From past to present: Women's auxiliaries aren't just an historical footnote

From past to present: Women's auxiliaries aren't just an historical footnote

September 14th, 2014 by Karen Nazor Hill in Life Entertainment

Sandra Atkinson and Lt. Monica Horton dish up bowls of soup at the South Chattanooga Recreation Center earlier this year. The Salvation Army and its women's auxiliary helped man a shelter at the center after an electrical fire at Jaycee Towers displaced residents.

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

Sandra Atkinson, Cindy Hindmon and Maj. Teresa Newsome, from left, are members of The Salvation Army Auxiliary, which will host a purse auction as an upcoming fundraiser.

Sandra Atkinson, Cindy Hindmon and Maj. Teresa Newsome,...

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

Local Auxiliaries

Chattanooga Memorial Hospital Auxiliary: 423-495-7879

Erlanger Medical Center Auxiliary: 423-778-7892

Salvation Army Women's Auxiliary: 423-756-1023; members are recommended by the auxiliary's membership committee and approved by the executive committee.

American Legion Post 81: 423-476-8948; members can be the mother, wife, daughter, sister, granddaughter, great-granddaughter or grandmother of members of The American Legion or deceased veterans who served in the U.S. Armed Forces during the listed war eras.

Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Alliance: 423-622-2872; members are spouses of local physicians who have joined the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society.

Ladies Auxiliary to the Veterans of Foreign Wars: www.tnlavfw.com

"Women's auxiliaries."

The phrase -- for those who recognize it -- seems like a throwback, an antiquated idea locked into the days of "Mad Men" and "Father Knows Best." It conjures up images of well-turned-out women -- wives mostly -- in skirts, high heels and pearls, serving finger foods and punch while quietly and gracefully raising money for charity and business organizations, gathering clothes for needy children or rounding up food for the hungry.

And auxiliaries -- those that remain -- still do all that, among other tasks. But these days, the skirts and pearls have been replaced by jeans and gloves; the finger foods may now be a quick fast-food sandwich grabbed in between packing boxes, and the women who man the auxiliaries no longer have time to be quiet and demure and work in the shadows of their husbands. They've got too much to do.

"We are involved in many projects for the Chattanooga community," says Kristi Bonvallet, immediate past president of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Alliance, which swapped the word "alliance" for "auxiliary" in 1988. "We promote a 'Hands Are Not For Hitting' program that we present to various preschools and day care facilities in the area."

Annually, we also have a booth for this cause at the Autumn Children's Festival to Benefit Ronald McDonald House Charities. We give out over 600 placemats in those two days with the children's hand prints on them while we discuss with them all the good things they can do with their hands."

These days, most civic auxiliaries, both in Chattanooga and nationwide, focus on veterans, hospitals and social-service agencies. Some churches have them, too, for community and spiritual outreach programs and events.

In Chattanooga, civic auxiliaries for Memorial Hospital and Erlanger hospital, for example, are still active. But others have faded or disbanded due changing times, lack of interest and lack of time.

The Chattanooga Bar Auxiliary, which began in 1966 for the female spouses of attorneys, dissolved about four years ago.

"Clearly, in the '60's, there were many women who didn't work outside the home," says Lynda Hood, Chattanooga Bar Association executive director. "But as time passed, more women joined the workforce and, because of that ... the auxiliary kind of faded away."

The group "did many good things for the area," she says, including financial support for the Chambliss Center for Children, a private nonprofit that specializes in foster care, adoptions, residential care of children, early childhood education and child care. Ultimately, the auxiliary's demise "boiled down to the fact that nobody had the free time to be in the auxiliary," Hood says.

"They were a wonderful group of women and they worked hard, but times have changed."

Salvation Army

One of the most active auxiliaries still in Chattanooga is the Salvation Army Auxiliary, which raises public awareness of the Army's goals, helps bring services to the needy and strengthens the financial base of the organization, says Maj. Teresa Newsome, associate area commander of Army's local chapter.

Created in 1985, the auxiliary is an extension of the Salvation Army's advisory board, says Newsome, and "has provided thousands of hours of volunteer service, served thousands of children, seniors and parents through the Angel Tree program and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for The Salvation Army."

The auxiliary also oversees the familiar red-kettle bell ringers seen during the holidays and the Annual Purse Auction fundraiser, set for Thursday at the Chattanooga Convention Center, in which purses are stuffed with different prizes and sold to the highest bidder.

"Last year was our 10th anniversary of the Purse Auction and it was our best yet," says Kimberly George, Salvation Army director of marketing and development in Chattanooga. "We raised a total of $56,600 that assists with our year-round programs and services which are to meet emergency and disaster-related needs, spiritual outreach for all ages, character-building youth programs and holiday assistance to provide necessities and bring joy to many children, seniors and families."

Nationally, the Salvation Army's Women's Auxiliary was created in 1914 and is active in chapters across the country. In Chattanooga, the group's more than 50 members, all women, range in age from the 40s to the 80s.

Military

The military used women auxiliary units extensively during World War II and the Korean War for behind-the-lines administrative and intelligence operations, but most of those were disbanded in the following decades, although the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion still have active auxiliaries, including groups in the area.

But even those may be dying. In some cases, literally.

