Charity League brings together mothers and daughters to do good work

Eleventh-grade mothers and daughters go through orientation at the Ecumenical Hunger Program.

How many philanthropy organizations combine long volunteer hours with a debutante ball? The local chapter of the National Charity League takes the organizations 80-year-old traditions and gives them an updated spin.

Mothers and daughters from Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and other local communities join the Stanford Hills Chapter of this service organization to experience community service with a difference. In addition to regular volunteering, the league emphasizes building friendship and education for its members.

"Our daughter Evan is exposed to a lot of philanthropy and community service, but a lot of what we do isn't local. This group exposes her to how a lot of people are living right here in her own community," said Colette Cranston, a resident of Los Altos Hills.

Mothers and daughters entering the seventh grade join the league and make a commitment to work together on volunteer projects for six years, until the girls graduate from high school.

Each grade-level group works for a different philanthropy, ranging from soup kitchens to environmental groups.

"In this area you are given so much," said Shari Emling, founder of the local chapter. "I want you to automatically give back, for that to be a part of your life. These girls are enriched so far beyond what they give."

While philanthropy is the league's focus, it still maintains social traditions such as high tea and educational programs ranging from etiquette classes to a personal safety talk from a visiting police officer. "We try to make a complete person, who is confident, can go through an interview and look adults in the eye," Emling said.

The league was founded in 1925 by well-off women in Southern California, and has grown into chapters with diverse styles spread across the country. Emling says the ladylike behavior and graciousness of yesteryear has evolved into a modern form.

"Graciousness is mirrored differently now. When you are working with the homeless population, for instance, 99 percent of it will be fabulous, but part of it won't be. Graciousness is accepting the part that isn't great with the best possible attitude.

Mother-daughter bonding is one of the primary benefits of the league. Cranston said that the structured time with her daughter was a main appeal in joining the group last spring. "There are times when adolescent daughters don't want to talk to you, but when you make this volunteering commitment, you have to be together."

"Girls see their mothers modeling for them," Emling said. "How often do you see your mother with a homeless person, or working with someone who is disabled? You see that here - how this work is positive, a privilege, but also an obligation for every one of us."

Young women who graduate from the National Charity League tend to continue a high rate of volunteering. Some even pursue careers in social service.

"They see a side of life they might not have seen otherwise," Emling said. Of her two daughters, one gained a master's degree in treating severe disabilities and works as an autism specialist, and the other is pursuing a doctorate in developmental psychology. "That's what we do here - make volunteering such a part of you that it doesn't stop," Emling said. "All of the girls are trained to respond, to see a need and fill it. It works for them because they get such positive feedback over the six years. How many things can a girl do where she's appreciated just for herself?"

In an updated version of a debutante ball, graduating seniors present a speech and slide show reflecting their experience in the six years of league membership.

"Sometimes the girls have not wanted to come on one day or another," Emling said. "But a hundred percent of them stand up at senior present and are so grateful for what they have done. When you volunteer, you're going to be a better person and like yourself better."

Chapter meetings and events are held on evenings and weekends to accommodate the many working mothers who participate in the group. Emling emphasized the groups desire to be inclusive. When there are more candidates than spaces, names are drawn out of a hat, and members donate volunteer time, not money.

"I've been pushing for new chapters," Emling said. "I think turning anyone down is a tragedy."

Women interested in organizing another local chapter can now get the assistance of expansion specialists from the league, and Emling offered enthusiastic support.

"When we started, we had no idea what to do, there was no one to tell us," Emling said. "We put so much time into it because we saw everything we got back. All of a sudden, we saw our children thinking of things that needed to be done."

For more information, e-mail Shari Emling at [email protected] or call 941-7710.

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