How Harrogate's Soroptimists were undeterred by Covid pandemic and kept helping local community

The remarkable efforts of Soroptimist International in Harrogate during lockdown are testimony to the idea that the battle for women’s rights wasn’t born yesterday.

Friday, 2nd July 2021, 12:13 pm
Updated Friday, 2nd July 2021, 12:14 pm
President Sandra Frier and members of the Harrogate and District Soroptimist, Soroptimist International attended the presentation of their flower bed this week at Montpellier Hill from Harrogate Borough Council and the team at the Parks and Enviroment Services. Picture Gerard Binks

Pandemic or no pandemic, volunteers of the Harrogate branch have kept on making a difference and living up to the credo to transform the lives of girls and women first established a century ago by the movement’s founders.

Now their contribution has been recognised with an unusual accolade - their own town centre flower bed.

From the archives: A photo of the Harrogate Soroptimists taken during the 1950s.

Located in an unmissable spot on Montpellier Hill, the splended Centennial Flowerbed honours not only the 100th anniversary of Soroptimist International globally, but the voluntary work Harrogate members have continued to carry out locally despite the restrictions of Covid.

Months of ever-changing restrictions have made it impossible for the group to have face-to-face meetings since the first lockdown.

Like many other charities, it has found raising funds a struggle but that has not stopped them, even if it means getting Zoom involved.

Harrogate SI president Sandra Frier said: “The impact of Covid meant that we all had to re-think the way we lived our lives.

“I was amazed at the ideas and the skills of my fellow Soroptimists as they got to work to support our local communities.”

Among the many local achievements of Soroptimist International of Harrogate and District during the Covid year are:

Supplying bedding for Harrogate Women’s Refuge;

Pamper packs for NHS staff;

Making Scrubs, facemasks, and laundry bags to support Harrogate Scrubbers;

Donating food and money to Harrogate and Ripon Food Banks;

Raising nearly £700 for the Trussell Trust’s Race Against Hunger.

The ceremony to unveil the Centennial Flowerbed saw Harrogate Mayor Coun Trevor Chapman full of praise for Soroptimist International of Harrogate and District.

The mayor said: “I am truly grateful for the support the Soroptimists provide for the benefit of the community in the Harrogate district.

“Everyone should pay tribute to the Harrogate branch for the sterling work they do year in, year out.”

In return Harrogate SI president Sandra Frier, said she was grateful to the staff at Harrogate Borough Council’s Parks and Environment Services for creating the fantastic flowerbed.

She said: “It is great to see the organisation’s centenary celebrated with 100 flowers in this way in the middle of Harrogate.

“We may not quite be a household name but Soroptimists locally and across the world have been working hard to educate, enable and empower women and girls to reach their potential.”

Modesty is part of Harrogate SI’s character despite nearly 90 years of service to the community.

But the Harrogate branch has so much to be proud of since its humble beginnings in 1933 when it was formed by a handful of ladies led by founding president Dr Kathleen Rutherford.

Regular activities in normal times include fundraising for Harrogate’s Dementia Forward and Just ‘B’, which is part of North Yorkshire Bereavement Care; supporting Re-engage, formerly known as Contact the Elderly; planting trees in Harrogate and Ripon and organising the annual Christmas Charity Shop Window Competition.

On top of that, its members also volunteer regularly at Craven and Harrogate Citizens Advise Bureau, local libraries and act as guides at Harrogate’s Royal Hall.

In 2019, Harrogate Soroptimists received the Yorkshire Women Volunteer Award for service over many years.

Such are the club’s impressive commitments in the community it’s easy to forget that Soroptimist International of Harrogate and District remains a campaigning group.

Keen to live up to the inspirational example set by its legendary founding figure Dr Rutherford, a lifelong pacifist who was awarded the MBE in 1970 after decades of helping disadvantaged women across the globe, Harrogate Soroptimists continue to support gender rights for women with an emphasis on practical help.

Recent months have seen the volunteers lobbying local MPs to ‘Get Care Sorted’ pressing the Government to bring forward the long-awaited green paper on the funding of the struggling social care sector, in particular in regard to dementia care.

In a way, Soroptimist International of Harrogate and District remains true to the example of Dr Rutherford.

Earlier this year, the club unveiled a brown plaque to its founder in Harrogate to mark International Women’s Day in a show of commitment to the idea that women’s rights are a question of human rights.

Valerie Hills, Harrogate SI’s president elect and communications team leader, said: “Our members continue to follow in the footsteps of those who went before them, actively supporting women and children throughout the world.”

To this day the Harrogate branch of the Soroptimists help women in Africa through sister SI groups in Kenya and Malawi.

In the toughest of times, their work goes on at home and abroad.

President Sandra Frier said: “Our team have really come together to overcome all the obstacles over the last 15 months.

“I am very proud to have been their president over the toughest of times.”

A brief history of Soroptimists International and how Harrogate's branch fits in

SI Harrogate and District was formed in 1933, slightly more than a decade after Soroptimist International was founded in 1921 as a worldwide volunteer service organisation for women.

As well as women’s rights and interests, the environment and conservation has been an important issue for the voluntary organisation from the beginning.

The very first Soroptimists group in Oakland, California campaigned successfully to protect Giant Redwood Trees from felling.

The first Soroptimist club in Britain was chartered in London in 1924.

At the time of the launch of Harrogate Soroptimists, members often worked to assist refugees fleeing unrest in central Europe in the build-up to the Second World War.

The Harrogate branch’s extraordinary first president, Dr Kathleen Rutherford, shared that internationlist outlook, working in the slums of Naples and in leper colonies in Africa, as well as helping refugees in Europe and Palestine.

The objectives of Soroptimist International (SI) are to transform the lives of girls and women of all ages through its global network of Clubs and international partnerships.

It achieved consultative status at the United Nations and is a recognised Non-Government Organisation.

The organisation now has 3,000 clubs with 72,000 members in 121 countries.

The clubs are represented by five federations, SI America, SI Europe, SI Great Britain and Ireland (this includes Clubs from India, Pakistan, Nepal, the Caribbean and Malta), SI South West Pacific and the recently-formed Federation SI Africa.

SI Harrogate and District has a long history of working locally, nationally, and globally to achieve the organisations objectives and to help - in their own words - “Educate, Enable and Empower women and girls”.

Harrogate is often one of the favourite conference venues chosen by SI Great Britain and Ireland for its annual conference - when more than a thousand Soroptimists descend on the town for three days each October - when normal times reign.

The name Soroptimist is derived from the Latin word Soros meaning “sister” and optima meaning “best of”.

For more info on Harrogate SI, visit: www.sigbi.org/

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