15 years and counting, SBCO offers eight-part series on its founding
by Rick Cato
SaddleBrooke Community Outreach (SBCO) is very much a SaddleBrooke, AZ organization. It is therefore very much a SaddleBrooke, AZ story. It is also a story about a handful of women who took their appreciation for the good life and transformed it into a means for supporting those among us less fortunate. It’s a feel good story embodying grace, generosity, and ingenuity.
SBCO’s story began modestly enough in early fall of 1996. It began in the living room of Cyrene Schochet. Six women were discussing their collective belief that they should give back in response to the bounty of their lives. These women were Cyrene, Dorothy Steffano, Harriet Schultz, Roberta Spector, Marcia Weitzman, and Anita Eagle. Today, 15 years later and to their grand amazement, their living room conversation blossomed into an award-winning organization with 230 volunteers, and with a reach into communities from Oracle to San Carlos Apache Reservation. Thanks to SBCO the burdens of poverty for thousands of kids and their families have been relieved over the past 15 years.
Relieving the effects of poverty sounds simple enough now, but in those early days they had no idea what to call themselves, no idea about what specific poverty to address, and no idea where geographically they would commit their good works. “Clueless” is the word most often used today by co-founders to describe their earliest days. “What kept us moving forward in those chaotic first days was our belief that we should and could do something meaningful,” recalled co-founder Harriet Schultz. However, as this story will show, their relative cluelessness would be short-lived.
These articles are the result of 16 interviews this summer with co-founders and with volunteers from the years 1996 through 1999. I have not spoken with everyone. Invariably once one begins naming names someone is going to be omitted. I apologize to anyone omitted. These articles also came from reviews of documents and newspaper clippings from the early years. Often recollections among those I spoke with differed. From all that I gathered I hope I have charted a successful middle path through this remarkable history. Thanks to all those who supported this effort.
The first article in this series, “The Founding of SBCO: Birth of an Idea,” also appears in today’s edition of the Progress. If during the next seven months you miss an article they can be found on SBCO’s website, www.community-outreach.org. If you were around and involved in the late 1990’s, enjoy the recollections. If not, marvel with the rest of us at the Herculean effort of our SBCO pioneers.
Founding Of SBCO: Birth of an idea
This article is the first in a series of eight articles highlighting the founding and early years of SaddleBrooke’s SaddleBrooke Community Outreach (SBCO). The articles in this series will also appear on SBCO’s website, www.community-outreach.org.
Dorothy Steffano is acknowledged by most as the founder of SBCO. However, she is first to warn about the factual dangers inherent in identifying SBCO’s founder. “Nothing about our history was clear cut. There were so many wonderful women who did such wonderful things and so early the process. It is difficult to point to one founder,” cautioned Dorothy. Who first thought of and uttered the idea? It might not matter. It might be a distinction but it didn’t matter to those involved at the time. It doesn’t matter to them today. It certainly doesn’t matter to the thousands of kids and families SBCO has helped over the past 15 years. Despite any historical ambiguity on this point, one thing is generally agreed upon. Six women, Dorothy, Harriet Schultz, Roberta Spector, Cyrene Schochet, Marcia Weitzman, and Anita Eagle are indelibly associated with the birth of an idea that eventually grew into what we know today as SBCO. However, arriving at today’s version of SBCO occurred over a lengthy, circuitous, and sometimes tumultuous journey.
Its journey began 15 years ago. It was the fall of 1996. After reflecting on the bounty of their lives and on the beauty of their surroundings, these six women shared the collective desire to “give back.” But no one knew precisely what “give back” meant. As they mulled over the possibilities they reached out to friends. According to Harriet Schultz there was contagion. Word spread quickly. Membership in this still unnamed, unfocused group grew to over two dozen. It was an impressive group, recalled Sandy Simester. “Iris Carr took me to my first meeting. I was so impressed by the competence of the women involved. After only a few minutes there I leaned over to Iris and said, Geewillikers! If these women are going to start something, to do something, I want to be part of it.”
