A Little History of our Charitable Service to our Community . . .
Excerpted from: The Gentle Force: A History of The Nineteenth Century Woman's Club of Oak Park, Carolyn O. Poplett with Maryann Porucznik, Editor, (Broadview, IL;1988, 1992; A. & H Lithoprint). This book is available for purchase by the NCCA.
After World War II in 1946, *Club members responded to the needs of thousands of orphaned and homeless children. Ruth Holt proposed involvement in the Save the Children Foundation, and for many years the Social Welfare Department prepared garments, sent volunteers to work in the Foundation's offices, and helped support schools in the Netherlands and Germany.
The Social Welfare Department was one of the most active areas of club life. Its importance was recognized in 1950 when the department head was named a member of the board of directors. Members met regularly at the clubhouse during the club year, and gathered at member's homes during the summer. As a service area, the department was open not only to Club members but to all interested community members. The head of the sewing committee, Mrs. Vilas Parker, was well known for both her design and needlework skills. She developed a sewn flannel shirt for babies at Cook County Hospital, replacing a costly knitted shirt.
At holiday time, members filled boxes and baskets with toys, garments and food under the direction of Social Welfare chairman, Ardis Barrow. Packages were sent to the veterans' hospitals, to Cook County Hospital, to CARE, to the school in Holland, and to the Navajo Indian school which the Associates had "adopted." But, noted Mrs. Barrow, 'Christmas was not all work.'
The Social Welfare Department provided a valuable outlet for the Club. "As Club members," noted Mrs. Barrow, "all we can do is sew and help with the actual work within the agencies. It is not within our power to lobby for better living and moral conditions." With the advent of conflict in Korea, the department resumed work with the USO, sponsoring a supper for 500 servicemen, paid for by the Club and served by the Associates.
There were other needs in the community as well. Members gave of their time and skills, serving wherever needed. In one year alone, six Club members served on the board of directors of the Day Nursery, another five on the board of Family Service. At the Infant Welfare Society, the President, Vice President, Board of Advisors and five of 10 chairmen were all members of the Nineteenth Century Woman's Club.
The Club served in other ways as well. The clubhouse was home to five other women's organizations, and the meeting place for many civic organizations. The Club had its own civil defense program which offered classes in home nursing and conducted blood drives. The Civics committee was regularly called upon to supply women for jury duty. The International Relations Study Group corresponded with women's clubs in foreign countries and raised funds to help rehabilitate a girls'camp in Greece. Club member Amy Judd served for 28 years as the unpaid head of the Economy Shop, a resale store that raised monies for nine local charities. Many of her volunteer staff were also Club members.
It was the visionary Ruth Holt who help expand the Club's influence in the service sector. Her annual report in 1951 urged members to remember 'the purpose of our club as set forth by our founders was two-fold-educational and cultural achievement for ourselves and service for the community and humanity. . . there is a danger that we may become complacent and fail to realize our potentialities in the field of leadership and service . . . I long to see more members feel an awareness of the fact that we are more than a program club, that we must likewise serve if we are to fulfill our purpose."
Holt's interest in the Leisure Group eventually led to the establishment of the Senior Citizen's Center, the oldest such association in Illinois. In 1953, she established the Community Welfare Council, a cooperative organization of 44 civic groups to endeavor to find solutions for community problems. Three area of interest were identified: seniors, youth, and mental health education. Early activities included a study of the nursing home ordinance in Oak Park and an effort to address the needs of "older workers" (over 45) for jobs.
The club's delegates continued to report the services and the needs of the agencies they represented. Hepzibah Home made a plea for readers for children, noting that 'at the present the children a enjoying a new television, but the director thinks the novelty of this may wear off in a short time." The chair of the Legislative committee, May F. Matter, found her additional responsibility to the League of Women Voters to be "both educational and beneficial personally, and regrets that it has been of lesser benefit to the Club as a whole."
For while its service work was growing, the Club's interest and effect on issues of reform was weakening. As the Club approached its 60th birthday, founder May Estelle Cook, now an octogenarian, continued to make her pleas for involvement. She urged members to attend the public affairs forum on the Illinois Constitution, and lamented the fact that in so large a club, there was only one international relations study group. "Politics," she reported, "is the business of us all, citizenship is an absorbing study, and our duty to community, to state, to nation, and to the United Nations is a vital responsibility."
The Legislative and Civics committees were combined and authorized to bring matters of importance to the membership through the Social Science Department. Committee members hoped this would strengthen the value of these committees to the Club, but in fact, it had the opposite result. Their functions were gradually assumed by the Social Science Department, their responsibilities for programming diminished, and eventually both committees were dropped.