A Look at Some of Delaware's Service Organizations
Since the early 1900s, these groups have been bastions of fellowship and benevolence.
Samantha Harris is the immediate past president of the Rotary Club of Wilmington.//photo by Leslie Barbaro
*Editor's note: The print version of this article incorrectly stated that the Rotary Club of Wilmington was founded in 1948. We apologize for the error. A line was also added about the club's history with the HOTEL DU PONT.
During his 35 years as a member of the Kiwanis Club of Wilmington, Van Olmstead’s many service efforts have produced significant satisfaction.
He even found a wife.
“When you are around a group of people who want to help others, it makes you want to do the same thing,” he says.
This spring, the club will celebrate its 100th anniversary with a gala designed to highlight its many good works over the past century. Olmstead, a financial planner, is the chairman of the club’s membership committee, but his time with Kiwanis has been about more than just recruitment. During the 1990s, he spearheaded an effort to help raise the average birth weight of babies born in Delaware—which was next to last among U.S. states at the time—by refusing to accept others’ insistence that it couldn’t be done.
Olmstead secured a grant, found and rehabbed a site to help provide pregnant women with the nutrition and support necessary to give birth to healthier babies, and in the process met his future bride, Elizabeth. The Tiny Steps program helped raise the average weight of those born and served as a great example of the Kiwanis spirit. When members say they are “dedicated to changing the world one child and community at a time,” they need only to point to Olmstead’s efforts on behalf of Delaware’s mothers as proof.
“Don’t let anybody ever say one person can’t make a difference,” he says.
Across the state, groups like Kiwanis are helping people with a variety of challenges. They comprise a strong network that calls on vibrant histories, well-organized infrastructures and armies of committed volunteers to provide a vast menu of services designed to make Delaware a better place. “The common thread throughout the whole thing is community service,” Olmstead says.
Here is a look at some of the state’s service-oriented organizations and their stories.
A CENTURY OF SERVICE
Even though the Kiwanis Club of Wilmington was founded only four years after the original iteration was chartered, the national organization was already an international concern (hello, Canada!) and on its way to the current participation in 80 countries.
Kiwanis of Wilmington was organized in 1918 and chartered in January 1919. Since then, Kiwanis has served as a nonprofit community service organization dedicated to helping children live fuller lives.
Delaware Kiwanis clubs contribute to the organization’s national and international programs, but at their core they are about serving those closest to them. When it became clear that lead paint poisoning was a problem in Wilmington, the local chapter went to schools to talk with students about the problem. After the discussion, children were asked to draw pictures depicting the dangers of lead paint. The 12 best were chosen for a calendar that was issued to raise money to fight the problem.
Other Delaware Kiwanis clubs are similarly committed to helping children. For instance, the Bridgeville chapter donates more than $65,000 a year to community organizations and provides five $1,000 scholarships to students from local high schools. Each club in the state works to fulfill the Kiwanis mission.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Not every member of a Delaware-based Lions Club has or has had a family member in the organization, but there are plenty of people for whom membership in Lions is a family pursuit.
Take Randy Keim, whose father was a Lion. And Nancy Moore, whose father, husband, daughter and son-in-law are or were members.
“It runs in the family,” she says.
The Lions’ motto is “We Serve.” The name signifies strength but also serves as an acronym for “Liberty, Intelligence, Our Nation’s Safety.” It boasts 1.4 million members in 200-plus countries around the world. The first Delaware chapter was chartered in Wilmington in the early 1920s. Although that branch is now defunct, many others continue throughout the state. Moore is a former president and King Lion of the Newark Lions, founded in 1929 and the oldest club in the state.
According to Keim, there are more than 30 clubs throughout the state, “from Dagsboro to Claymont,” divided into three regions. Many know the organization through its efforts to preserve and improve the sight of people in the communities it represents.
But the Lions do more.