Those involved in late 1996 recall an unstructured and unfocused period in which the group cast about looking for definitions for who they were and for what specifically they were to do. Recalled Willie Reich, “There was no board, no bylaws, and no mission. We decided and acted on our good intentions. It was experimentation.” Harriet Schultz agreed. “It was the strength of the group’s belief that eventually we could do something meaningful that propelled us through the early haze of our existence. We had to believe.”
The group’s first meetings were held in Cyrene Schochet’s living room. Meetings, often impromptu, moved around SaddleBrooke from living room to living room. Other members from those early days included Harriet Goldstein, Esta Goldstein, Roberta Goldstein, Sharon Knight, Sandy Qureshi, Willie Reich, Elaine Stamm, and Lynne Walther. With more members the group moved its meetings to Room #3 of HOA 1’s Activity Center. An early patchwork of committees formed. The group decided upon the name SaddleBrooke Women’s Outreach. A single focus began to emerge. It was at this time, according to Dorothy Steffano, that things really “took off.”
The Founding of SBCO: Whatever should we do?
This article is the second in a series of eight articles highlighting the founding and first three years of SaddleBrooke Community Outreach (SBCO). The first article can be found on SBCO’s website, www.community-outreach.org.
The calendar now read winter 1997. According to co-founder Roberta Spector SaddleBrooke Women’s Outreach (SWO) was beginning to find its stride. “We were now focused on finding a specific need to serve. The brunt of this effort was taken on by our research committee chaired by Harriet Schultz.” According to Harriet, “The committee had two questions. What is the greatest need to be addressed and in what geographic area should we address it? There was one catch, however. The need had to be feasible for a group of SaddleBrooke women.”
Members of the research committee fanned out across Tucson and southeastern Pinal County. The committee made site visits to area social service agencies, law enforcement agencies, schools, food banks, charities, and to churches and synagogues. In these visits committee members asked the question, “What do you need?” The answers they received included needs relating to education, transportation, recreation, counseling, food stability, parenting, homelessness, mental health, domestic abuse, elder care, and clothing. In a word, concluded Harriet Schultz, “Everything was needed.”
“Many of the agencies and non-profits we spoke with wanted our financial support, but not necessarily our involvement,” recalled Dorothy Steffano. “We did not want to just give money. We wanted to be hands on.” Added Sandy Qureshi, “We wanted to become part of whatever community we were going to serve.”
Eventually identification of a feasible need evolved. Accounts by San Manuel teacher Laurie Steffano and others about children who did not attend school due to not having appropriate clothing to wear struck a chord with the committee. Often the children wore tattered and ill-fitting adult clothing. Shoes were routinely too large, too small, or were held together with duct tape or rubber bands. Sandy Qureshi recalled children wearing adult shoes with tissue rolled up inside the toes so they would not fall off. Mammoth Elementary principal Diane Lemley told of how kids with only one set of clothes would sometimes come to school wearing clothes still wet from being washed the night before. One family with three children had clothes enough to send only two children to school on any given day. The idea of a clothing bank for children that would achieve at least two goals began to emerge. Clothes might improve the students’ self-esteem and through improved school attendance clothes might have a longer-term impact on life opportunities for the kids.
The decision where to open this clothing bank came more easily. After scanning the Tucson and Pinal County environments it became obvious to the group that although needs were great in both locations, Tucson had by far more in terms of helping resources. A plan for a clothing bank serving the Tri-Communities inched closer to reality.
Now what? To achieve the above plan the women realized they had to meet four challenges. They needed to organize themselves more formally, they needed a location, they needed clothing (or money), and they needed support from SaddleBrooke. Without hesitation SWO forged ahead.
The Founding of SBCO: Reorganization and Finding a Home
It was February 1997. With the strategic decision made to open a children’s clothing bank in the Tri-Communities (Oracle, San Manuel, and Mammoth), SaddleBrooke Women’s Outreach (SWO) needed to professionalize its internal structure. The rough and tumble of the group’s early months no longer offered effectiveness and efficiency. Roberta Spector took the lead in this effort. Roberta, Sonia Fradkin, and Louise Sample began writing the constitution and bylaws. By March the group elected its first board, by April it had incorporated, and by August 1997 SWO had received IRS designation as a 501 (c) 3 non-profit. SWO’s first board included Dorothy Steffano, Harriet Schultz, Roberta Spector, Sharon Knight, Lynne Walther, Marky McCarthy, and Marcia Weitzman. Its first mission was “To provide appropriate school attire to needy children in the Tri-Communities.”
