By Cindy Brookshire, Contributing Writer
Prince William is home to two chapters of Soroptimist International, a global organization of women professionals working to improve the lives of women and girls.
Organizers formed a chapter in Manassas 58 years ago. A club in Woodbridge was established 21 years later. Each has about 25 active members. The clubs, like their parent organization, identify women’s and girls’ needs and address them through awards, grants, scholarships and service, also working to raise awareness of women’s and girls’ issues locally and around the world.
The first Soroptimist club was founded in 1921 in Oakland, Calif. The organization has since grown to 3,000 chapters and 95,000 members in 120 countries. “Soroptimist” comes from the Latin “soror,” meaning “sister,” and “optima,” meaning “best.” Laura Jones, a retired aerospace systems engineer and vice president of Soroptimist International of Woodbridge, said club members are, at heart, “women at their best, helping other women to be their best.”
Supports Programs Benefiting Women and Girls
Soroptimist International awards grants to support the efforts of organizations that improve the lives of women. Local nonprofit agencies that have received financial support from the Manassas club include ACTS (Action in Community through Service of Prince William, Inc.); Transitional Housing BARN, Inc.; BEACON for Adult Literacy; Fauquier Faith Partners, Inc.; Youth For Tomorrow; and the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life® “for the great work they do for women and girls,”
said Becky Goodman, president of Soroptimist International of Manassas.
“We also send an annual educational grant to a young Guatemalan girl or woman who is going to the equivalent of a vocational school,” Goodman said. The Woodbridge club sends educational grants to Guatemala and Haiti as well, Jones said.
Goodman said she first saw Soroptimist members in action in 2009 when she worked for Transitional Housing BARN, Inc., a
Bristow organization that provides shelter to homeless women and their children and teaches life skills. A $4,000 national grant from Soroptimist International enabled the Manassas club to renovate BARN’s life skills room, she said.
“That room was drab,” said Goodman. The Manassas group painted, decorated and furnished the space, working with a designer to make the layout more “Zen,” she said. “They turned an unwelcoming room into a peaceful gathering place for the women at BARN. It was really something to admire and appreciate,” Goodman said.
Additionally, Soroptimist International provides financial awards. The Violet Richardson Award, named after the organization’s first U.S. club president, is given to young women ages 14 to 17 in recognition of outstanding volunteer activities. The Ruby Award honors women making extraordinary differences in the lives of other females.
Soroptimist scholarships are also available to help women and girls reach professional and educational goals. The Women’s Opportunity Award is given to a female household head attending or accepted to a vocational skills training program or an undergraduate degree program.
Award recipients include a mother of six children, Jones said. She works at McDonalds and attends college. “Her goal is to pay it forward by helping women who are coming out of prison,”
Soroptimist International of Woodbridge also gave 10 education awards in 2013. Recipients were students ranging from elementary school age to college senior.
Lends Helping Hand
Jones said that for her club, service includes offering supplies and clothing year-round to those in need, and for the holidays “adopting” families who can use help and whose children attend Dumfries Elementary School. Members also offer support to
homeless shelter residents of ACTS, an emergency services assistance organization in Dumfries.
In one case, they worked with a high school senior who, despite living in the shelter and having no family, maintained excellent grades, said Jones. The group raised funds for her to attend prom and college interviews, she said.
When she was accepted into college, members gave her a laptop, cell phone and dorm furnishings, along with additional scholarships over the years, Jones said. Now a college senior, the young woman has been accepted into a nursing program. “We’ve taken her all the way through with her academic studies … [and] helped her achieve her goals,” said Jones.
Women’s issues that both clubs raise awareness about include teen dating, domestic and workplace violence and child abuse, Goodman said. For the past three years, Soroptimist International of Manassas has held a symposium to also increase public awareness of human trafficking, she said.
This year, the Woodbridge club will co-sponsor the event, scheduled Feb. 1 at the Edward L. Kelly Leadership Center in Manassas. Soropomists will show the documentary “Not My Life,” and a panel of experts, including retired FBI Special Agent Greg Bristol, will give a presentation and answer questions. Bristol investigated sex trafficking cases and now trains police on how to work with victims and spot signs of human trafficking.
“[Trafficking’s] happening here, in Prince William County,” said Goodman, adding that Bristow-based Youth For Tomorrow (YTF) “has some really solid success stories of girls that they have helped escape from this life of abuse and slavery.” She said her club gave Award in 2013 for her work in this area.
“I feel very passionate about this issue,” said Jones. “I have a 10-year- old granddaughter, and when I hear about the atrocities against these young women and girls, it makes me want to do something.”
Calling for Participants
Goodman and Jones invite everyone to participate in their clubs’ fundraising and awareness events, volunteer their time or become members. To raise funds, the Woodbridge club hosts an annual art auction and fashion show, while Manassas Soroptimists hold an annual gala. Both club presidents said that the more money their chapters can raise through these types of events, the more they can help women.
“I like to tell people at our fundraisers that it’s not just our members who are helping these women and girls overcome obstacles,” said Jones. “It’s them, too, because of their community and financial support.”
Goodman acknowledged that club involvement offers benefits for members as well. “These are positive women,” she explained. “We reach out to each other and support one another in our goals.”
Soroptimist International of Manassas meets the second Thursday each month, and invites the public to an “Empowering Women and Girls” forum on the fourth Thursday. Both meetings are at 6 p.m. at Mimi’s Cafe in Gainesville. For more details, visit www.simanassas.org. Soroptimist International of Woodbridge (www.si-woodbridge.org) meets the fourth Thursday monthly at 6:30 p.m. at Westminster at Lake Ridge.
Manassas resident and freelance writer Cindy Brookshire is a frequent contributor to Prince William Living. She can be reached at [email protected]