Who Are The Soroptimists And What Are They Doing?

Soroptimists Together Against Trafficking | Image by www.silamesa.org

This is the seventh in a series of features exploring the world of service club organizations. They all have familiar names, but do you know what they really do? The name of each service club organization may evoke a particular memory from your past that describes what you think is their main activity in the community. This series will examine aspects of these groups that may not be as well-known to all of us but are very important to the people they serve. How did it all start? Again, the explanation is not so simple.

Who are the Soroptimists, how did they get started, and what does the name mean? Soroptimist comes from two latin words soror meaning sister and optima meaning best. They say it means “the best for women.” The first Soroptimist club was founded in 1921 in Oakland, California and their first president was Violet Richardson Ward. According to their first constitution the organization’s purpose was “To foster the spirit of service as the basis of all worthy enterprises and to increase the efficiency by its members in the pursuit of their occupations by broadening their interest in the social, business, and civic affairs of the community through an association of women representing different occupations.” Their first project was to “Save the Redwoods”- the great ancient trees that were being cut down. They lobbied the legislature, fought the lumber companies, and gained public support. As a result a major part of the Redwood forest was set aside as protected land and remains so today.

In Britain a club similar to Soroptimist was formed and their stated purpose was “To encourage high ethical standards in business and professions; to increase the efficiency of each member by the exchange of ideas and business methods; to stimulate the desire of each member to be of service to her fellows; and to quicken the interest of each member in the public welfare and to co-operate with others in civic, social, and industrial development.”  They say their first project was “befriending motherless girls and supporting their local Children’s Society to establish an open air hospital school.”

Both groups began proliferating in other cities, but neither knew the other existed. In 1924 the first Soroptimist Club in Europe was formed in Paris, France by Suzanne Noel who eventually became the European Federation’s first President. In 1928 American and European Federations were founded. The Soroptimist International Association was created to be a liaison between the two Federations. Many service projects were undertaken during the 1930’s    which included vocational training for women and children, housing for the disadvantaged, assistance for the sick and disadvantaged, concern for the local area, and caring for refugees.  The first Soroptimist club in Australia was started in 1937 in Sydney. A British Soroptimist commented in 1939 during WWII that they had to stick together during those difficult times and that when it was over they must be stronger than ever to see that their influence would be on the side of a “just and lasting peace.” Members worked to rescue the members and their families in Vienna who were threatened by the Nazi regime. The American Soroptimist Clubs  donated money and clothing to the effort. It seems that many of the European clubs had to work in secret locations to help provide clothing and other things to those in need. In New Zealand a club set up a refugee committee to help refugees fleeing Europe.

Soroptimist International Logo | sileedsliteraryprize.wordpress.com
Soroptimist International Logo | sileedsliteraryprize.wordpress.com

Some other events reported on the Soroptimist International (SI) website are as follows: in 1946 they held a reception for delegates to UN conferences that included Eleanor Roosevelt; in 1948 Soroptimist International was awarded Consultative status with UNESCO; in 1950 awarded Consultative status with ECOSOC (Economic and Social Council, United Nations); in 1952 the Foundation of International Governing Body of SI; in 1966 UNICEF granted Consultative status to SI for service projects with children; 1975 Soroptimists attend the First UN Conference on Women held in Mexico City, Mexico; in 1978 The first Quadrennial Project in the Maldives provided 14 medical boats to carry health workers, medical drugs, supplies and equipment to people in the remote Maldives atoll islands in the Indian Ocean, and trained more than 20 paramedics. 1978 saw the inauguration of the SI Southwest Pacific Federation. In 1982 they held the First President’s December 10 appeal where a project was chosen on the island of Pulau Bidogg, Malaysia to help refugee women and children. There is a more detailed account of the founding of this organization  called ” The History Of Soroptimist International” written by Janet Haywood in 1995. Contact [email protected]  for more detailed information.

The major SI America programs of today are: 1) Live Your Dream: Education and Training Awards for Women – This was called formerly The Women’s Opportunity Awards Program. “It assists women by giving them the resources they need to improve their education, skills and job prospects.” This is their major project. 2) Soroptimist Club Grants for Women and Girls -“Through this award-winning program, Soroptimists disburses cash grants for innovative Soroptimist club projects.” 3) Soroptimist Disaster Grants -“With these disaster grants, Soroptimist provides funds for programs that assist women and girls after man-made or natural disasters.” 4) Soroptimists STOP Trafficking – “This project raises awareness about the sexual trafficking of women and girls, and seeks to encourage citizens, law makers, and service providers to focus on this global problem.” 5) Soroptimist Workplace Campaign to End Domestic Violence – “Through this awareness campaign, Soroptimist addresses domestic violence as a workplace concern.”

Soroptimist International of Eugene was chartered by SI Klamath Falls in 1949 with between 35 and 40 charter members. They were all prominent Eugene women including Lucia Moore, a writer, Ruth Curtis, and Patricia Whittaker among others. Local members have gone on to higher offices in the organization including three who became Governors. My contact for the local information was Gale Smith, Immediate Past President of SI Eugene, who set up a meeting for me with her and a few other members to discuss their many projects.

Here are some of the local projects in which SI Eugene members are involved. “Reds Whites and Blooms,” their big fundraiser of the year, was held on May 17th this year at Sweet Cheeks Winery. Here’s how they describe it: “An evening of fabulous food, distinctive wines, and a silent auction that is geared to the beginning of our ‘Outdoor Season.'” The auction featured beautiful hanging baskets, shrubs, and garden related items, plus all things uniquely Oregon. All proceeds were to support their projects that enrich our community by empowering women and girls.

Book Sorting Soiree For Bothy Cottage | Photo by SI Eugene
Book Sorting Soiree For Bothy Cottage | Photo by SI Eugene

Over the past 22 years SI Eugene has returned $550,000 to the community and some of the past projects that benefitted are WomenSpace, Birth to Three/Parenting Now, Looking Glass Early Evaluation and Treatment Center, Child Care Inc., Eugene Mission Women’s Wing, Ophelia’s Place, and Willamette Family Inc. They made a $50,000 pledge through Sponsor’s Inc. providing funding for the kitchen in Bothy Cottage Women’s Home and funding for parenting classes. SI Eugene provided mentoring and life skill classes to women who are in transitional housing. Over $2,700 in books were donated to build a library for Bothy Cottage, plus non cash gifts of day planners, clothing and supplies.

Soroptimist Eugene Members at Bothy Cottage | Picture by SI Eugene
Soroptimist Eugene Members at Bothy Cottage | Picture by SI Eugene

The Soroptimist Walk To Live is an annual fundraiser held by the SI Clubs of Eugene, Emerald Empire, and Junction City. This year it is the 22nd annual walk to raise money for the Soroptimist Breast and Gynecological Cancer Assistance Fund which provides emergency grants to Lane County women who are having financial hardship while undergoing cancer treatment. To date the fund has raised $430,000 over the years. The funds are administered by The Willamette Valley Cancer Institute and Research Center and also help pay for everyday expenses that are often forgotten in the wake of trying to find a cure and/or research. Some of those expenses include utility bills, childcare, auto expenses, respite care, housecleaning, and more. In the non-cash advocacy category they have the “Soroptimist Stop Trafficking Program” working to educated the public about the problem and increase efforts to stop the trafficking of girls and women.

Let me know what you would like me to talk about or explain. You can comment below or email me at: [email protected].

Tim Chuey is a Member of the American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association and has been Awarded Seals of Approval for television weathercasting from both organizations.

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