Janet Allen, president of American Legion Post 81 Ladies Auxiliary in Cleveland, Tenn., says there are 111 members on the organization's roster, ranging in age from early 50s to the 90s. But only about eight are truly active, she says.

"They're dying off," Allen says. "Nobody's joining to replace them. We need younger blood. You have to look at the inevitable and the way it's going is our members nationwide are dying."

Changes must be made, she says, and they must be made on the national level, specifically, the American Legion rules that govern all its auxiliaries.

"The sad part is that the only way you can be a member of the auxiliary is to have a father, grandfather, uncle, brother, etc., who served during war time," Allen says. "Then, they have to be a member of the American Legion before the female relative can join the auxiliary.

"We have women that are part of my church whose sons and daughters are in active duty but, because these women don't have a father, grandson or uncle, etc., in the service, they can't join the auxiliary. I want to change that."

Although the Cleveland American Legion Auxiliary is small, she says they do a lot in the community.

"We hold a $7 dinner every Wednesday night at the Post to raise money to send eight local girls to Girls State in Nashville every year," Allen says. "We provide school supplies to children and socks, shoes and underwear to students whose families can't afford the cost."

The auxiliary also sends care packages every month to American troops all over the world, she says. "And once a year, we buy huge flags that fly around our courthouse on every patriotic holiday."

Hospitals

In 1934, 80 women from local churches and civic clubs, created the Women's Hospital Auxiliary, whose goal was to serve both Baroness Erlanger Hospital and T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital. They sewed, quilted, rolled bandages and helped with patient services along with raising money for both hospitals.

The group is still in operation today under the name Erlanger Auxiliary. Emilia Jones, Erlanger Medical Center volunteer services manager, says the auxiliary is very active. Since 2005, it has raised more than $1 million for Erlanger.

"We have 400 members, men and women," who range in age from 18 to 94, she says. About one-third of the members are men, she says.

"They raise money through the gift shop, the uniform store, newborn baby photographs, book sales, jewelry sales and more," Jones says. "One hundred percent of the money they earn goes back into the health system.

"The auxiliary does everything from providing small grants to purchase bottle warmers for the neonatal intensive care unit to funding positions and large equipment," Jones says, including several SUVs given last year to the Erlanger Life Force helicopter crew.

"The Life Force crew can't fly the helicopter in inclement weather and, a couple years ago, after the tornadoes hit in the area, they needed a way to bring in surgical equipment to trauma sites," Jones says.

Lamar Rankin, 85, a retired banker, is one of the first men to join the Erlanger auxiliary.

"I started volunteering there about 20 years ago," he says. At the time there were about four other men in the auxiliary, recalls Rankin, who served as president of the auxiliary in 1999 and is presently its treasurer.

"I am happy with how the auxiliary has evolved," Rankin says. "We've raised quite a bit of money for the hospital and I'm most proud of that. We don't really have a financial goal every year, we just raise as much as we can."

Holding onto the past

With all the changes to auxiliaries, there still is one holdover from the past. While some have opened their doors to men like Rankin, most in the Chattanooga area are still women-only.

The American Legion doesn't allow men in its Ladies Auxiliary, which is ironic, Allen says, since the military now allows women to take on formerly male-only combat roles.

"We have many females in the military today, yet the auxiliary won't accept men members, and that's a problem, too," she says.

The Salvation Army also is sticking to its female-only auxiliary policy.

"Although (the auxiliary's) membership has never been challenged by men, you will often find men at their fundraising events, volunteers projects or providing resources for the auxiliary and their work," says Newsome.

The Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Alliance used to be a women's-only group, but that changed a few years ago when a man joined the 1,000-member group. The alliance is open to all spouses of physicians, both men and women, says spokesman Kevin Lusk.

"The organization has always been open to spouses," Lusk says. "There just weren't any male spouses that were really engaged."

The alliance, whose members range in age from 30 to 80, raises funds for its scholarship endowments to University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Chattanooga State Community College. It also helps support the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults Family Violence Center's emergency shelter by redecorating and refurbishing rooms where families stay.

The Chattanooga Memorial Hospital Auxiliary, which evolved from the women's-only Red Cross Gray Ladies program at the hospital, includes members of both sexes, though it wasn't always the case, says Howard Sheorn, a volunteer.

"It was a way to expand the hospital's mission," says Sheorn, who started his volunteering in 2008, using a golf cart to transport patients to and from their vehicles.

"Last year, Memorial volunteers gave 72,000-plus hours in service," he says. "Besides the volunteering, you make new friends, and some have become dear friends through our service."

Jean Payne, volunteer services director at Memorial Health Care System, says the group of 525 volunteers, which include 150 men, serve in many areas of the hospital, as well as holding several fundraisers throughout the year.

"The auxiliary started as a women's group and the men joined in 1978. Since that time we have had several men volunteer and serve on the auxiliary board as well," she says, noting the the current auxiliary president is Rich Kramer.

The auxiliary "is invaluable to our health care system," Payne says. "Oftentimes our volunteer is the first person our patients and guests encounter.

"Some of our best volunteers joined our ranks because they appreciated the care they received from volunteers and staff," she says.

Contact Karen Nazor Hill at khill@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6396.