They provide scholarships, help people with their overall health and engage in other charitable works. Keim reports that the Claymont club provides 1,000 bags with personal items for every sailor who comes to the Port of Wilmington each year. Every Delaware Lions Club is involved in selling tickets for the annual Blue-Gold All-Star Football Game, which benefits children and young adults with disabilities.
“The community is familiar with the work we do,” Keim says. “That just makes us work harder.”
MAKING THE MOST
Samantha Harris is no relation to Paul Harris, the Chicago attorney who founded Rotary International in 1905, but she has the same commitment to helping others that her namesake espoused more than a century ago.
Samantha Harris of the Rotary Club of Wilmington.//
“Rotary is trying to help the community around it,” she says.
Within 16 years of its founding, Rotary had clubs on six continents. It is known for its work in helping to eradicate polio worldwide. But as the Rotarians work to make an impact across the globe, they are also focused intently on their own communities.
Harris, who is the immediate past president of the Rotary Club of Wilmington, reports the group has worked closely with students at Stubbs Elementary School, providing backpacks and dictionaries for children and supporting families in need. Members provide mentoring, support for veterans and scholarships for students. Like most Rotary groups, which meet weekly, the Wilmington club has a broad collection of committees that foster outreach and create an environment that is inviting to members and visitors. “I could go to any club in the world, and they would welcome me,” Harris says.
There are 25 Rotary clubs in Delaware, part of a district that includes Maryland’s Eastern Shore and contains 41 clubs. The Wilmington club was formed in 1914 and chartered in 1915.* The group meets every week for lunch at the HOTEL DU PONT, and is the oldest club in the world to meet at the same location for its entire existence. Though Rotarians build relationships that can help their business pursuits, the overriding goal is service to the community.
“What we say is, ‘It’s what you want to make of it,’” Harris says.
Rob Martinelli has a straightforward explanation for why the Societa da Vinci started 15 years ago. “We want to help promote some of the good things Italian-Americans are doing and have done throughout history,” he says.
Throughout its existence, the Societa—named for artist/scientist/inventor/naturalist Leonardo da Vinci—has awarded scholarships, provided grants to needy families and students, supported the St. Anthony’s Italian Festival in Wilmington, and every year takes sixth-grade students from St. Anthony of Padua Grade School to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
“We give out about $30,000 a year in scholarships,” Martinelli reports.
The Societa da Vinci’s main event each year is a fundraiser. The Vendemmia da Vinci celebration takes place in October to commemorate the traditional harvesting of grapes in Italy. For several years it was held outdoors, but the most recent celebration was at the Hilton Wilmington/Christiana and featured a delicious combination of food and wine. Proceeds—along with members’ dues—go to fund the many programs the Societa da Vinci supports.
Members meet every month to “break bread,” enjoy each other’s company and address their agenda of service.
“Any member can submit a request for a grant,” Martinelli says. “The grant committee reviews it, and the membership votes.”
Knight Moves: Bob Rossi is the state deputy of Delaware for the Knights of Columbus, an organization he joined in 1994. The Knights were founded in 1882 in Connecticut and chartered their first chapter in Delaware in 1896. Rossi is part of the Our Lady of Fatima Council in New Castle, one of 35 such groups throughout the state.
As state deputy, Rossi makes sure Delaware’s 35 councils keep working to help others. The Knights have made Special Olympics one of their primary beneficiaries, and in the past 15 years, Delaware councils have donated $260,000 to the organization.
There are seven K of C districts throughout the state, including five in New Castle County. Although they are all committed to the Knights’ national and global pursuits, they also have community-specific initiatives. For instance, the St. Michael’s Council in Newark participates in the Code Purple program, which helps to get people off the streets and into safe shelters when the temperature dips below 30 degrees. The San Pablo Council in Wilmington provides places for the homeless to shower and get a meal and a haircut throughout the year. And the Star of the Sea Council in Rehoboth works to help raise funds for children with autism.
“First and foremost, we are about charity,” Rossi says. “We are bound to help those in the community and are guided by four principles: charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism.”