Where do you get a sense of who you are, of fulfilment and of the satisfaction that comes from making a difference for others?
Some might say it is from being a wife, mother, grandmother. Some would say it is from the work that they do. For many it’s both of these things. When someone asks you about yourself, I bet you say something like “I work at…” or “I’m a teaching assistant/ lawyer/ hairdresser/doctor”, or the dreaded comment, “Oh, I’m just a housewife”.
Our work and relationships are vital ways in which we derive our status in life and define who we are. But is that the whole story? For me, it certainly is not. From finishing university and a professional qualification as a chartered librarian, I worked in Colleges and Universities and loved my career. But around the age of forty, I found that I was looking for something more, for another source of friends and fulfilment. My life was too much in one arena.
I’m not one for crafts or cake making. My singing is terrible and a lack of coordination means that playing a musical instrument or sports are not for me. Then a work colleague said, “Have you ever thought of joining Soroptimist International?”
It was a eureka moment.
A wonderful organisation, with groups of women all over the world, who enjoy fun and friendship while lobbying, giving service and fund-raising to make a difference for other women.
I joined the Croydon Club first and then, after a couple of years and a broken marriage, I moved to Nottingham to a new job. The Nottingham Club provided a ready-made circle of like-minded women. Listening to them talk about their jobs gave me fresh insights, broadened my horizons and enabled me to share the challenges that women face in the workplace.
Contributing to local projects gave me a way to connect with my new hometown, while the international projects were a way of helping women from other countries. Club members were there to celebrate when I re-married and they helped us through a difficult time when I had breast cancer – a wonderful support group.
Some years later, the Club was one of the lead partners in a million pound appeal to build a new Breast Cancer Institute at our City Hospital. Eventually, being Club and then Region President gave me the opportunity to meet women from all backgrounds and jobs as I travelled to other areas and attended national and international conferences.
When retirement comes, common advice is that you need to find something to replace the sense of fulfilment and identity which you get from work, something to enable you to mix with people of all ages. For me, that has been as a School Governor and a Magistrate but most of all, as a Soroptimist. Current Club projects involve lobbying to help trafficked women and supporting three of our local Women’s Refuge and Women’s Centres. At the same time, we fund-raise for a women’s education project in Kenya and to help our partner Club in Sierra Leone.
In 2014, I was privileged to become President of our Federation of 29 countries. Just two highlights from that year: visiting a school in the Zimbabwe bush where our wonderfully named ‘knickers for knowledge’ project has enabled girls to stay in school when they have their periods, and attending a conference on preventing sexual violence as a weapon of war. During the latter I spent time with Silvana Arbia, an Italian judge who led the International Criminal Tribunal in Rwanda that prosecuted war criminals from the Rwandan massacres.
Just two of so many experiences my membership has brought me, plus the great gift of increasing my confidence and honing skills in public speaking, presenting and leading diverse teams. Volunteering has given me back so much more than I have ever given.