By April the women were forced to confront a first unintended consequence and burgeoning reality – SaddleBrooke men. Increasingly men were joining the cause and in very instrumental ways. Co-founders today laugh at what they now call their 1996 women-only naiveté. Initially Bill Reithmiller was asked to create an SWO Men’s Auxiliary. However, the momentum created by so many men joining overwhelmed any idea of an auxiliary. The decision was made to embrace men as full members. SWO’s April 1997 incorporation was as SBCO (SaddleBrooke Community Outreach).
Due to its increasing numbers of volunteers SBCO’s meetings were moved to HOA 1’s activity center. Even today Dorothy Steffano recalls with amazement how Roberta marvelously handled the complexities of the above. “She made it look so effortless, which it was not. This internal work had to be done for us to have any chance at success.” These reorganizational efforts were important. There was still much to do. Although the newly created SBCO knew what it wanted to do and where it wanted to do it, it had neither money nor clothing and it had no physical location for its clothing bank.
The issue of location would resolve itself rather easily. By July 1997 Avenue B Elementary School in San Manuel donated classroom #42 for SBCO’ clothing bank use. “As you can imagine the schools were very appreciative of our efforts,” recalled Sandy Simester. “If they had it and we needed it, we got it.” SBCO now had a formal internal organizational structure and a location for its clothing bank. What remained was garnering the support of SaddleBrooke households and finding the needed clothing (or money).
Support from SaddleBrooke soon began to trickle in. However, reaching a funding or clothing critical mass sufficient to open a clothing bank proved elusive. For start-up success SBCO needed to find a higher gear.
SBCO had its location, but it had no money. “It was no mystery that if we wanted to open a clothing bank we needed clothing or money. We had neither,” recalled co-founder Harriet Schultz. “Our first strategy was to approach Tucson’s department stores asking for donations of new clothing. That didn’t pan out. Lacking these donations we realized we were going to have to raise money and in the short term change our focus to used clothing.”
SBCO volunteers scoured Tucson thrift stores for quality used clothing and retail stores for bargains. The “grandchild standard” was adopted. Whatever the women bought had to be good enough for their grandchildren to wear. Elaine Stamm recalled how the women would come to meetings and pile the clothes they had bought in the middle of the room. The women divided the clothing to take home for preparation for sale. “We mended, washed, and ironed a lot of clothing in those early days,” recalled Roberta Spector.
“Often we used our own money to make purchases, recalled Sandy Simester. “We would even open accounts in our own names in stores in order to get additional discounts.” Sandy Qureshi remembered that it was every day someone drove into Tucson to search for bargains. Added Harriet Schultz, “Sometimes we found bargains, sometimes we didn’t, and paying the sales tax was killing us. We saw quickly that our buying strategy was not the best way to go.”
Support from SaddleBrooke gained momentum. Publicity in local papers and outreach through unit representatives began to get results. Unit 8 held a potluck dinner and clothing drive. Other units followed. Then several individual large donations came in which became key to reaching a financial critical mass for opening the clothing bank. “By mid 1997 we had enough money to begin focusing solely on purchasing only news clothes,” recalled Marcia Weitzman.
Technically the group’s fundraising efforts began in the fall of 1996. Harriet Goldstein and Sandy Simester chaired an aluminum can recycling campaign. “One Monday a month about a dozen of our members would bring bags of aluminum cans to our home and the following morning a man would come to pick them up and pay us,” remembered Sandy Simester. “Often that was such a mess. Mondays we would work into the evening removing beverage, cigarette butts, and ashes from some of the cans. But that was OK because it meant $120 a month for the kids.” By the summer of 1997 other fundraising efforts were completed or were being planned. These included a dinner theater presentation by the Arizona Opera Company, a fashion show, the sale of Tribute Cards, a “Just Jeans” campaign, participation in SaddleBrooke’s annual rummage sale, and a planned fall event that would become SBCO’s first Walk-A-Thon.
