Soroptimists celebrate 75 years in Harrogate

FROM helping refugees taking shelter during the Great War and forging links with orphans in Africa, to helping victims of domestic abuse, the Soroptimists have been working to promote social justice and the empowerment of women for decades.

The Harrogate branch of Soroptimist International, the regional offshoot of a worldwide organisation for women in management and professions, received its charter on October 28, 1933, at a time when its first president Dr Kathleen Rutherford met with a group of 25 members on alternate weeks at lunchtime.

Soroptimist International of Harrogate was formed from this initial group of ladies, who shared a passion to work through service projects to advance human rights and the status of both at women at home and abroad.

Honorary member Pat Kenny said the club's early members responded to the emergencies created by the Second World War, assisting refugees based at Fountains Abbey, knitting for merchant seamen and assisting the Hull Young Women's Christian Association after its building was destroyed by bombs.

Lifetime bond

Despite food rationing, there was a tenth anniversary celebration in 1943 and, after the war, club members joined with Soroptimists from all over the world when the first post-war international conference was held in Harrogate in 1948.

The willingness of members to rally around their communities was an intangible strength of the Soroptimists and current president Irene Kerr said the club has come a long way over the past 75 years, with members sharing a lifetime bond that spans the generations.

"We are a force for good and our commitment to the aims and objectives of our organisation is clearly seen in our record of service to the community, and in our support for women and their education," she said.

"Our message is one of thanksgiving for all that has gone before – there have been women of great vision and wisdom in this club over the years – appreciation of the hard work and perseverance of our present members and of faith and anticipation for a steadfast and vigorous future which will build on the strong foundations of the club and lead it to a new, enterprising and resplendent future."

Friendly

One member who provides a link between the club's past and its future is the club's longest-serving member Dr Mary Polson who joined in 1954, a year after starting work as doctor in Harrogate.

She said her circle of friends was almost entirely limited to other health care professionals and she said she was delighted to accept her invitation to join the group.

Dr Polson said: "The Harrogate club in 1954 was in many ways different from that of today. Although it was very friendly and I was given a warm welcome it was also very formal.

"It was expected that we wore hats and gloves and sit in rows on club nights. Many of the women were career women and not as now trying to combine a job with bringing up a family," she added.

"As so often applies, the more you put in to Soroptimism the more you get back in return."I have never for one moment regretted becoming a Soroptimist and I wish the Harrogate and District club many more prosperous years."

One key feature of the Soroptimist club which has survived the 75 years since its creation is its friendship links across the globe, from Middlesbrough and Milford Haven to Arlon in Belgium, Diekirch in Luxembourg, Benalla in Australia, Willimantic in America and Blantyre in Malawi.

The club has also attended various international conventions which take place every four years and have included Atlantic City (1938), Istanbul (1983), Helsinki (1999) and Sydney (2003).

Fulfilling

The newest member of the club is Ros Byrne, who joined in 2007 when the conference was held in Glasgow and whose mother has been a Soroptimist for many years.

"I had reached a time in my life where my children had grown up, I felt very privileged to have a lovely husband and to be in a fulfilling job, so I thought that this might be the opportunity to give something back," Mrs Byrne said.

This is reflected in the club's ethos, which advocates dedication to service. As far back as 1963 the club was supporting Cancer Relief and the 1970s saw various programmes aimed at tackling AIDS and drugs awareness and access for the disabled.

Members have also been involved in things as simple as a washing-up rota for a home for the elderly at Heath Lodge and Springwater School and as long-standing as a 15-year children's education project in Bangkok.

Pleasure

The club, which changed its name in 1997 to Soroptimist International of Harrogate and District, has collected groceries at supermarkets and sent care parcels to Bosnia and it has also supported charities including Childline, Victim Support and Carers' Resource.

It has established projects across Wetherby, Ripon and Knaresborough and worked independently to help a village in Nepal buy a smoke hood.

More recently it has spearheaded Harrogate's Christmas lights campaign and members still fundraise for Cancer Research by taking part in the annual Race for Life.

"Soroptimists have a reputation for combining hard work with fun and friendship," programming action officer Maureen Ingleton said.

"It's amazing how much pleasure can be had standing behind a market stall in the pouring rain and high winds trying to sell someone's unwanted treasure, knowing the money raised will go to help fund the local hospice or women's refuge."