Altrusa’s 30 years of altruism

The Bellevue chapter of Altrusa International just celebrated its 30th anniversary as a volunteer organization in the community. Pictured are, from left, current President Jeannie Mill, founding member Sue Olson-Mandler and incoming President Irene Wolfe. Other members of the volunteer organization socialze behind the trio.


They probably don’t know. . .

and never will know, but an incalculable number of children over the past three decades have been touched in quiet and invisible ways by a dedicated group of Bellevue women.

Others know well which hand reached out and touched them.

The adult woman seeking her way back after falling afoul of the law remembers who came to her aid; the woman seeking re-entry into the workforce who lacked confidence, interview skills and even professional clothing, knows who filled the gap; women who find their successful completion of a high school equivalency degree celebrated with a full-fledged graduation ceremony, know who made their day memorable.

People moving into Habitat for Humanity homes in Bellevue are greeted by a bookcase filled with works of the homeowner’s choosing, for literacy is a big part of the mission these women have set for themselves; women in need of scholarships to pursue higher education find a ready source of aid in this insistent sisterhood of support.

In other domains, too, beyond the specific and immediate needs of women, Bellevue has felt their impact.

The Bellevue Little Theater has benefitted to the tune of thousands of dollars in direct donations, not to mention the dependable attendance of these women at BLT productions. Bellevue’s fire and police departments have found themselves supplied over the years with blankets and dolls used to ease the minds and hearts of families and children in crisis.

Recently bereaved families find a book has been donated to the Bellevue Library in the name of their loved one, a permanent and touching tribute. Every child born at the Bellevue Medical Center gets a free book with a package of information about Bellevue’s library services; monetary contributions have flowed steadily over the years to child welfare agencies and to public safety causes. They are longtime and continuing players in the successful effort to establish shelters for abused women and troubled teens in Bellevue.

These women have built a social network diverse in race, creed and professional occupation, and have imbued their culture with a commitment to social action.

In 2012 they entered their fourth decade of service.

For their 30 years of invaluable service to the women and children of Bellevue, for their longstanding and successful effort to make Bellevue a better, warmer, more compassionate city, the Bellevue Leader today names the Women of Altrusa its People of the Year for 2012.

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It began with Pat Hart.

Hart was something of a business pioneer as the 1970s expired and the 1980s dawned. She was a real estate broker at a time when female real estate agents were still a novelty. Together with her husband, Curt, she founded the Century 21 real estate company that still does business at the summit of Harvell Drive. She died in 1997, but not before creating the Bellevue chapter of Altrusa in 1981.

Altrusa is an international service club founded in 1917 that originally worked to advance professional women. Although it has long accepted men as members, the Bellevue club has always been exclusively female.

The female focus, recalls Curt, appealed to Pat.

“That was a big thing,” he said. “She was the first woman to get a real estate license in Bellevue. I think she had a feeling women were treated as second rate, and she was determined to make sure women got their share.”

She was also, he recalled, a woman of great energy.

“Pat was absolutely a workaholic,” Curt said. “Everything she did had to be perfect. It didn’t make any difference what it was, she was a perfectionist.”

That trait is well remembered by Sue Olson-Mandler, a longtime Bellevue artist who was among the 28 women who chartered the club.

“Pat was very ‘According to Hoyle,’” she said. “For instance, if you missed a local meeting because you were traveling you were expected to find a club near where you were and attend their meeting.”

Olson-Mandler said she is not a natural “joiner,” and did not expect to join Altrusa when Hart invited her to attend the initial organizational meeting at her home.

“She invited all sorts of people,” Olson-Mandler recalled. “I bet there were 40 or 50 people there. I don’t like to be pinned down to anything, so I wasn’t going to join, but I found the variety of ladies to be so interesting, and Pat was so enthusiastic, that I joined.”

And so Altrusa’s story began.

For many years, the club’s primary annual fundraiser was a fashion show. Today it’s an annual luncheon, featuring speakers and vendors, a significant event that helps fund the club’s activities through the year.

The club has prospered, boasting 47 members today and having touched many aspects of Bellevue’s life.