In August 1997 SBCO began moving into its new clothing bank. Elaine Stamm suggested the name, “ Closet,” named after a children’s second hand clothing shop in Portland, OR. The name was adopted. Closet was about to open its doors.
The Founding of SBCO: Kids’ Closet Opens Its Doors
With Kids’ Closet set to open its doors in just a few weeks there was much to do at its San Manuel Avenue B Elementary School location. Elaine Stamm, the first Kids’ Closet co-chair (with Harriet Schultz) and others remember the room as being dark, even gloomy. “Brightly colored kites were purchased and put on the ceiling and wherever possible bright colors were added to the room. Geoff Knight, Rex Wyland, Ray Wagner, John Magdziasz, Joe Reich and many others worked wonders to build shelving, clothing racks, and dressing rooms for our new Closet,” recalled Elaine Stamm. Ready and very much willing, October 2, 1997 Kids’ Closet opened its doors.
Volunteers from the day remember a scantily furnished and poorly stocked room. “In 1997 we were bringing in clothes by the arms full, today clothes are brought in by the truck load,” added Sandy Simester. “A few clothes were stacked on student desks and a few folding tables. That was about it.” “But it didn’t take long for the room to fill up,’ added Karen Stotts. “Eventually the room was jam-packed. Our reception desk was in the front and the phone was on the back wall. When the phone rang we had to run a gauntlet of clothing, volunteers, and kids and then jump over the shoe department to reach the phone. Those were crazy but completely wonderful times.”
Many SBCO pioneers recalled with fondness the carpooling. “We had no truck then, so we used our own cars,” recalled Willie Reich. “Volunteers would meet each morning then decide who would drive to San Manuel. Clothes, then volunteers would pile into the cars and off we would go. We talked shop or about our grandkids or shared past, current, and anticipated life adventures during the drives.” Added Karen Stotts, “We developed such camaraderie from those days. We put a lot of miles on our cars moving inventory between SaddleBrooke and San Manuel.” Huguette Baad agreed, adding that she has friends today who she met during early Kids’ Closet carpooling.
Kids’ Closet was SBCO’s primary focus, but not its only focus. SBCO made an early habit of responding to emergency situations in the Tri-Communities. “We routinely responded to calls for help from the police, Child Protective Services, and from the schools. In cases of house fires, storm damage, major illness in a family, or homelessness we were quick to provide food, clothing, medication, and hygiene products,” recalled Karen Stotts. SBCO’s Christmas 1997 Adopt-A-Family program, still functioning today, was an outgrowth of this early interventionist spirit. SBCO’s 1997 programming closed out with its first successful Walkathon event, raising $6,556.00 from corporate sponsors and 138 walkers. “I remember thinking raising money by having people walk around Ridgeview was a silly idea,” recalled co-founder Roberta Spector. “That just proves how amazingly wrong we can be sometimes.”
SBCO and its Kids’ Closet were up and running. Program successes were accumulating daily. However, behind the scenes the organization’s infrastructure was straining from SBCO’s rapid growth. Although only one year old, SBCO needed a revolution.
The Founding of SBCO: In Search of a Sustainable System
The year 1997 was coming to a rapid conclusion. SBCO’s logistics were straining from rapid growth and from the weight of its own success. As a result, purchasing, transportation, storage, and inventory were major early obstacles to efficient operation.
Today SBCO pioneers speak in awe of those among them who worked in SBCO’s early warehouse and inventory system. “Those people were miracle workers,” exclaimed Bev Magdziasz and Bente Fongemie. “We had no system. We made it up as we went along. Planning, scheduling, purchasing, and staffing were all done by pencil and paper.” Added Willie Reich, “Early Closet directors Harriet Schultz, Elaine Stamm, Sandy Quereshi, and Sharon Knight were incredibly organized.” However, and to a person, these early directors deflected any credit. Collectively they credited the small army of willing volunteers for the Closet’s success. “In those days all we needed to do was to call for volunteers or to pass around a sign-up sheet and we would receive plenty of help,” recalled Sandy Quereshi. Huguette Baad concurred. “We had an enthusiasm that came from a pioneer spirit. I believe this special spirit came with creating something special.”
