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2019-03-01 / Up Close

Woman Power

Soroptimist International of Centre County aids women and girls in the community through fundraisers, scholarships and hands-on help.
By Robyn Passante

Soroptimist members Dee Bagshaw, Donna Merrill, Fiona Adams and Mary Valentine smile with the Nittany Lion while working a concession stand at a Penn State volleyball match.Soroptimist members Dee Bagshaw, Donna Merrill, Fiona Adams and Mary Valentine smile with the Nittany Lion while working a concession stand at a Penn State volleyball match.

Linda Wilson wears her Soroptimist pin like a badge of honor — which, if you ask her, it is.
The shiny pendant with the snakelike “S” is a symbol of an international organization that supports women and girls all over the world. But for Wilson, it’s also a reminder of her personal journey, of how her strength as a woman pulled her out of a dark time in her past and continues to pull other women and girls out of their own hardships and challenging circumstances.

“It’s a gift I give myself,” says a teary-eyed Wilson of her involvement in Soroptimist International of Centre County (soroptimistcentrecounty.org), a local chapter of the nonprofit service organization that’s been around since 1921, has clubs in 122 countries and United Nations representatives in New York, Geneva, Vienna, Rome, Paris, Nairobi and Bangkok.

The Centre County chapter was chartered in December of 1986; Wilson, a now-retired telecommunications professional, was one of its original members, recruited by a district-level board member in Philadelphia who was trying to find enough professional women in the State College area to start a local group.

“Back then you had to be a supervisor. You had to be a working, professional woman,” Wilson says. She was a supervisor with Bell Telephone Co. (now Verizon) and had recently been transferred to State College from Hazleton, in part to escape an abusive marriage. She was alone in a new town with battered self-esteem but new purpose: to help other women. She considered becoming a counselor with the Centre County Women’s Resource Center, but then the Soroptimist offer came along.

From the very start, Wilson and her fellow club members realized they could make an immediate difference in their local community, but that they also were part of a powerful network of women around the world supporting that work. One Soroptimist tradition is for each existing club to mail $1 to a newly chartered club. Wilson says the contributions, though small, were mighty.

Soroptimist Linda Wilson at the Pink Ribbon Golf Classic in 2017.Soroptimist Linda Wilson at the Pink Ribbon Golf Classic in 2017.“It piddled in for a year from all different countries,” she says. “So that gave us our little starting cash to start to do things.”

And those things have had quite a ripple effect in this community. In its 32-year history, Soroptimist International of Centre County has contributed more than $200,000 to a collection of area organizations working to support women and children, including Centre Safe, Schlow Centre Region Library, Out of the Cold: Centre County, Park Forest Preschool, Jana Marie Foundation, Mid-State Literacy Council and many others.

Much of that money was raised through small fundraisers like hosting lasagna dinners and running concession stands at Penn State sporting events. This year the group’s largest fundraiser will be the Nittany Charity Classic Golf Tournament on Sept. 9 at Toftrees Golf Resort, which last year was called the Pink Ribbon Golf Classic and raised $20,000 to support programs and services at Mount Nittany Health’s Breast Care Center. Soroptimist club members have long been volunteers at the event, but this year they’re taking over as organizers as well, and the money raised will support women and children in the community.

“It’s hard sometimes to feel like you can make a difference. The problems for young women and single moms can feel pretty overwhelming,” says club President Dee Bagshaw, who manages a research institute at Penn State. “But you make a dent one person at a time, and that’s the way the club operates, is to try to support individuals but also support other organizations that are already doing good in the community.”

The club also has awarded more than 100 individual women and girls scholarships or donations to organizations of their choice totaling more than $50,000. Plus club members regularly give their time and talents to hands-on projects in the community.

There are seven charter members, including Wilson, who remain active today, a testament to the positivity and power of Soroptimist, which, despite its long history, seems to remain largely under the radar both locally and nationally.

“I think it’s one of the best-kept secrets unfortunately,” says Leslie Conklin, who just joined Soroptimist this year. She’d heard about it from a friend and attended a picnic last summer where she enjoyed the camaraderie and generosity of the women. The longtime volunteer with the annual March of Dimes walk and Making Strides Against Breast Cancer events knew she’d found a home base for her efforts.

“These are really a good bunch of women. You just get a vibe when you’re around them,” says Conklin, an administrative assistant at Hawbaker Engineering. “They are dedicated to what’s best for women, whether it’s helping them with child care or getting their books when they’re going to school. Anything you can do to help a fellow gal out and improve their situation, I just think it benefits everybody, society as a whole.”

Club members have done a lot of hands-on work with the Centre County Youth Service Bureau’s Stormbreak Girls Group Home for at-risk teen girls, tackling everything from a kitchen remodel to leading programs on bullying, nutrition and dating violence. “Several of us who’ve been in abusive relationships went and talked to them,” says Wilson, her voice shaky. “I could tell them firsthand what to look out for and stuff.”

The club also has been a helpful presence at Jana Marie Foundation’s weekend workshops for middle and high school girls.

“Folks who are really at risk — because of employment issues, education issues, literacy issues — are just at the edges of being able to handle things,” says Bagshaw, who’s been a Soroptimist for eight years. “So anything I feel I can do to be supportive, lend an ear, is both useful and satisfying.”
One of the biggest impacts the group makes is through its Live Your Dream scholarship awards, given to women each year who are the main breadwinners of their families and are trying to better their education, skills and employment opportunities. They can use the money for tuition, books, child care, transportation — anything that will help them reach for their dreams.

“These women we give the awards to, they say the money is nice to get, but just the recognition of other women being there and supporting them and telling them they’re on track, that means more to them than the money — and they needed the money,” says Wilson, tearing up once more.

These grateful scholarship recipients understand something Wilson has lived and loves to pass on: A woman’s inner strength is a powerful force, and that force is multiplied when she uses it to lift up other women, too.

“We’re all here for each other,” Conklin says. “To me, that’s what it’s about.” •SCM


An offshoot of Soroptimist International of Centre County is the Venture Club of Centre County, created in 2003 as a partner group that often attracts younger women. Venture Club members also support women and children in need in Centre County. To learn more about the Venture Club or to find out how to get involved, email centreventureclub@gmail.com.

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