A large focus for the Bellevue club, as for Altrusa International, has been literacy.

To that end, free books have been provided to underprivileged children, to elementary schools, and to homeless shelters.

Members have made audio recordings of books for use by blind persons, and the notoriously heavy “A-Box,” in which people may deposit new or lightly used books, has found a permanent home at the Bellevue Public Schools’ Lied Activity Center.

And if books must be read, they also must be carried.

When Carol Thrasher, who for many years operated the Lums restaurant on Fort Crook Road, noticed that some children were carrying their books to school in garbage bags, the ladies of Altrusa made sure they got backpacks. That led to another program, which provided duffle bags to foster care children who had for too long hurriedly stuffed their meager belongings into garbage bags when moving from home to home.

When the Bellevue Public Schools wanted to give its GED equivalency students a proper graduation, Altrusa answered the call.

Ruth Wiener said the program is among her favorites.

“It’s a beautiful ceremony, every spring,” she said.

“They wear caps and gowns, we serve cake, the children are all shouting, ‘Mommy! Mommy!’ It’s a regular graduation, and it’s very moving because these are the people who struggled but made it through.”

One thing leads to another, they say, and the graduation ceremonies led to the Pat Hart Memorial Scholarship program, which provides funding for non-traditional students to attend university, community college or training schools.

Eligible students are those who took a break between high school and college and are trying to get back on track.

Then there are women with criminal records who Altrusa members have eased back on the straight and narrow.

“They always wonder what they are going to say when the question comes up of whether they have a criminal record,” Wiener said. “Well, you can’t lie. You just admit it and say you’re trying to get back on track.”

And so, Altrusa’s influence has spread, across institutions of education and law enforcement, public safety organizations, homeless shelters and food pantries, touching the lives of children and adults alike.

Lupe Mier, director of the Bellevue Public Library, said Altrusa is among the oldest of the library’s supporters.

For years, he said, Altrusa donated money to buy books but now redirects its funds to the “Books for Babies” program which provides a book and a package of library information to every child born at the Bellevue Medical Center.

“I think that has a greater effect,” he said. “It’s a very useful way to win new audiences by informing them about what the library offers.”

Georgette Clark, and Mary Walters, both early childhood education teachers with the Bellevue Public Schools’ Partners with Parents program, have been able to give hundreds of books as gifts to children aged birth though eight, courtesy of Altrusa.

“You can read a book, but when you own it, it’s special,” Clark said. “Altrusa makes it possible for me to give these books to the children, permanently. It’s their book.

“The next month their parents will say ‘I’ve read this book over and over and over again.’ It’s their favorite book, until they get a new book, and that’s their new favorite book.”

Dawn Conley, program director of the domestic violence program of Sarpy Emergency Services, said programs like the Safe Haven women’s shelter could not suvive without the aid of organizations like Altrusa.

“They’ve been helping us since 2001, with monetary and in-kind donations,” she said.

In addition to cash donations, which permit Safe Haven to pay for medications and transportation for battered women, Altrusa’s in-kind donations of such everyday items as laundry detergent and kitchen items frees up money for other purposes.

“They’ve really taken us under their wing,” she said.

According to Pattie Gorham, a former Bellevue city councilwoman and one of Altrusa’s 28 founding members, a key to the club’s success has been the opportunity it grants women to do good works while building friendships.

“It’s been a nice way to coalesce Bellevue’s professional women with the community,” she said. “That’s been really fun, I think. Obviously, the service aspect is very important because we are a service organization, but the social and professional interaction has been very good, too.”

“I think what’s also attractive is that we look for diverse people in diverse occupations,” Wiener said. “An attorney or an accountant might belong to organizations made up of attorneys or accountants.

“Here, you’re in an organization with all kinds of professionals.”

Altrusa meets the third Thursday of the month at the John B. Muller Administrative Services Building at Bellevue University.

Members gather at 5:30 p.m., with dinner served at 6 p.m., followed by a speaker, and then the club meeting.

Committees meet numerous times during a month.

For more information or to join Altrusa, call Jeannie Mill at 402-733-6096.

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