“There was no storage at the first Closet in San Manuel,” remembered Sandy Quereshi. “Every day we had to go to wherever we had clothes stored in SaddleBrooke, retrieve them, load them into our cars, drive them to San Manuel, unload and carry them into the Closet. At the end of the day we would put them back into our cars and return them to SaddleBrooke.” Added Harriet Schultz, “Mr Robson had given us storage space at our commercial center. It was filled floor to ceiling with boxes of clothing. Some of us would climb into the stacks of boxes, pull them crashing to the floor, and go through them to find what we wanted to take to San Manuel. Since much of the used clothing had no tags it was bedlam finding the clothes we needed for the day.”
If you speak with SBCO’s pioneers today and as they recall the rough and tumble of the early days few from then are remembered with such appreciation as Bev and John Magdziasz. In their capacity as local or emergency buyers they would drive into Tucson to make special purchases of clothing, toiletries, etc. when the Closet’s inventory would run low. “It never mattered what we needed or when we needed it, a call to Bev and John would result in the goods being delivered,” said Kid’s Closet manager Karen Stotts. “There was so much we didn’t know back then,” remembered Bev and John. “SBCO didn’t know what to buy or when to buy it. We often ran out of inventory and if we didn’t buy it ASAP, the Closet shelves would become bare. So, we would race around and by 100 pairs of socks or 500 tubes of toothpaste or grab every size 8 of something in the store. People would look at our shopping carts and look at us like we were crazy. It was and still is today a wonderful organization. So many good people are doing what is necessary to keep SBCO alive and well. We are thankful to be part of it.”
Robson Communities Incorporated played a role crucial in SBCO making it through its growing pains. Mike Osborn in Sun Lakes and sales manager Art Vaughn locally basically adopted SBCO. They provided storage and office space at the commercial center and in model home garages. Everyone from Robson helped. The sales office took calls and accepted deliveries for us and the maintenance crew would deliver them to us. Clothing drop boxes were allowed in the common areas, the golf course was donated for fundraisers, and RCI was a generous Walkathon sponsor.
Straining at every seam SBCO needed to modernize or revolutionize its logistics. Elaine Stamm believed that a solution might spring from her experience with the Tucson Assistance League and its Operation School Bell project. Dorothy Steffano and Harriet Schultz were looking at a new system for buying clothes. A new board of directors was installed. Once again and in the “nick of time,” SBCO was on the move.
The Founding of SBCO: Turning Point
For SBCO 1998-1999 produced three developments that permanently altered the organization. These developments were driven by SBCO’s rapid growth, the diversification in its programming, and its forward-looking leaders and members.
The first was the expansion and election of SBCO’s second board of directors. This board, chaired again by Dorothy Steffano, included leaders who in one year would revolutionize SBCO. The board included such notables as Willie Reich, Louise Sample, Madeline Bosma, Marcia Weitzman, Harriet Goldstein, Pat Hanson, Iris Carr, Roberta Spector, Bev Harpold, Sharon Knight, Stephanie Roselle, Elaine Stamm, Sandy Qureshi, and Harriet Schultz. Willie, Bev, and Elaine remain involved today – 15 years later.
Kids’ Closet logistics and the inefficiencies related to having to purchase clothing at retail prices were becoming serious issues for SBCO. An answer to this challenge would be found in Tucson. Elaine Stamm, a long-time member of The Assistance League of Tucson (and formerly in Oregon) suggested as a model an Assistance League program called the School Bell Project. This program involved the use of proceeds from a thrift store to purchase discounted clothing which were given to needy children to wear to school. New clothes were purchased from national clothing distributors of last season’s fashions, manufacturing overruns, and slightly irregular clothes – all at very low prices.
These distributors could be found annually at a Las Vegas convention. SBCO had no money and some members were reluctant to pursue this opportunity. However, in February 1998 Rhoda Hanisch, Dorothy Steffano’s mother, donated funds so Dorothy and Harriet Schultz could travel to Las Vegas to investigate the opportunity. “At this off price convention clothing jobbers and dealers were selling large quantities of clothing,” remembered Dorothy. “There were no taxes for out-of-state purchases and the cost of shipping was less than the Arizona taxes SBCO was paying for local clothing purchases. This was such an eye-opener for us. Clothing was discounted up to 75%. We could buy new clothing for pennies on the dollar. This would become the purchasing model for the Kids’ Closet we know today.”
