Soundings: Philanthropy comes in all shapes and sizes

July 13, 2014 


Janey Koester, from left, Jean Six, Cece Clynch, Mary Gentry and Mimi Williams gather for the Soup Sisters monthly dinner in Boston Harbor on Wednesday, July 9, 2014.

TONY OVERMAN — Staff Photographer Buy Photo

The Soup Sisters are a reminder that philanthropy comes in all shapes and sizes.

Since 2007, a group of a dozen or so professional women — most retired, but some still working — have gathered monthly to sip some wine, socialize, dine on homemade soup and share dessert, then, most importantly, write checks of $50 to $100 each directed to a South Sound charitable group that can use a helping hand.

Through the process, strangers have morphed into friends, soup recipes have been swapped, and non-profits groups have received an unexpected financial shot in the arm.

“It’s nice to give, and then hear back from the groups,” said Mary Gentry, a retired teacher and attorney who, as with many of the Soup Sisters, is an active community member, serving on a number of boards, including the Nisqually Land Trust, Saint Martin’s University and Olympia Federal Savings and Loan.

The Soup Sisters meet at a home of one of the members 10 months out of the year, skipping only the November-December holiday season. The gatherings last no more than three hours and the business part of the night rarely takes more than several minutes.

“We look forward to it every month,” Soup Sister Mimi Williams said. “It’s really simple and so low stress. It’s not like a book club where everybody’s trying to show how smart they are.”

On Wednesday, eight Soup Sisters gathered about 6 p.m. on the front patio of Fred and Mary Gentry’s Dover Point home.

The sun was shining brightly and a refreshing breeze blew on shore from the north past the southern tips of Squaxin and Harstine islands. The Olympic Mountains loomed through a gauzy haze in the distance. Not a bad setting for a giving circle to gather. The Gentrys’ two dogs — Malbec and Barley — made the rounds in search of affection and scraps of food.

As the host, Gentry was responsible for the soup — she made a creamy lentil and spinach soup well received by all — sliced up a couple loaves of artisan bread, and supplied the wine and lemonade.

There are few ground rules for the giving. The groups steers clear of socio-political issues that could lead to disagreements. Invariably, the recipients of the Soup Sisters’ largesse work in the fields of early childhood education, food security, housing, and women’s health.

For instance, Garden-Raised Bounty (GRuB), the Olympia-based program that teaches disadvantaged teens gardening and social skills, received the group’s first donation in March 2007, and five more donations since.

The May 13 letter filled with checks arrived at the GRuB office just after Katie Rains had assumed the position of executive director of the groups that advocates for youth and healthy, locally grown food.

“Seeing that letter and all those checks — it actually made me cry,” Rains recalled.

Gentry started Soup Sisters with fellow attorney and former co-worker CeCe Clynch. They had each read about other giving circles and decided to start their own by each inviting five friends to the first meeting. Few of the women knew each other, but they have since forged strong friendships.

“We get along and we laugh together,” said Janey Koester. “And it’s a pretty rewarding thing to do.”

One of the reasons the Soup Sisters decided to share their story with me was to encourage others in the community to form similar giving circles, noted retired former school teacher Jean Six. Talk about a small world — Six was a student teacher in one of my English classes nearly 50 years ago at North Thurston High School.

Over a plate of mixed fruit pie and a dollop of ice cream, the Soup Sisters began deliberations on this month’s worthy charity. Gentry shared a June 29 story that appeared in The Olympian about Pear Blossom Place, the new shelter in Olympia for homeless families. Operated by the Family Support Center of South Sound, the shelter features six rooms with 28 beds, plus seven subsidized apartments for another 32 people.

Pear Blossom Place still needs donations for furniture, snacks, toiletries, bus passes and the like. Within a few minutes, the Soup Sisters were digging into their purses and writing checks to help meet those needs.

“We never know how much people give,” Six said, writing her check and placing it face down on the table. The minimum donation was set at $20 in 2007, but is typically much more than that.

The gathering of Soup Sisters breaks up around 9 p.m., but not before a smattering of conversation about community needs — summer donations for the Thurston Food Bank, help for Hispanic farmworker families in south County — fills the air.

The Soup Sisters won’t have any trouble picking another worthwhile community program to help when they reconvene in August.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444

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