Pearls are known the world over, having been valued for their beauty for centuries. A genuine pearl - one that grows naturally inside an oyster, instead of being cultured - is a rare occurrence.
But these iridescent gems of the sea aren't the only rare and genuine occurrences in the world. Numerous local women who have donated both their time and money to "create powerful communities through passionate giving" were honored at the inaugural Pearls with a Passion luncheon Thursday at 33 East restaurant.
Pearls with a Passion, which will wrap up its first full year at the end of this month, is an endowed fund that is part of a growing national trend in women's giving societies, and the first of its kind in northcentral Pennsylvania.
The goal of a giving society is for a group to put together their charitable dollars, explore community needs through a collaborative process, and determine the projects, or grant causes, to which they will donate funds.
The luncheon was given to recognize the 2013 Pearls with a Passion grantees and their work, choose the area of interest for gravemaking in 2014 and select committee members who will go over applications for grants and determine where funds will be distributed.
The endowment is part of the First Community Foundation Partnership of Pennsylvania, "a regional community foundation that meets ever-changing issues and needs of nonprofits in northcentral Pennsylvania," said Jennifer Wilson, president and CEO. Based in Williamsport for nearly a century, the partnership works with philanthropic-minded groups and individuals to manage and distribute grants.
They became interested in creating a women's giving society in 2007, said Dawn Linn, vice president of planned philanthropy, but they wanted it to be different from the other models they had seen.
"We felt it was essential to raise an endowment right away, so that the fund could exist in perpetuity," she said.
The partnership wanted an endowment that was substantial enough to give an impactful amount every year in grants, so they set a goal of finding 10 donors, or founders, who would contribute a lifetime total of $25,000 each.
The $250,000 endowment amount would allow Pearls with a Passion to grant a minimum of $10,000 each year to the causes selected, a number that all involved felt very comfortable with.
However, they didn't find 10 donors - they found 12. The endowment now stands at $300,000.
"Women and philanthropy go together," said Dr. Davie Jane Gilmour, president of Pennsylvania College of Technology and one of the founders. "In this way, we can make a statement in our community that's guided and directed by women."
The luncheon began with a welcome from Wilson and Marshall Welch III, chairmen of the partnership's board of directors. Wilson explained that the partnership had wanted to give each founder a special gift, a handmade pin set with a pearl and a ruby - "to honor the connection with the First Community Foundation Partnership" - but the cost was proving to be prohibitive.
Welch, whose mother Mary had just become a founder, decided he would pay not only for her pin, but for all 12.
After the pins were presented to each founder, Welch made a champagne toast to everyone in attendance. "To the women who inspire philanthropy in northcentral Pennsylvania, our founding pearls, our 2013 pearl members, and our president and CEO," he said as he raised his glass.
After lunch, Betty Gilmour, director of gravemaking, introduced the three 2013 grantees and invited the representative from each one to speak for a few minutes about their organization and what they were able to accomplish with the funds from Pearls with a Passion.
The first grantee was the Favors Forward Foundation and their Partners to Promise youth initiative, which addresses the issues that children face when their family is facing a major crisis, such as the death of a parent or family member, job loss or multiple military deployments.
Dr. Beth McMahon, professor of health sciences at Lock Haven University and founder of the initiative, which received $2,500 in grants, was the first to speak.
The "adverse childhood experiences" of a family in crisis, as McMahon described them, affects three key areas for children: self-efficacy, or the feeling that nothing is within their control; a sense of hopelessness, which can lead to depression; and the probability of developing at-risk behaviors.
"Five years ago, we had a group of people who could not sleep at night if they knew there was a problem on the streets," McMahon said. Now, she said, there are 300 people, seven universities, 14 organizations, and 32 youth-related organizations working to solve crisis issues for children. They do this by working closely with the children to find out what kind of dream they have and determining how they can make it happen.
They find "something that the kids can grab a hold of and take control of," said McMahon, whether it's learning to sing or play the guitar or ride horseback or take art lessons. The initiative provides the funds and the means for the children to undertake these activities, working with numerous organizations such as the Uptown Music Collective, the Robert M. Sides Family Music Center, Penn College and others.
McMahon related a story about a young girl from the Saving Grace Women's Shelter on Campbell Street who wanted to take guitar lessons. A student from Penn College, who had been homeless as a child and whose fraternity works with the women and children from the shelter, read her story in an email from the initiative and immediately donated his guitar to her. Two other individuals on the initiative's email list who read the story paid for a year's worth of lessons for her.