SBCO continued to expand its reach into the community. It began donating clothing to Tri-Community Food Bank’s thrift store. March 1998 saw SBCO’s first (it continues today) food drive to benefit area food banks. Annie Patterson introduced the fundraiser “Angel Program” which would go on to raise many thousands of dollars over the next few years. Also, SaddleBrooke’s Rotary club held the first of many golf tournaments to benefit SBCO programs.
In late 1998 SBCO was becoming the organization it is today. However, little did anyone know that in just a few months an event would occur that would shake and shape the Tri-Communities and define SBCO’s relationship with those three communities.
The Founding of SBCO: The Final Chapter
As the year 2000 approached SBCO was faced with an event that shook it and continues to shape it today. That event – the June 1999 closing of the BHP copper mine and smelting operations in Mammoth. This resulted in the loss of 2,300 jobs, devastating families in the Tri-Communities’ “company towns.”
Strained, but undaunted SBCO refused to pull in its enterprising horns. The energy and talent of its members and volunteers were sufficient to not only survive, but to thrive. More kids were being served through the Kids’ Closet and on occasion the parents and grandparents of the kids were provided clothing and food. “It was not uncommon for the parents to come in wearing clothing in worse condition than the kids were,” recalled Sandy Quereshi. By 1999 under the direction of Missy Brixius Kids’ Closet was providing age-appropriate books to the kids with their wardrobes. Today (2012) each year 6,000 books are purchased and given away through Kids’ Closet. In-school tutoring by volunteers had become part of SBCO’s programming. And in response to the acute hunger in the communities SBCO initiated quarterly cash donations to the Tri-Community Food Bank. This was in addition to SBCO’s annual food drive which continues today. SBCO was also working to improve its internal processes. Under the direction of Carla Springer inventory was being computerized, promotional brochures were being designed, and a newsletter was being published. A data base for donors had also been created.
As the Golden Goose Thrift Shop was three years away from creation, fundraising was critical to SBCO’s success. Annie Patterson’s fundraising Angel Program was going great guns as were clothing sales (Alfredo’s Wife’s Trunk), fashion shows, and Fran Rumble and Karen Weiss’ home-garden tours. The Rotary Club held another of its golf tournaments benefiting SBCO. Two realtors, Sonia Fradkin and Gloria Weimer offered a percentage of their commissions to SBCO on any sale generated by a member’s referral. Phelps Ross (Oracle Ford) made contributions to Outreach for autos sold to SaddleBrooke residents. Stephanie Roselle and other SaddleBrooke knitters had by now become indispensable supporters of SBCO.
Another reason SBCO became the organization it is today is men. Not that it tried to do so, but this formerly women-only organization was unable to deny men increasingly important roles. Even in 1997 men were active behind the scenes. Husbands were initially “pressed into service” by their wives. Their contributions were buried in tasks rather than in formal positions. They were involved in construction, inventory, transportation, and fundraising. Eventually they occupied leadership positions. In 1999 Don Feder was the first man elected (treasurer) to SBCO’s board of directors. “Men were pretty persistent and valuable,” recalled Huguette Baad. “We could not have excluded them even if we had wanted to.”
The year 1999 saw the election of a new board of directors. This board would guide SBCO into the 21st century. The new board consisted of President Bev Harpold, Judi Butcher, Carla Springer, Bonnie Nissenbaum, Madeline Bosma, Dave Feder, Jean Judd, Sherri Wyland, Sandy Qureshi, Linda Schreiber, Marsha Camp, and Judy Kany.
Looking back today it appears that SBCO co-founder Dorothy Steffano called it correctly. She offered two goals and traditions for the fledgling organization. First, she visualized an organization that would work with the Tri-Communities to do what it could to raise the quality of life for disadvantaged children and families. Second, through their service, SBCO members and volunteers would enrich their own lives. Today (April 2012) SBCO continues both traditions.