Circling the table with a few earnest women from the Oak Park-River Forest Infant Welfare Society is telling.
These local volunteers represent the thousands of hard-working “circles” of women who for more than nine decades have been planning fundraisers, year after year, to meet the growing needs of the Children’s Clinic at 320 Lake St. (the Infant Welfare Clinic until 2008).
For 95 years, in fact. The society, formed in 1916 by a group of visionary socialites, wanted to help support impoverished mothers and
their infants by providing clean milk and well-baby services via a “milk station,” the early term for a clinic. We take such things for granted now, but there was a time when the infant mortality rate was alarmingly high and uncontaminated milk was not readily available to the poor.
Now, serving up safe sips of milk is child’s play. What is still complicated, however, is providing universal access to low-cost, quality medical and dental care as well as social work services for low-income families in Oak Park, River Forest and beyond our borders.
The society’s sojourn began as an outgrowth of the Chicago Infant Welfare Society, and for as many years, the Oak Park-River Forest group has strategically made it their business to raise funds for needy children by organizing circles of volunteers (Roughly 20 women in each) who create, plan and implement fundraising events in an effort to help keep “the well baby well.”
In fiscal year 2011, says Executive Director Elizabeth Lippitt, the Children’s Clinic provided more than 10,000 medical, dental and health education outreach visits to children 18 and under from 50 west suburban communities. And, she underscores, the need for what the doctors, dentists, social workers and society volunteers offer at the Clinic is only growing.
“Over the last 15 years,” says Leah Beckwith a retired registered nurse and the society’s president for the last four years, “things have grown from a 30,000 budget to a .8 million budget this year, and the clinic has gone from serving a few hundred children to a much wider and larger group within a broader geographic area.”
The longtime member of Circle 4 says that the decision by Infant Welfare’s board of directors to open the clinic’s doors to children in the surrounding communities, was the right move. Yet, as the number of communities served has increased, the society’s membership has fallen — a significant sign of the times, Beckwith notes.
This year, only 125 women in nine circles are pitching in to raise 20 percent of the clinic’s operating budget, as compared to 1,200 active members in 1962 and a roster of 205 as recently as 2006. The remainder of the operating budget, she says, is covered by grants, donations and All Kids, the state of Illinois program for children who need comprehensive, affordable health insurance, regardless of family income, immigration status or health condition.
A wealth of experience
What started as an exclusive group of local, fancy hat-wearing socialites has evolved into a highly efficient, dynamic fundraising engine, powered by a cross-section of women almost as diverse as Oak Park itself.
“I think it all started out in a place where wealthier society women could gather socially and at the same time give something back to their community,” says Kelly Turner, 45, co-president of the Auxiliary Board, and a member of Circle 7. “Membership now is very diverse — members in their teens, members in their 30s through people in their 80s and 90s. There is still a “society” aspect to it, but there is a vast difference in income levels across the membership and varying ethnic backgrounds of women who are interested in helping children.”
Not surprisingly, the idea of men joining the organization has been broached.
“Since I have been involved, we have not had any male members, and I’m not sure if we did in the past. We currently have a small group of men who have shown an interest in joining, and we would take them in with open arms,” says Turner, an attorney with a downtown firm.
The society’s recent membership attrition, says Debbie Blanco, 52, a literacy staff developer at Scott School in Melrose Park and co-director of Circle 4, is a reflection of more women working outside the home.
In its early years, most members didn’t work, and servants picked up the household slack, Beckwith adds.
“One of the things I love about being involved is the chance to meet women of all ages and learn from them things like event planning, fundraising and underwriting. I have had some great mentors for that,” says Blanco, who, with her growing circles of friends, plans to volunteer her time during the upcoming Holiday House Walk on Dec. 2 and 3, one of the society’s major annual fundraisers.
Turner joined Circle 7 four years ago after checking out a few other local philanthropic groups in search of a volunteer opportunity that fit her personal needs and professional schedule. She describes herself as a crazy-busy, disorganized person who wants to set aside time to volunteer, just as her mother did when she was growing up.
That description sounds a bit like Audrey Deziel, whose mother and older sister currently volunteer at the Children’s Clinic. The active River Forest teen is a dancer, a volunteer at Brookfield Zoo, and a senior at Oak Park and River Forest High School. She joined Circle 80 as a high school freshman — to do good works with a few like-minded friends.
“I think that when kids my age do things like this they realize that there might be people out there a little less fortunate,” says Deziel. “I always think to myself, hey, I’m 17 and I’m helping out this 4-year-old. It’s amazing.”