On Oct. 10, the Phyllis Wheatley Charity Club of Paris, Ky., & Vicinity will celebrate 100 years of continuous service as a charitable organization.
That should mean the club members can sit back and enjoy the accolades that should be flowing to them. Instead, the 18 faithful women have just launched a new program that mentors young men entering high school.
They recently initiated six young men entering Paris High School into their "Passport to Manhood" pilot program, said Anna Allen-Edwards, club president.
Members will focus a lot on the educational needs of the boys, but they also will target the basics of grooming, social skills and how to treat women.
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The group will meet twice a month on Saturdays and is open to any young men entering high school, but Allen-Edwards said an emphasis will be placed on enhancing the lives of young black men.
"We're just trying to get more involved," said Edwina Smarr, a longtime member. "We want to follow them through school and help with any problems."
And that, I believe, is how things will change in this state. It will have to start with small groups and grow larger. That way, individual responsibility as well as responsibility for others will have more meaning.
The Rev. John Reese of First Baptist Church in Paris will oversee the new pilot project to keep the boys on point, she said.
At each meeting, the boys must recite this affirmation: "Our mission is to become the men of God we were created to be by studying, being respectful of self and others, and being industrious and full of integrity."
The boys, their parents, and members of the school system signed pledges of commitment to the ideal of the program.
The new program is an extension of what the group has been doing for years. Originally established in 1910 as an embroidery group that volunteered to make curtains and other items for the black ward of the local hospital, the charity club changed its name and broadened its intentions in 1946. That year, the group adopted the name of Phillis Wheatley, the first female black poet published in the United States. While the spelling of "Phillis" is now the standard, Allen-Edwards said the group adopted the "Phyllis" spelling also used at the time and has kept it.
Thousands of black women's clubs were formed throughout the country during segregation, giving the women a social outlet and way to help other members of the race.
The clubs were part of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs Inc., which was established in July 1896 to function as a national umbrella group for local and regional black women's organizations.
The group's theme has always been "Lifting as We Climb," which attracted a lot of educated, middle-class women who could offer help where needed. However, there came a time when the national group as well as the state and local affiliates were seen as elitist. Allen-Edwards said the Paris club began choosing members who were teachers or the wives of ministers and discouraged anyone else from joining.
That's not the case anymore. "We are diverse, and we want to show that," Allen-Edwards said.
She said she has been a member nearly all her life, having been encouraged by her mother to join long ago. Smarr, her sister, joined for the same reason.
The club meets monthly at a member's home and has members from Paris and Lexington, since some members have moved away.
"We are about doing charitable works, hopefully without fanfare," Allen-Edwards said. The club sends Christmas cards with money to seniors, helps maintain a garden in conjunction with the YMCA in Paris and has held fund-raisers for the local kidney foundation, among other things.