Fifth Fridays fund dreams

Photo by Avan Clark

Photo by Avan Clark

ALBANY -- Dr. Phillip Hajek probably should have been a veterinarian. He started training for the profession but was talked out of it by a mentor who told him he was "too smart not to be working on people."

"Go be a doctor; you can get a bunch of dogs," Hajek was told.

Hajek took his mentor's advice, completed studies at Auburn University and medical school at Texas A&M, and became an orthopedist. He settled into the profession, but nine years in found himself dragging out of bed to go to work every morning.

So Hajek quit. He worked on his farm, spent a month giving up smokeless tobacco and did a little self-evaluation. His found beagle Queenie was a constant companion during that time.

"She was the only 'person' who looked at me the same," Hajek said. "She was happy to see me, so we spent a lot of time together every day at the farm."

During his time of self-imposed exile, living essentially on a line of credit with income at $0, Hajek was approached about helping out the struggling Albany Humane Society.

"I didn't have any money coming in, but I wrote them a check anyway," he said. "It's something I felt like I needed to do."

Hajek got a call a few days later and was told that he'd won a $1,000 raffle. A light went on.

"That's when it hit me: You really do receive more when you give more," Hajek said. "I realized I needed to do something."

Flash forward a few months. Hajek, realizing that his dissatisfaction with his profession had to do with the profession becoming a "screening practice for surgery," decided to become more involved in patient pain management. He opened what would become Musculoskeletal Associates at 2311 Lake Park Drive in Albany and discovered a new passion for his medical calling.

Shortly after kick-starting his professional life, Hajek decided to address another vision that had come to him during his period of reflection.

"My ultimate goal was to develop a non-euthanasia animal adoption facility that we could run," Hajek said. "The idea that I came up with to fund the facility was to take all the money that we make in our office on every fifth Friday and create a fund. We'd use that money to help the Humane Society and other charitable organizations, but we'd put some of it away for the adoption center."

So, in August of 2002, to absolutely no fanfare, the Fifth Friday Foundation was born. And while the nonprofit's charitable efforts have been one of the area's best-kept secrets, it certainly has played a dynamic role in helping some of Southwest Georgia's most deserving charities.

"I am so happy that you're telling people about Dr. Hajek's Fifth Friday Foundation," Karen Kemp, the executive director of the Lily Pad SANE Center, said. "A short time ago I had never even heard of the foundation, but a representative of the Community Foundation (of Southwest Georgia) -- their administrative arm -- showed up at our door with a significant check at a significant time for us. They literally came out of nowhere."

Donna Strickland, the executive director of the Albany Humane Society, is equally as effusive in her praise of Hajek and his foundation.

"The foundation has been such a wonderful supporter of the Humane Society, and Dr. Hajek is just one of those incredible people who gives from his heart," Strickland said. "Since he started Fifth Friday back in 2002, the foundation has given us right at $40,000, and that's not counting all the other stuff he does for us that would be thousands more."

Lee County became the latest recipient of the Fifth Friday Foundation's largesse when Hajek, who read a newspaper account of ongoing efforts to complete an animal shelter in the county, told officials he would finance and even help oversee the completion of that on-again, off-again project, whose pricetag will easily surpass $60,000.

"What Dr. Hajek is doing is just awesome," interim Lee Public Works Director Mike Sistrunk said. "He met with us the other day, told us what he wanted to do, and since then they've just been rockin' and rollin'. He's told us he's committed to doing whatever it takes to get this project done, and there's just no way -- with the economy as it is -- that we'd have been able to move on this project as quickly without his contributions."

Hajek grew up in Auburn, Ala., and finished school on The Plains before heading to med school at Texas A&M. Before he received his degree, though, he had to be convinced not to stay in veterinary medicine.

"What my mentor did was he had me out worming cows in 105-degree heat," Hajek laughs. "That definitely had a lot to do with my decision to go to medical school."

Hajek had stopped in Albany only once before in his life -- to get something to drink -- but when he was interviewing for jobs, he had an opportunity to come here and hunt.

"I looked where it sat -- out of the way but convenient to Auburn, convenient to the beach, convenient to Atlanta -- and at all the great hunting and fishing land, and I was hooked," Hajek said.

He took a position with Orthopedic Associates and worked there for nine years before starting Musculoskeletal Associates and concentrating his talents on patient pain management.

With the development of the Fifth Friday Foundation, which Hajek oversees with the help of MSA Practice Administrator Natalie Dixon, local organizations have received needed funding collected over 32 of the foundation's namesake days.

Fifty percent of the funds collected go to organizations suggested by Musculoskeletal patients and other interested parties, while 25 percent goes to the Humane Society and Shoes That Fit. The other 25 percent is put away to eventually finance the non-euthanasia shelter.

The Fifth Friday Foundation is under the umbrella of the Thomasville-based Community Foundation, which distributes funds to selected organizations.

"We wanted to make sure people had no question about the legitimacy of the foundation," Hajek said. "We actually keep ourselves at arm's length from the money; we do not benefit from it in any way.

"People who make donations -- which are fully tax deductible -- get an actual letter from the Community Foundation explaining where the money goes and how it is used."

Other organizations that have benefited from the Fifth Friday Foundation include Easter Seals, Southwest Georgia Therapeutic Riding Center, Wounded Warrior Project, The Lord's Pantry, GraceWay, Children's Organ Transplant Association, Chehaw Council Boy Scouts of America, Joanna McAfee Childhood Cancer Foundation, Liberty House, Shriner's Hospital and First Baptist Church of Acree.

"People have heard that we contribute to the Humane Society because Dr. Hajek connects so well with animal lovers," Dixon said. "But 50 percent of our funds go to other worthwhile organizations. We gave the Lily Pad their largest single donation ever, and we're making a significant contribution to the Lee County animal shelter."

Now that word is out about the Fifth Friday Foundation, Hajek says he'd like to see more businesses get on board.

"The economy's bad, and everyone can't give up all their proceeds (on fifth Fridays)," he said. "But if they make some type of regular contribution on those days, we could help so many more people. We've gotten one more business that's ready to join us, and I hope to make a presentation to others soon.

"Certainly it's great for nonprofit organizations in the community, but I think it helps businesses, too. When I talk to my patients who are animal lovers and we connect through that bond, it's not hard for me to make the jump that my business has been helped by creating the foundation."

Strickland wouldn't argue the point.

"I'm a patient of his, and I definitely tell folks about all he does for us at the Humane Society," she said. "I think a lot of people go to him because of the Fifth Friday Foundation."

It's support that's deserved, according to Kemp.

"Unfortunately, a lot of people today are looking for the federal government to fix their problems," the Lily Pad director said. "To have a local person asking 'What can I do?' and then doing it is just amazing."