Soroptimist International of Martinez

Serving Globally and Locally since 1942

By Harriett Burt

EDITOR’S NOTE:  This is the fourth in a series about the Martinez service clubs which have contributed money, time and effort to hundreds of projects and causes benefiting the community and the world.  Martinez Rotary Club will be featured in March and Martinez Lioness Club in May.  The series will be completed in July with the history of Martinez Exchange Club, the first of the international service clubs to organize a chapter here.

According to some reports, pouring rain on the evening of November 14, 1942 did not dampen the spirits of the 16 local business and professional women who entered the new Masonic Temple on Mellus Street to be officially chartered as the Soroptimist Club of Martinez.  Members of the sponsoring Soroptimist Club of Richmond and the president of the American Federation of Soroptimist Clubs launched the organization which has served Martinez and the world community for 65 years.

The Martinez group was part of a growing organization that had been founded just 21 years earlier in Oakland, California.  It was led by Violet Richardson Ward, later director of health and physical education for the Berkeley Schools.  A professional service club organizer, Stuart Morrow, met with 80 business and professional women in Alameda County who wanted to serve the community while actively engaged in their professions just as men were in growing organizations such as Exchange, Kiwanis, Lions and Rotary. Within 3 years, Soroptimist Clubs were forming throughout the world with the common goal of helping women and children.  The name Soroptimist is a coined word combining Latin words meaning “the best for women.”

The national president’s speech that November night was titled “Soroptimism in Wartime.” Hearing that message, the Martinez Club lost no time in establishing its reputation for supporting local efforts while also contributing to national and international programs to improve the world.

Under charter president, Fredarica Mai Edgar, the Contra Costa County Probation Officer, Martinez Soroptimists immediately offered funds and members time on Sundays to help supply and staff the Martinez U.S.O. Canteen on Ferry Street near the Southern Pacific tracks.  It raised money to furnish a recreation room for service personnel at Camp Stoneman in Pittsburg, joined with other California clubs to provide an ambulance for the Oak Knoll Naval Hospital, gathered clothing to send to Soroptimist Clubs in newly liberated portions of Europe for distribution in their communities, collected books to send to the Soviet Union because English was now required in their schools and actively participated in the economic and social betterment activities of the newly formed United Nations.

But the most outstanding contribution of local Soroptimists to the war effort came when the effects of the war came closest to home.   After the Port Chicago explosion in July, 1944, Soroptimist Clubs from as far as Connecticut and as near as San Mateo-Burlingame sent checks of $25  to $50 which, matched by the Martinez Club, paid for a registered nurse to support Port Chicago children in a recreational camp set up that summer while their parents worked to clean up the mess.

Besides Edgar, early members included the leading business and professional women in the community including Harriet Kelly, Gertrude Ruff, Esther Hatfield, Grace Susini, Leila Bray, Mary Arnold, Audrey Wykoff, Ruth Ricks, Lorrie Laird, Jean Taylor, Lena Pistochini, and Charlotte McHarry – all of whom fit the requirements of holding executive or professional jobs in government, education or business.

After the war, Soroptimist Club of Martinez joined the other service clubs and community groups in the drive to establish the Municipal Swimming Pool.  Altogether, the Soroptimists donated $900 of the $80,000 cost.  Around the same time, it collected $200 for the new Camp Fire Building on Estudillo Street.  A $100 scholarship for a graduating Alhambra senior was established in 1945 which later became the $1000 Harriet Kelly and $500 Helen Lough Nunes scholarships in memory of two members.  After her death this summer,  a new scholarship fund was established in honor of Rose Camarata Gaffney, a past president and long time active member. 

In the early 50s, Soroptimist and well-known realtor, Judith Rooney, organized a monthly ‘birthday party’ for local seniors.  The Soroptimists’ gathering the often isolated and lonely elderly together for this event became the focal point for developing what has become the Martinez Senior Citizens Club with its large membership and many and varied activities.

Over the years the focus of the local club and its international network turned to programs and issues concerning and supporting women and children.  The local club has donated funds, bought furniture and provided other support to the Edgar Children’s Shelter at Juvenile Hall and Mountain View House, the family transitional housing program in Martinez. 

Currently the Club works with staff at the Chris Adams School for Girls at Juvenile Hall to encourage the resident girls to turn their lives around. The Club helps the girls present an annual Fashion Show where residents model clothing appropriate for business, leisure and formal occasions.  Recently Martinez Soroptimists joined with seven other central Contra Costa clubs to host the Get Real Academy for high school senior girls.  Approximately 150 young women attend the day-long event of workshops and presentations on health issues, personal finance and insurance, legal documents for purchases and rentals, job applications and interviews.  Local professional women present the workshops.

The Club annually presents Women’s Opportunity Awards to local women in transition to help with training and preparation for entering or upgrading in the work force and the Violet Richardson award to encourage those high school girls who have contributed in some way to the community through volunteer work.

Like the other Martinez service clubs, Soroptimists will be found providing money, helping out and/or joining in at community events such as the recent Martinez Historical Society Home Tour, First Night Martinez, Main Street Snow Park, AHS Homecoming Parade, and the Relay for Life.  It recently donated to the AHS Marching Band Uniform drive and has sponsored the Martinez Woman of the Year award since its inception in the 1970s.

But in 65 years, the Martinez Soroptimists haven’t lost track of the need to provide and encourage ‘the best for women and children’ all over the world.  Local time and resources have contributed to Soroptimist International programs such as landmine detection and removal, prosthetic limbs for landmine victims, micro-loans for women in third world countries ravaged by war so they can become self- sufficient, support for clean water resources in South America and the funding and promotion of literacy programs for women and girls throughout the world.  The most recent project involves support for widows and orphans of the civil war in Sierra Leone.


Martinez Historical Society

1005 Escobar Street - Martinez, CA 94553  (925) 228-8160