'Never underestimate the power of a woman,’ goes the old saying, and several St. Louis service organizations illustrate just how true that is. 

Missouri Cameo Club

    These days it seems like many former beauty pageant contestants end up either mired in political controversy or displaying their talents in photos of questionable taste—or both. Such is not the case with the ladies who participate in the Ms. Missouri Senior Pageant. “The pageant celebrates the dignity, maturity and inner beauty of women who’ve reached what we call ‘the age of elegance’—60 and above,” explains Sharon Houston, a Cameo Club officer and former pageant winner. “All former contestants are invited to join Cameo, an organization that puts on talent showcases at area nursing homes.” Half the proceeds from the shows go to area children’s charities.

    The local Cameo Club, established after the first Ms. Senior Missouri Pageant in 1989, benefits a variety of nonprofits. “We vote each year on how we want to spend our time and money,” Houston says. “Recently, we’ve focused on Presbyterian Children’s Home; Whole Kids Outreach, an organization that helps disadvantaged kids in rural areas; Foundation for Children with Cancer, which provides financial assistance to families; and Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry.”

    Missouri Cameo Club currently has 60 active members, making it the second-largest club in the country. “Older women are an amazing force for good—we have so much talent and compassion to offer,” Houston says. “Cameo Club lets former pageant contestants share their talents with nursing home residents and use the proceeds to help kids. The need has never been greater.”

Junior League of St. Louis

    When we hear the words Junior League of St. Louis, most of us think of volunteerism, educational training programs…and cinnamon rolls. “Our signature cinnamon rolls are one of our best fundraisers—they bring in about $24,000 each year, all of which gets reinvested in the community,” says JLSL president Susan ‘Sam’ Cocking.

    The organization, 600 women strong, is committed to promoting volunteerism, developing the potential of women and contributing to the community through the leadership of trained volunteers, Cocking explains. “We just celebrated our 95th anniversary, and we’ve accomplished a great deal since 1914, contributing more than $4 million to the community,” she says.

    The local Junior League is among the oldest of 292 leagues worldwide. “We began as an outgrowth of the women’s suffrage movement, and one of our first accomplishments in the early 1900s was a hot lunch program for schoolchildren,” Cocking says. Recent projects include an ongoing Young Women’s Summer Leadership Program, which offers skills development to girls in senior high; and Developing Strong Women, a partnership with St. Patrick Center scheduled for April. “We’re bringing together a variety of experts and service providers, allowing economically disadvantaged women to gain a wide range of information and assistance,” she says.

    The theme for this year’s JLSL’s giving campaign is ‘Celebrating the Past—Empowering Our Future.’ To Cocking, it’s more than a slogan. “Generations of St. Louisans have contributed to the community by belonging to the League—my daughter is now a member,” she says. “It’s wonderful to see mothers and daughters serving together.”

Friends of the Rural Parish Workers

    The Rural Parish Workers, a small group of women in Washington County, Mo., have  served the poor since 1949. “Anyone who calls them up or knocks on their door, they’ll help,” says Angela Vitale, a member of Friends of the Rural Parish workers. “If your electricity or gas is about to be shut off, or if you’re out of work and can’t feed your children—these women are there for you. This past Thanksgiving, they gave away 130 turkeys and all the trimmings to some of the poorest families in Missouri; their Christmas distribution program provides toys, food and clothing to about 270 families. They also sponsor a self-help work program. ”

    But these services don’t come cheap, and the Rural Parish Workers are laywomen who have taken religious vows, including the vow of poverty. They receive some assistance from donations and the Archdiocese Catholic Appeal, but much of their funding comes from the annual Friends of the Rural Parish Workers Fashion Show and Luncheon, held in October. “For the last handful of years, we’ve raised between $35,000 and $40,000, a significant part of their budget,” says Vitale. “Those women do incredible work with it, serving more than 3,000 people a year. They can stretch a penny like you wouldn’t believe.” 

    Vitale joined Friends, established in the mid-1960s, seven years ago. “I was looking for a way to make a contribution,” she recalls. “I was drawn to Rural Parish Workers because it was a low-key organization—there was no bureaucracy, so I could roll up my sleeves and get to work right away. There are 36 women in Friends, and only five parish workers. Together, we do what we can to respond to an ever-growing need.”