Wednesday, March 14, 2001

'Social capital' sustains rally


Community reaps dividends

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        FORT THOMAS — Go women go.

        They hardly need encouragement, but I can't help it. The members of the Charities Guild of Northern Kentucky make me want to cheer.

        Every year, they throw a party that raises about $30,000 for local organizations. They address 1,000 invitations, call on 100 potential sponsors and shrink-wrap 72 gift baskets for auction. They hire bands, rent games and arrange celebrity appearances.

        One committee taste-tests menus for the big night. Another keeps donated jewelry under lock and key.

        No detail escapes these women — they are that good.

[photo] Patty Sheinman of Fort Thomas does paperwork for a meeting of the Charities Guild of Northern Kentucky.
(Enquirer photo)
| ZOOM |
        And good for Northern Kentucky.

        Besides raising money, the guild and similar groups achieve a larger, unspoken goal: The strengthening of social ties that make communities hum.

        Sociologists call these networks “social capital.” One expert, Robert Putnam of Harvard University, published a book on the subject last year.

        Bowling Alone summarized Dr. Putnam's research into community involvement. America used to be a nation of joiners, he says. Now we are more likely to bowl alone than in a league, more likely to drop out of the Lions Club than join one.

        Such trends have hurt communities, he found. People are less likely to run for office. They are apathetic about voting. They trust each other less and their children don't do as well in school, among other effects.

        Bowling Alone got attention. Organizations across the country, including the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, embraced the message and launched surveys of social connectedness in their own cities.

        In my mind, the Charities Guild and similar groups are the exception that proves the rule. Its members are good old-fashioned joiners, and their volunteerism builds on itself.

IF YOU GO
   The Charities Guild of Northern Kentucky is throwing a baseball-themed party. Retired Cincinnati Reds player George Foster will sign autographs. Uptown Rhythm & Blues will entertain.
   Date: Saturday, March 24, 7 p.m. to midnight
   Place: The Syndicate, 18 E. Fifth St., Newport
   Cost: $50 per person. For reservations, call 781-0605.
        “I think it becomes a way of life for you,” says Guild member Dana Pendery, whose husband is the judge-executive of Campbell County.

        The guild is about 20 years old. Most members are from Fort Thomas, but the annual theme party benefits people across Northern Kentucky. Some proceeds go into a shoe fund for low-income families. A large chunk goes to the year's designated recipient, always a nonprofit organization. Last year it was the Women's Crisis Center; this year it's the Clem & Ann Buenger Boys & Girls Club in Newport.

        Meetings are held in members' homes. To keep the number manageable, membership is limited to 50.

        Believe it or not, there's a waiting list. When women resign due to other obligations, new members are nominated by current ones and chosen by lottery.

        About half the women work outside their homes. They include attorneys, pharmacists and nurses. State Sen. Katie Stine is a member. So is Mary Paula Schuh, director of campus planning at Northern Kentucky University.

        For Holly Steinkamp, a stay-at-home mom, the guild provides a way to stay in touch with other women. She also likes the group's friendliness and efficiency.

        “You don't have to pull your hair out to maintain your membership,” she says.

        The women play to each other's strengths and use their connections to get things done. Attorney Jan Kreutzer's husband, for instance, owns Kreutzer Dorl Florists in Newport, so the group can count on beautiful, discounted arrangements for each party.

        Suzanne Gibson's husband is a dentist. For the silent auction, his office donates tooth-whitening kits and an hour of service. (No, really, this is a good thing.)

        The benefits of the guild network extend beyond the guild's activities, which is where “social capital” comes in.

        “Trustworthiness lubricates social life,” Dr. Putnam writes. These women build trust by volunteering together. That trust helps others in the community.

        Ms. Pendery once contacted Ms. Kreutzer, the attorney, about an acquaintance having trouble getting child support. Ms. Kreutzer worked on the case free.

        Mary Nielson, a former guild member, resigned and later started her own, nonprofit business: an after-school enrichment program for latchkey kids. The guild voted to donate $1,000 toward scholarships for low-income children to attend.

        “We don't have the red tape that a lot of organizations must go through to get things done,” Ms. Pendery says.

        Exactly. Social capital, mutual trust, helps society function smoothly.

        If there's any doubt these women are bowling together, not alone, consider the creed they read aloud before each meeting.

        In part, it says, “We believe ... that fellowship is engendered by dedication to a common goal, and service to humanity is the best work of life.”

        These are the words of a strong community.

        Karen Samples can be reached at 859-578-5584 or ksamples@enquirer.com.
       



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