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Altruism in 1935-60

Altruism - Essential to the Sisterhood

Self-help toy exhibit at New York State Day

Cerebral Palsy Program

Members of Alpha Chi Omega have long found service to others – on Hera Day and throughout the year – to be one of the most fulfilling and meaningful parts of their membership. During World War I, for example, members reached out to support French children who were orphaned during the war. During World War II, members supported nursery schools serving families with parents serving in the war or working on the home front.

The November 1947 issue of The Lyre explained how the Fraternity chose its next altruistic project: Two years ago, as the demands of the war-time nursery school project dwindled, Mrs. Darrell R. Nordwall, national vice-president and chairman of the fraternity altruistic committee, began concentrating her efforts on finding a project for Alpha Chi Omega that (1) would be work with children, (2) could be a co-operative endeavor both active and alumnae groups, (3) would meet with the approval both of our own members and of others as a worthwhile and important work, and (4) could be tied up with some organization that had trained specialists to aid and guide us, save us the expense of large administrative overhead, and thus make it possible to use every dollar for the benefit of those we wished to help.

The Delta Delta (West San Fernando Valley, California) and Alpha Kappa Alpha (Pasadena, California) alumnae chapters led the effort to adopt the cause of cerebral palsy, and by unanimous vote of the 1947 National Convention delegates, the Fraternity began its support of the National Society for Crippled Children and Adults, assisting at the local and national levels by funding scholarships and providing equipment and service locally. This provided members the opportunity to reach out to children who were suffering from and to educate members and the public about cerebral palsy.

The Fraternity made an initial gift of $5,000 to provide fellowships and scholarships that would enable doctors, therapists and educators to further their study of work with children with cerebral palsy. In May 1948, the first scholarships were granted. In her 1948 report to the membership, National President Gladys Drach Power commented on the success to date of the project, saying, “It is very heartening to note that this enthusiasm extends to all parts of the country, includes all age groups, and has stimulated the work of alumnae groups, active chapters, and mothers’ clubs.”

At the 1951 National Convention, delegates voted to expand support by making self-help toys designed to provide both entertainment and orthopedic value for affected children. A popular “traveling toy exhibit” helped collegiate and alumnae chapters promote the project, and members created the Toy Book, which included patterns, instructions and photographs of the toys.

A child with cerebral palsy, the altruistic project selected in 1947

Ellen Drake MacMillan (Alpha Beta, Purdue University), the initial chair of the national committee overseeing the program, pointed out the rewarding nature of the project. “This fraternity has never had a stronger appeal for its members, or that has met with a more enthusiastic response. Large clubs and small, in cities and in towns, north, south, east, and west, wherever Alpha Chi groups are located, have become vitally interested, and best of all, active in working to help provide abetter life for cerebral palsied children.”

According to the report of the Cerebral Palsy Project Committee in 1959, cerebral palsy was becoming more prevalent partly because it affected premature babies whose lives, thanks to medical advances, were being saved, but with cerebral palsy as a resulting complication.

Financial contributions provided scholarships and gifts to Easter Seals, schools and orthopedic hospitals. Members stuffed envelopes for Easter Seals, raised money for equipment, made toys and more. The membership was kept informed of the Cerebral Palsy Project and Easter Seals support, which was benefiting families in need and providing positive recognition for Alpha Chi Omega, through regular updates in The Lyre. In the first 10 years of support of the philanthropy, the Fraternity had donated $194,525, in addition to thousands of hours of volunteer service.

The MacDowell Colony

Alpha Chi Omega continued to support the Peterborough, New Hampshire, MacDowell Colony and its Star Studio – the organization’s first philanthropy – through financial donations supporting both the upkeep of Star Studio and artist fellowships. The property sustained extensive damage from a 1938 hurricane, and colony founder Marian Nevins MacDowell described the appearance of the Star Studio grounds as having been “robbed it of all the beautiful forest in which it stood. Now, it has a different beauty but one of great charm. It now looks like a little cottage surrounded by lilac and other bushes.”

While difficult economic circumstances challenged the colony at times, it was able to keep its place as a nurturing environment for artists. This was partly due to the sustained generosity of Alpha Chi Omega members, some of whom were even able to take advantage of an opportunity to visit the colony as part of a 1947 post-convention tour.

Star Studio

A rallying cry from Fay Barnaby Kent (Delta, Allegheny College) in The Lyre in 1952 went like this: “In this time of materialism we certainly need to foster the arts, and so many of our past and creative workers have gotten their start at the Colony…I think Marian MacDowell is one of the greatest women of our times!” And in 1955, the Fraternity marked Marian MacDowell’s 95th birthday with a $1,000 “birthday gift.”

In 1954, MacDowell and the story of the colony were featured in a nationally televised program, “Lady in the Wings,” with an on-camera appearance by MacDowell, then in her late 90s.

In August 1956, MacDowell, who had started the colony in honor of her late composer husband, Edward MacDowell, died at the age of 99. Described as “inimitable” and “gallant,” MacDowell wrote a letter to the Fraternity shortly before her death in which she expressed her appreciation to the organization, saying, “My warmest wishes go to every Alpha Chi Omega, and my deepest appreciation for all you are doing. I can never thank the sorority enough for the trust and faith you had in what seemed to most of the world a fantastic and impossible scheme.”

As pointed out in The Lyre following her death, “She was referring to the colony but it was the glowing spirit and never-dismayed qualities of Marian MacDowell herself which made the colony possible and inspired others to want to have a part in making it a success.”