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Meet the Soroptimists

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coverMeet a group of women who are doing wonderful things to transform the lives of women and girls everywhere – posing as bobby-soxers, modeling outrageous fashions, and all.
By Pam Euston
If you’re a Soroptimist, no cause is too minor, no piece of clothing too humble, so as to not bring out the creative, the daring, the bobby soxer, or the rummage fashionista, in each member.

During this year’s Lighthouse Point Keeper Day’s Parade, for example, held Feb. 6, members dressed as “bobby soxers” for a float designed and constructed by the Exchange Club to resemble a retro diner. The costumes for the all-woman club consisted of white shirts and pink scarves, hamburger tray in tow, to resemble those iconic images of the female waitresses from the bygone era.
In January, the club held a rummage sale at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church on Sample Road, with money raised going to “Dream It, Be It:  Career Support for Girls,” which provides scholarships for women who have returned to college and targets girls in secondary school who face obstacles to their future success.During the rummage sale, featuring the Sweet Repeat Boutique, several members created an outfit to model at the club’s “Lighthouse Point Wannabe Top Models” party held at a member’s home.  “We started this about two years ago and have seen some extremely outlandish and totally tasteless ensembles hit the runway,” says Soroptimist President Michelle Hays.  “The winner is selected by our panel of judges and is crowned with an equally garish and tacky crown complete with a scepter.” Among the one-of-a-kind items donated this year was a Madonna-style sequined brassiere shirt. Last year, Hays recalls, one member modeled a wetsuit accessorized with Jimmy Choo shoes.

It’s all in fun – and for good causes. Globally, Soroptimist is a volunteer movement that works to transform the lives of women and girls. The Pompano Beach club members are among 80,000 club members in 132 countries and territories who work at a local, national and international level to educate, empower and enable opportunities for women and girls.

“Our projects take place all over the world and focus on issues such as violence against women, safe sanitation, displacement, education, leadership … anything that affects the lives of women and girls,” says Hays.
The name Soroptimist was coined from the Latin soror, meaning sister, and optima, meaning best.  Soroptimist is perhaps best interpreted as “the best for women.”  From the founding of the first Soroptimist club in Oakland, Calif., in 1921, through to the present day where more than 3,000 clubs are flourishing throughout the world, Soroptimists have continued to strive to achieve “the best for women” in every sphere of their lives.Human rights for all, global peace and international goodwill, advancing women’s potential, integrity and democratic decision making, volunteering, diversity and friendship, are among the group’s goals.

Local inspiration

The Pompano Beach club was founded in 1981 when 18 women came together to start Soroptimist International of Pompano Beach.  Spearheading the group was Judi Gilbert, founding president and owner of Executive Type and Press, who had been approached by a member of the Fort Lauderdale club to start the group.  Because Rotary, Kiwanis, and the Exchange Club were exclusive to men in 1981, Rotary International suggested starting a Soroptimist club to provide an avenue for the emerging population of women business owners and executives.  The structure of Soroptimist was mirrored after that of Rotary.

The group met at the now-gone Howard Johnson’s on the corner of Atlantic Boulevard and Federal Highway for breakfast once a week.  Within a few years their meetings took place at various locations.  “Many of the women were already community leaders and were involved in service on behalf of their respective careers,” Hays recalls.  “Soroptimist brought that incredible energy into focus with support from the fellowship that defines Soroptimist.”

The group’s first fundraisers were Spaghetti Westerns held at the old Elks Club on Federal Highway.  Woodhouse of Pompano Beach was the main recipient of the funds raised through these events.  For several years the group held Casino Night at Cap’s Place on the Intracoastal Waterway, an appropriate venue, since Cap operated a gambling joint during Prohibition in the 1920s.

The club began taking part in the Pompano Beach Seafood Festival by serving rum drinks, first at Fish City, and later within the main arena at the event.  The club also held a “Drink Off” contest with 13 entries, to determine the “Club Drink” to sell.  “Several ‘judges’ had to be driven home that night,” Hays jokes.

Fellowship was a big focus for the Pompano Beach club in the early years, and it continues to this day.  Club members entered the Elks Club Chili Cook-Off four times and were the chili champions three of those four years. Other activities include planting trees on Pompano Beach and along Federal Highway and a “Taste of Soroptimist” event at a member’s home, in which each member brings a favorite dish to share, along with the recipe.

“At our annual ‘retreat’ in June we meet at a local hotel for a Friday night dinner, where the new officers take over and on Saturday morning, meet to plan the upcoming year.  Back then, the retreats were held out of town and this was the highlight of the year,” Hays recalls.  The first five presidents were:  Judi Gilbert, Linda Lundstrom Walker, Gail Nelson, Kay Kami and Jodi Hall, who served as president twice.

Officers for 2015-2016 are President Michelle Hays, Vice President Natoshia Melvin, Recording Secretary Becky Lysengen, Corresponding Secretary Linda Jean Long and Treasurer Teri Kovacs.

Many Causes
Hand in hand with the fun are the good causes the women’s efforts support. “We are involved in many local events that raise money for a variety of causes and are continuing this fellowship 35 years later.    Each year we participate in ‘Relay for Life’ which raises money to fight breast cancer.   This is a cause near and dear to us since several members are breast cancer survivors and sadly, several members lost their battle with the disease,” says Hays.

