If you hear gospel music from the next aisle at the supermarket, it might just be Barbara Washington, singing. The VP of public relations and special events for Mathews-Dickey Boys’ & Girls’ Club is known for singing whenever the spirit moves her. Once, she says, a woman heard her at the supermarket and asked her to sing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.’ Washington did just that—and she sang it again the next time she ran into the woman!
That’s just a small example of the generous spirit Washington has brought to more than two decades of work for Mathews-Dickey, which offers recreational and educational support to underserved youth. She oversees three major fundraisers that generate nearly $1 million annually, including the beloved Sheer Elegance Fashion show. She was instrumental in developing ‘The Sky is the Limit’ leadership training program, which pairs young women with professional businesswomen. And she’s devoted countless late-night hours to the gritty details of writing grants and setting up for fundraisers.
All the while, Washington makes time to get to know the kids—she’s known as ‘Club Mom’ and frequently provides a temporary home for needy kids. “I love children, and it proved so beneficial,” Washington says. “I found you can motivate children to do anything if you give them encouragement.”
Washington grew up in the Mississippi Delta, the oldest of three girls. Her own mother was sick for most of her early life. “I was a child that tried to be the mother or the leader of everything, and I still have that problem,” she says. “I didn’t see many mentors; I didn’t really have anything to aspire to.”
Music became her escape: “It gave me the spirit to stand strong,” she says. At 13, Washington joined a gospel group called the ‘Traveling Angels.’ “We used to wear long pink dresses with glitter on the neck,” she recalls. “Boy, we thought we were something.” Washington still performs regularly as a soloist, has sung the national anthem at Busch Stadium and has recorded four CDs.
Washington came to St. Louis in the early ’80s, accompanied by her sons, Jay and Jamie, who were then 6 and 7, she says. Her grandmother, who was one of Mathews-Dickey’s first volunteers, suggested that she and the kids get involved with the club. Washington started as a member of the Mothers Club, helping to raise money. In 1985, she was officially hired as director of public relations. “Mr. Mathews told me I had a budget of zero,” she recalls. So she relied heavily on volunteers. “The kids were my first employees!” she jokes.
Washington also worked long hours, staying until 3 or 4 a.m. during the early years of Sheer Elegance to clean up and get food ready. “No job was too little for me, because I knew that if you wanted to get volunteers to come in, you’d have to show that you could volunteer,” she says.
This December, Washington oversaw the 21st Sheer Elegance. The show is particularly meaningful for her, she says, given her personal history. “When I was growing up, I used to have only two dresses,” she says. “I’d wear one one day and I’d wash it the next. I wore boy’s shoes because I didn’t have any money for anything better.”
In 2010, there are a number of major events on her plate, including a celebration of the club’s 50th birthday, as well as a party for Martin Mathews, who turns 85. In her spare hours, she is active in the Press Club of Metropolitan St. Louis, the international women’s organization Zonta and several other local professional and charitable organizations.
“America was built on volunteerism,” she says. “We don’t realize how great an asset the people next door to us are, and those around us in the community. If you can make things better for them, things will be better for you.”