The Social Detective

By staff June 1, 2007

I am not a fan of The View. So what was I doing at the Ritz one day last March when Herald-Tribune columnist Marjorie North, ABC anchor Linda Carson, cable talk show host Annette Scherman and the Education Channel’s general manager, Leanne McIntire, all sat on sofas in the ballroom and pretended to be Barbara Walters for the Women’s Resource Center’s Renaissance Luncheon?

Did I ever tell you about the time I delivered newspapers to Barbara Walters when she rented a house next door to me on Martha’s Vineyard one summer? The very first day, when I appeared with all the papers she’d requested, she loudly announced that she hated her 10-year-old daughter. I was shocked. I didn’t know then that anyone could hate their children, much less admit to it in front of them. I happened to think my own daughter (four at the time) was perfect, and still do 25 years later. But Barbara was helpless that summer—probably for the first and last time in her life. She was separated from her husband, stuck down a long dirt road 15 miles from town and didn’t know how to drive a car—and her 10-year-old daughter was bored and unhappy, too.

Yet there I was having another Barbara encounter at the Ritz, this time with 500 enthusiastic supporters of the Women’s Resource Center, about which I did not know a lot. Thank God, now I do. It’s where you go when you’re new in town, stuck down a long dirt road, can’t drive a car and happen to be having a lot of trouble with kids you can’t handle. It’s where you go when a family member is sick, you can’t stand retirement, you’re dealing with the loss of a spouse, have a legal problem or just want to change careers. In other words, it’s the place to go when you need anything at all.

The Ritz was absolutely jammed. Luckily, the very second I walked in board member Lee Levine grabbed my arm and steered me around a virtual Who’s Who of Sarasota’s social activists, lawyers, bankers, CPAs, and the heads of social service agencies, to which clients of WRC are referred for help in every area of life that you can possibly imagine. Marge Maisto, president of Tidewell Hospice and Palliative Care (now known for all those clowns everywhere), Shirley Ritchey from the Education Foundation and Rose Chapman of Jewish and Family Services circulated with dozens of bankers like Veronica Brady and Ollie Johns. Longtime supporters Jane Smiley, Flori Roberts, Lee Peterson, Betty Schoenbaum, Barbara Lupoff and Loretta Naylor were just a sprinkling of names on the heady list of benefactors and honorary committee members. At 28, WRC has garnered important support from women leaders in Sarasota and Venice and now serves North Port and Englewood as well. I should have known about it sooner.

WRC’s elegant Main Street shop, Encore! & more [this is correct spelling], provides 25 percent of WRC’s annual income, and Bea Friedman gave a grant for its recent refurbishment. The high-end resale and consignment shop brought some fabulous items to the Ritz for sale, and I lost my cool over a pair of sparkly silver shoes that also happened to attract Bea at the same moment. She was photographed with them. Then, when hordes of admirers hijacked her attention, I actually grabbed and purchased them. They’re the kind of flashy pumps that make you realize you’re not in Kansas anymore. After all, empowerment is what WRC is all about. Marion Hyde, one of WRC’s 350 volunteers, told me, “Encore! is one of Sarasota’s best-kept secrets.”

Before the lunch, there was a lot going on. Sally Schule from Saks was marveling at the hundreds of new faces she’d never seen before when Julie Riddell came over to inquire about hats for Pique-nique. Jane Summerville was there, taking a few hours off from putting the finishing touches on that much-anticipated event. Sheila Weiss, recently retired from the school district, was attending her first post-retirement event. Photographing it all was Barbara Kendall, a graduate of WRC’s Challenge program, which is famous for encouraging people to look at themselves with new eyes and do the things they always dreamed of but never thought they could. Barbara became a photographer after doing Challenge and has been taking all the WRC photos ever since. “It’s my way of giving back,” she told me.

Renaissance chair Lydia McIntire was aglow over the sold-out event and her delightful daughter Leanne’s hosting the show. Board chair Sharon Monk told me not to forget to say that while 3,300 people were helped by WRC programs every year, more than 11,000 lives are actually touched by the WRC wand. Do the math for 28 years, and you’re talking big numbers.

People were having so much fun gabbing and shopping at Encore!, Pandora and Silver Obsessions it was hard to get them to sit down for lunch. But finally they did. The strawberry soup with (I think) goat cheese in it was something of a challenge, but the salad was great. I was seated with Renaissance sponsor and board member Marilyn Spencer, whose passion is the 45 scholarships WRC gives to nontraditional (that means older) students every year. Four scholarship recipients were there to tell me how they got them. Leanne Swaine needed a new career after a divorce. Dawn Velasco said, “I’d lost everything over and over and finally decided to change my life, when my daughter said in class that her goal in life was to be a waitress and mother just like me.” She and Latorie Philips, who both went the baby route instead of finishing college, returned to school to pursue nursing careers. Roberta Rodgers is studying criminology. April Glasco, who was once a deputy sheriff and has been running Second Chance, Last Opportunity, an agency for victims of domestic violence for 11 years, is studying at Eckerd College. Marilyn made us all go around the table with our stories, and they were riveting.

At the very moment of highest drama at our table, when we were sharing the difficulties of life’s unexpected curve balls and transitions, The View began, and the celebs on the sofas started trading their impressions of WRC and interviewing their special guests: Ruth Gonzales, who facilitates Spanish Challenge; Lisa Baggs, a participant in the Employment and Business Success program; family law expert Vicki Wilson; and Widows Seminar panelist Carole Kleinberg. Their empowering stories were worth the price of admission.

The lunch was a huge success, but I wanted to know more. So a few days later I went over for a tour of the stunning WRC building on Tuttle, which architect Carl Abbott designed to look like a fortress on the outside and a cozy environment on the inside. WRC’s feisty executive director, Janice Zarro, said the building embodies “the strength and softness of women.” And it does. She introduced me to education director Jan Alston, and they wanted to set the record straight about a few things. “WRC is not a crisis center for desperate people. We serve women in transition—but some men, too—of every age, color and level of society,” Janice said. Jan added that she’d never been a cheerleader until she got to WRC. The flagship challenge program, peer counseling, career assistance, emotional support for all issues and opportunities for education and growth make the Women’s Resource Center unique in the community. “Men are happy with their TV remotes,” Jan said as I was leaving, “but women need to connect.” Indeed.

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