Merlene Davis: Women seeking change improved the lives of many moms, children

This pamphlet will be given out at the reception for the Women's Neighborly Organization on May 30.
This pamphlet will be given out at the reception for the Women's Neighborly Organization on May 30.

My daughter attended preschool at the Carver Community Center for a couple of years while I worked for the state and later while I attended the University of Kentucky.

It was a good place, run by women who cared about children and who brought them up to speed on subjects they needed to master before first grade. The school was a blessing to me and other mothers who were trying to get ahead without leaving their children behind.

That was about all I knew about the place until I later learned that this group of women created the program because of their desire to improve the lives of people less fortunate.

Originally known as the Neighborly Organization of Women, the group of black, white, rich, middle class and poor, and some more educated than others, became known as the Women's Neighborly Organization.

The name change was made to avoid being identified with the National Organization for Women, which was far more politically active and controversial.

Politics wasn't what the women were focused on. They simply wanted to offer a helping hand.

Driven by a desire to have her children — who were of Filipino and Caucasian ancestry — attend a racially diverse day care center and preschool, Carolyn Bacdayan helped start a play group.

The idea morphed into a summer project that began in 1968 when several adults and children met in a parking lot on Georgetown Street that was peppered with broken glass. They had hoped to attract 20 children ages 4 to 6, but they were greeted by 45 children ages 2 to 11.

The location quickly changed to Pilgrim Baptist Church, 541 Jefferson Street, but challenges continued. Many of the children who came had not eaten breakfast and didn't understand the materials, puzzles and toys the women had provided.

At the end of the summer, the women were given space in the Second Street YMCA, which they used to launch a day care center twice a week. The staff consisted of parents and volunteers.

By mid-fall, the women banded with others working in the inner city to form what became the Women's Neighborly Organization. From that beginning, the group opened three more centers in the fall of 1969.

"I think the WNO was a little bit of a product of its time," said Jean Sabharwal, retired director of the Family Care Center and a WNO volunteer.

Many of the women, she said, were the stay-at-home wives of husbands who worked at IBM and of college professors.

"They all arrived from other cities where there was a higher level of social integration," Sabharwal said. "They had participated in civic activities with other women of mixed incomes. When they came here, they found a place that was racist."

But they didn't leave things as they were. With the help of churches, synagogues and social service agencies, the centers were run on as little as $300 a year, Sabharwal said.

Eventually the women also worked with the elderly and with nursing home residents to improve their quality of care. That effort evolved into the Nursing Home Ombudsman Agency, which has always been financed by Decorators' Showcase, a fund-raiser started by WNO in 1976.

Before the group disbanded in 1997, those women worked together to bring about change. They saw a need and tried to fill it.

Because not many people remember WNO, there will be a reception May 30 at the Lexington Public Library, where former members of the group will hand over various documents and records for safekeeping in the Kentucky History Collection.

Also at that time, a history of the group will be distributed.

Those women saw a need and tried to fill it. They brought about change.

That change helped me and my daughter achieve a better standard of living.

And I know we were not the only family to benefit from their outreach.

Thank you, WNO.