During the Pompano Beach Seafood Festival each April, the group sponsors a booth that sells rum runners, with tip money supporting several charities for children. “We serve the best rum runners at the festival so come see for your self in just a few months,” Hays says.
Other causes include “Live the Dream” and Violet Richardson awards to area recipients in March or April at a reception held at Galuppi’s attended by winners and their family members.  The Violet Richardson awards consist of two $500 cash awards given to high school students between the ages of 14 and 17.  They recognize young women who through their volunteer efforts make the community a better place.“It is truly inspiring to see these wonderful ideas from such young women,” Hays says. Applications are available on line at the Soroptimist International website.  The deadline for applications is Dec. 1 of the calendar year.

The “Live Your Dream” awards consist of three $1,500 scholarships to women who have the primary financial responsibility for supporting themselves and their families.  They attend, or have been accepted, to an undergraduate degree or vocational skills program and are in financial need and are highly motivated to achieve their educational and career goals.  The application process is similar to the Violet Richardson Awards.  In addition to these local awards, one of the “Live Your Dream” winners is selected to participate in Soroptimist regional and national competitions which can result in additional monetary awards.

“We also support Stepping Stones, which is a part of House of Hope and provides services to adults having substance abuse disorders, as well as those who suffer from a co-occurring disorder, regardless of age, race, religion, national origin, disability, gender, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status,” notes Hays.  “No one is denied services based solely on a lack of funds.”

A residential treatment center for women, Stepping Stones has grown from an original population of eight to a capacity of 42 women.  Services include group and individual therapy, psychiatric services, psychological services, medical services, medication, HIV/Hepatitis C screening and 12-step meetings.

The Fort Lauderdale Independence Training and Education (FLITE) Center is another non-profit supported by the Pompano chapter.  In April 2001, the Broward Child Welfare Initiative, a group of hundreds of business leaders, educators, government leaders, social service providers and private citizens, committed to helping reform the foster care system and came together at the state of Florida’s request to meet the challenge of building a better system.  “They recognized that the system could not cure its problems by itself.  The Community Foundation of Broward and the United Way of Broward County commissioned a strategic planning effort in the fall of 2003 to develop a systemic approach to providing foster care youth with a support system that would help them become productive adults,” Hays says.

The strategic plan, she explains, recommended a “single point of contact” position, and in 2008, the Junior League of Fort Lauderdale officially assumed that role which made way for the birth of The FLITE Center.  Today this center is a centralized facility in Broward County for dependent youth to learn the skills needed for independent living.  The topics of concentration include the importance of completion of education, government benefits, budgeting and banking, job and vocational training housing options and other essential skills needed to live independently.

At any given time, approximately 600 youth between the age of 18 and 23 have exited the foster care system in Broward County and another 120 youth that are getting prepared for their transition out on their own.  “While they may be considered legal adults, many of them haven’t fully developed the life skills they’ll need to function successfully in the adult world,” Hays says.  “This is why The FLITE Center was created as a resource to connect these young adults with the full range of assistance that is available in our community.”

The Soroptimists also send a check each year to The Guatemalan Tomorrow Fund to send one girl to school for a year.  “We became aware of this program through the Pompano Beach Rotary Club,” Hays says.  This fund was started in 1992 by Steve Dudenhoefer who owned a successful landscaping business in South Florida.  In 1990, he decided to visit Guatemala to discover why many of his employees, Mayans from Guatemala, had immigrated to the U.S. to work and sent every penny they earned back home.

He met people who lived on a dollar a day, children without schools, mothers without vital medicine for their babies.  Deeply affected by this experience, he returned home, sold his businesses and started Asociacion Ak’Tenamit in 1982 with the help of local village leaders.  Today the Asociacion Ak’Tenamit is run entirely by the Q’eqchi people, and Dudenhoefer remains involved as chief technical adviser, assisting managers and the board but concentrating on fundraising and networking.

The same year as Akj’Tenamit was founded, Dudenhoefer’s friends and family founded The Guatemalan Tomorrow Fund to create a mechanism for raising funds for the project.  In 2007 enrollment had risen to 350 students.  Of the 25 graduates, half are girls.  By 2009 enrollment had risen to nearly 500 students, including 219 girls.

In March the club holds its annual fundraiser for Woodhouse, Inc., a residential treatment facility in Pompano Beach for adults born with profound intellectual abilities and extreme physical disabilities.  This year’s the event, with the theme “Spring Fling,” will be held March 5 at the Westin Fort Lauderdale, 400 Corporate Drive in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets are $75 per person.  The Motowners, a band that pays tribute to the Motown sound as well as songs from other eras, will provide the evening’s entertainment.  “This is a fun event and we have a big silent auction and Chinese auction, raffle off case of wine and have a 50/50 raffle.  Last year we went retro, and dressed as hippies, punk rockers, disco queens and had an army of women dressed in poodle skirts,” Hays says.

But whether they are pouring rum runners, donning poodle skirts or parading through the streets, the goals of the Soroptimists are serious concerns.

“We are committed to a world where women and girls together achieve their individual and collective potential, and have an equal voice in creating strong and peaceful communities worldwide,” Hays says.  “Our mission is to inspire action and create opportunities to transform the lives of women and girls through a global network of members and international partnership.  No matter where you may travel throughout the world, there is a Soroptimist chapter committed to these ideals.”

The Pompano Beach club of the Soroptimists consists of 53 members. Its one-hour business meeting takes place at 5:30 p.m. the second Wednesday of each month at the Lighthouse Point Yacht Club.  For more information or to attend a meeting, contact Dana Aliaga at 954-830-0800.
Helping with this article were Sandy Johnson, Susan Motley, Bim Kruteck, Michelle Hays, Linda Walker and Daryl Hinkl.
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