly Inn. Her upbeat, attentive attitude is on display as she darts from table to table, making sure all who want to eat are fed and that cups stay full of Kool-Aid or water.

On a recent afternoon, walking tacos and tossed salad are on the menu, with ice cream sandwiches for dessert. She greets everyone who walks in with a smile–she flashes that same smile as she talks about the residents she serves.  “I don’t have any immediate family down here in the neighborhood, but I consider everybody that lives down here with me my family.”

She finds herself in the Central neighborhood by chance. She is a veteran of the Air Force; once her service ended, she had to make a major life change. “I was living in a domestic violence situation. I chose to go into a shelter that housed vets for six months,” Thomas said. “I was coming up on a year there, and my vet rep told me that I needed to start applying for more permanent housing.”

Destiny paves the way

Thomas never looked in the Central neighborhood. It wasn’t on her radar. Her vet rep put in an application for her at an apartment not far from Friendly Inn.

She received a call inviting her to come finalize the deal. Thomas told Signal Cleveland she has no plans to go anywhere anytime soon. “I loved it here from day one. Every day, every week …it’s just beautiful. I’ve already decided I’m going to die here. I don’t plan on going anywhere else, that’s how much I love it here.”

She began volunteering at the Friendly Inn within weeks of moving to Central. She got involved with a local community organization, Project Save , which provides the volunteers for the hot meal distribution. “I took a four-week class with Project Save that prepared me to be a volunteer, and once I graduated from that, I began serving. I’ve been doing this since 2018.”

Residents sit down for dinner at tables decorated with colorful table clothes.
Cynthia Thomas helps serve the weekly community meal at the Friendly Inn. The Signal Cleveland listening team has a resource table at that Central neighborhood event. Credit: Najee Hall / Signal Cleveland

When Signal Cleveland asked her what inspires her to do this work, she cites her military service and love of community as her motivating forces.

“My son is a recruiter for the national guard, my husband was in the army, my uncle was in the army. I’ve been surrounded by service all my life,” she said “I just try to be nice and help others when I can.”

Following the three P’s

Through times of uncertainty and tribulation, Cynthia encourages the Central neighborhood by sharing what she believes are the keys to a happy life. “I try to build a rapport with the people I come across, but I always stress the three P’s: peace of mind, protection from evil, and paradise in the next life. If we can just strive for those three things, I guarantee your life will be much better,” Thomas said.

 “Anytime I step outside this house, that’s what I’m striving for. I am 62 years old, I am not pressed for money at this point in my life.” She does hope to hit the Powerball, however, as her entire family plays.

 “My brother just asked me today if we were still on for the Powerball tonight. He buys our entire family Powerball tickets. We didn’t have any winning numbers, though.”

“If I did hit the number, I would love to take my entire family to Jamaica. I would also go door to door and stick money in everyone’s mailbox. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? I wouldn’t want them to know it was me, though, or I would have to be watching my front, my back, and my side!” she told Signal Cleveland with a laugh.

If you or anyone you know is dealing with domestic violence, help is available.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
With assistance offered in English, Spanish and other languages.

The ADAMHS Board of Cuyahoga county also provides a 24/7 Domestic Violence and Family Helpline

Community Reporter (he/him)
Najee has been a Cleveland Documenter since it started in 2020. He joins Signal Cleveland from a role as an organizer with New Voices for Reproductive Justice. He leads the Central Community Listening Team.