"The real casualty in a family in crisis is the children," McMahon said.
The second grantee of 2013 was Camp Victory, which received $3,500 for their food service program.
"We're an overnight camp for kids with special needs, but special needs is very broadly defined for us," said Joanne Troutman, director of resource development. They see children with a wide range of afflictions, everything from cancer to kidney disease, diabetes, grief and autism.
The camp provides the infrastructure and the programs, said Troutman, but outside organizations bring the kids, the counselors, and the medical staff. They can provide treatment for almost anything, up to and including chemotherapy.
"They can get their chemo treatment and still go to camp," Troutman said.
This year they held 25 different camps from 22 different organizations, some of whom brought more than one group of campers over the summer. It also was the 20th year of overnight camping, and, coincidentally, they also saw their 20,000th camper.
Lycoming County is Camp Victory's third largest service area, but it sees children from all over the country, she added.
The grant from Pearls with a Passion was used for the camp's food service program, which brings in food such as eggs and hydroponic lettuce from several local sources. Troutman pointed out that almost two thirds of the $600,000 annual budget comes from gifts and donations.
Troutman said children with disabilities and afflictions like this just want to be treated as normal kids.
"They want be with other kids just like them," she said.
The third grantee of 2013 was Diakon Family Services, which received $4,000 for its Girls On The Run program. Started by a former long-distance runner Molly Barker, it combines running-related events with healthy-living education for young girls in grades five through eight.
"The core focus is increasing their self-esteem. We want them to be able to make good choices, have excellent communication skills, and be leaders."
The program is 10 weeks, for 1 and 1/2 hours per day, 2 days per week. It also is offered as a summer camp, for a half day, Monday through Friday, for one week.
The program aims to build strong values through health education, life skills development, mentoring relationships, and physical training, but the most important aspect, said coach Pat Russell, is creating good self-esteem.
"The girls are really encouraged to feel good about 'me'," she said. She added that the program is a tremendous success for most of the girls involved, and many want to come back and coach.
Each girl is required to complete a 5K event, either running or walking, before the conclusion of the program. They're also taught to give back to the community, McElwee said. "They have to pick a community service project," she said. "We've worked with nursing homes, the SPCA, you name it."
This year, the program used the funds from Pearls with a Passion to help with supply costs and to help bring down the cost for girls involved. Typically, said McElwee, it costs $150 per girl, but because of the grant money they received, they were able to bring it down to just $70 per girl.
"It's a beautiful match," said Michele McElwee, of Diakon, speaking on the relationship between feeling good both physically and mentally.
Looking ahead: 2014 Community Cause
Throughout the luncheon, members voted for the 2014 Community Cause, or the area of gravemaking to which funds will be given.
The areas were aging (giving a voice to aging adults so they can remain vital and independent for as long as possible); disabilities (ensuring those with disabilities to continue to lead an active and full life); economic development (promote and support the financial stability of the community); people in crisis (helping families and individuals in crisis and making sure their basic needs are met); quality of life (support the general well-being of individuals and the community as a whole); and youth (helping young children and students obtain what they need to succeed in life).
Near the end of the luncheon, the votes had been tallied and it was discovered that a tie between Youth and People in Crisis was present. It was decided to make a modification and combine the two areas, and the 2014 Community Cause was designated to be "Youth in Crisis."
Gilmour and Linn randomly selected six members who will serve with the founders as Grant Panelists for 2014. Their responsibilities are to sift through the thousands of applications submitted to Pearls with a Passion and choose three that will earn the collective $10,000 in grants.
Those chosen were Carol Sides, Veronica Muzic, Stephanie Calder, Pamela Fink, Frances Doherty and Allison Staiman.
As the luncheon drew to a close, Linn took to the podium to say a few final words. She said she was eager for next year's work to begin, and expressed her gratitude for the founders and the members, 73 total that had joined in its first year.
"You are a true inspiration," she said. "I am proud of the legacy this group will leave on the generations to come."
Linn also encouraged members to leave their mark, as it were: a large canvas with a city skyline outlined in black sat on a table near the door, the "sky" a collage of thumbprints in different colored ink.
"This canvas has been with us for two years now," said Betty Gilmour. Everywhere it goes to a First Community Partnership Foundation event, people are encouraged to leave a thumbprint, in an effort to have no white spots in the night sky.
"We're trying to make an impact on our community one fingerprint at a time," she said.
If the first-year success of Pearls with a Passion is any indication of what is to come, they should have no trouble making a big impact of their own.