For a hundred years, Soroptimist International of the Americas, founded in Oakland in 1921, has been working in communities across the Western Hemisphere to empower women by providing them access to opportunity.
The Sebastopol Soroptimist Club, founded in 1949, dematerialized in the 1990s, leaving a void in the provision of services to women and girls in the West County. That is until club leaders Robin McNatt and Elizabeth Smith, two community-service oriented relative newcomers to Sebastopol, met over a bottle of wine at the Peacetown Music Festival two and a half years ago.
“She had a bottle of wine, and I wanted a glass, so I started talking to her,” McNatt said. “I said, ‘You have a bottle of wine, we’re going to be friends.’”
But Smith and McNatt, both of whom moved to Sebastopol around the same time in 2018, had more in common than their shared appreciation for wine: a spirit of civic service. McNatt, an executive coach who helps professionals develop leadership skills, and Smith, a community organizer who founded the Peacetown Family Village and has had her hand in organizing successful events like the recent Snowflake hunt, became fast friends.
Smith had past experience in a chapter of the Soroptimist International club in Yuba City, and she and McNatt, who also has a long history of volunteer work, began recruiting. When they numbered 12 members, they chartered the West Sonoma County Soroptimist International Club in fall of 2018.
Soroptimist International of the Americas, which celebrates its centennial this year, has over 160,000 members in 21 countries and territories across the American continents. It is one of four broad geographically-based federations that make up Soroptimist International, the others being in Great Britain and Ireland, Europe, and the Southwest Pacific.
The North and South American federation provides programs such as the Dream It, Be It program, which works with school-aged girls to break the cycles of poverty and abuse. Soroptimist Clubs also offer scholarships to female heads of households and do other work in the community.
According to Smith, “[Soroptimist International] is a global volunteer organization that provides women and girls with the access to the education and training that they need to achieve economic empowerment. We focus on education because educated women and girls are less vulnerable to sex trafficking and more likely to leave a domestically violent situation.”
Building on Smith’s experience with and passion for the club, the club leaders began meeting at the Gravenstein Grill pre-pandemic, coincidentally, the same meeting place as the Sebastopol Soroptimist Club that came before them.
Both before and since the pandemic hit, the club has been active in the community, with even bigger aspirations for improving the situations of women and girls in West County when the lockdowns are lifted.
The club members are getting ready to provide their second “Live Your Dream” scholarship—$1000 to a local applicant who raises a family and pursues higher education.
Club members are still raising funds in hopes of providing the full scholarship, using a Soroptimist funding program with a particular West County spin. For donations ranging from $25-$100, donors can “Flamingo Flock” a friend. Soroptimist club members will arrive at the targets house and put dozens of pink flamingo lawn ornaments on the property—those used by the West County club decorated by local families, artists and community members, making them, as Smith calls them, “a traveling, artsy, funky West Sonoma County art scene that lands in people’s yards at night.”
Those who’ve been “flocked” can choose to donate to the club, which will remove the flamingos they planted themselves, and even take them to another friend’s home. For $100, community members can buy insurance to prevent future flocking.
McNatt said she hopes to do more work with young girls when the pandemic ends, with more programs offered at Analy High School, where her daughter is enrolled.
The West County Soroptimist Club plans to bring two programs to the high school when the pandemic is lifted: the “S Club” and the Dream It, Be It program. The “S Club” will provide an opportunity for community-minded young girls to develop career and leadership skills through community action, while the Dream It, Be It program will help at-risk and economically disadvantaged girls overcome their obstacles through mentorship.
Smith said in her former chapter in Yuba City, the club members were able to identify and assist a girl who was the victim of human trafficking through the Dream It, Be It program.
Since starting the club, members of the former chapter have reached out to Smith and McNatt to share the club’s history, inspiring a project to restore the gazebo in Ragle Park. Decades ago, a member of the former club commissioned her husband and son to build the park’s gazebo, which they then used as a memorial, commemorating deceased members with plaques.
This fall, Smith and other club members, using supplies provided by Sonoma County Regional Parks, sanded and stained the gazebo. They have plans to add plaques for recently deceased members while restoring and replacing weathered plaques, and to plant greenery around the structure.
McNatt said the club’s smaller membership roster tempers the groups involvement, and encourages anyone interested—men included—to go to the Soroptimist International of West Sonoma County website.
“I think we need more leadership,” McNatt said. “We need more foundational leadership in every community, because we’re seeing what happens when we don’t have this common purpose of building communities—we all fail. At Soroptimist, we may have different political preferences, national origins or religions, but we work together. We need that kind of activity in the U.S.”
Soroptimist meets twice a month via Zoom, and McNatt emphasized that the group is known for the fun had by its members.