A Decade and Counting

“BY BONNA L. NELSON
PHOTOGRAPH BY AMANDA RIPPEN WHITE
SHORE LIFE, OCTOBER 2012”
Following the lead of founder Alice Ryan, the Women & Girls Fund has used the ‘power of pooled resources’ to create opportunities for countless women and girls in the 10 years since its inception.

Each of us has had that extraordinary friend who seems to be able to do it all: someone who is savvy in business, as well as in the kitchen; excels at sports, in addition to gardening; is witty, bright, charming and giving. For friends and colleagues, Alice Ryan, founder of the Woman & Girls Fund of the Mid-Shore, is exactly that person. After just two meetings with Alice—one in the historic Bullitt House in Easton, home to the Women & Girls Fund headquarters, and another at her 80-acre waterfront estate, Knightly, one of Talbot County’s oldest estates—I, too, feel as if I have a found an inspirational, kind and gifted friend.

Though we can never know all the answers as to what makes Alice Ryan so successful in life—she may not even have all the answers herself—spending time in her spaces and with her circle of friends, asking an array of both serious and not-so-serious questions, elicited some insight. She has been labeled by friends and acquaintances as “a character,” “a hoot,” “a storyteller,” “funny,” “brilliant,” “generous” and “sympathetic.” Let me add that this Renaissance woman also is a crafter (especially passionate about needlepoint), an enthusiastic chicken flock caretaker, a passionate gardener, an avid golfer, an antique car and classic wooden boat collector, and a Janet Evanovich fan. And she enjoys mowing her own grass!

Alice’s birth in September 1956 was front-page news in Easton, with her father at the helm as publisher of the (now defunct) Mid-Shore Times. Fifty-six years later, she still is making headlines. Alice was honored earlier this year, during the Women & Girls Fund’s 10th anniversary, for bringing this influential nonprofit, which is managed by and for women and girls, to life.

A math whiz fond of basketball, field hockey and tennis during her school years, Alice is a graduate of The Country School, Gunston School and Bridgewater College, and was a post-college employee at E. F. Hutton & Co. Events in her life that shaped the woman she is today, as well as her eagerness for the Women & Girls Fund’s success, include schools not being able to keep up with her math abilities and E. F. Hutton appointing her to a “glorified secretarial position” instead of the stockbroker position for which she trained, which was given to a male counterpart. Combine that with Alice’s childhood growing up in a philanthropic family and the force behind the Women & Girls Fund becomes clear.

After her three children left the nest, Alice became interested in finding a new way to use her philanthropic dollars to make a positive difference on the Mid-Shore—where her roots are and where her calling is. Already heavily involved in various community organizations, Alice began hearing more and more about the growth of women’s philanthropy—their charitable interests were no longer taking a back seat to their husbands’—and the rise of organizations supporting the unique needs of women and girls. Intrigued, Alice conducted extensive research on women’s giving circles and endowments around the country until she found exactly for what she was looking. She decided to establish an endowment fund that would encourage local women to pool their resources to fund yearly grants for Mid-Shore nonprofits that offered programs (often small, overlooked and underfunded) targeted at improving the lives of women and girls.

“I would pass impoverished homes along the road on my way to friends’ stately homes on the waterfront. And that didn’t sit well with me,” Alice said, when asked to put into words her motivation for establishing the Women & Girls Fund. “I wanted to do something to help. I also learned about problems on the Mid-Shore that we try to address with grants, including human trafficking, teen pregnancy, homelessness, abused and neglected women and children, poverty, low self-esteem, drug and alcohol abuse, transportation problems, lack of affordable housing, and on and on.”

To address all this and more, Ryan invited 10 female friends, whose circles reached into various aspects of the community, to a meeting at the Bullitt House, home of the Mid-Shore Community Foundation, whose former head advised Ryan on establishing the fund. (The Women & Girls Fund now is recognized as the leading fund at the Mid-Shore Community Foundation, its 501(c)3 host organization.) That first meeting proved enough to set the plan in motion, as the group came away with an established board of directors—of which Alice was president—and an eagerness to begin making a difference in the lives of local women and girls.

Under Alice’s leadership, and that of two subsequent presidents and a host of talented board members, the Women & Girls Fund endowment—using “the power of pooled resources,” where a $10 dollar donation is as important as a $1,000 donation—has grown to more than $500,000 in the 10 years since it was established. As of this year, a total of more than $300,000 in grant funding has been awarded to 54 nonprofits in Caroline, Dorchester, Kent, Queen Anne’s and Talbot counties. The Fund has supported more than 64 projects and programs, helping to change the traditional imbalance that saw only six cents of every philanthropic dollar go to organizations that focus on services to women and girls.

In addition to endowment fundraising and grant distribution, the Women & Girls Fund presents a yearly award to honor a community member who has made an outstanding contribution toward understanding and addressing the needs of women and girls in the Mid-Shore region. Also, as part of its educational initiative, the Fund offers an annual speaker series featuring nationally recognized presenters who both educate and entertain. I enjoyed meeting the September 2012 speaker, Jenna Bush Hager, and listening to her talk, “Making a Difference: How the Power of Compassion Changes Lives.” She discussed her 2006 travels in Latin America, undertaken while an intern with UNICEF, from which came her inspiration for the New York Times bestseller “Ana’s Story: A Journey of Hope.”

Using a combination of fundraising events and campaigns—such as the ongoing Campaign for 1,000 Friends (donate $1,000 to become a friend) and the Honor Someone Special Campaign (donate $10 to honor someone special)—the Women & Girls Fund hopes to reach its goal of a $1 million endowment by April 2013. Once that goal is met, the organization plans to raise its grant-giving level to $50,000 a year, further addressing the critical needs of women and girls in the area, which include homelessness, mental illness, abuse, after-school programs, legal services, affordable housing, education, fitness, health, nutrition and cultural enrichment programs.

Looking back on her own life, Alice speculates that an organization like the Women & Girls Fund could have greatly impacted her “by providing grants for girls to take accelerated math studies, helping with self-esteem issues and helping girls wanting to get into male-dominated career fields.”

As such, it’s with great honor and pride that Alice and all those involved with the Women & Girls Fund are able to provide those opportunities and so much more today. Recalling one of the Fund’s many success stories, Alice talked of the Child Advocacy Center at the Memorial Hospital at Easton, which, with the help of a Women & Girls Fund grant, allows victims of abuse to testify on camera, sparing them the trauma of testifying against their attacker in court. It is stories like this that make it all worthwhile, says Alice, who has served the women and girls of the Mid-Shore “without fanfare or expectation of return” for 10 years now, according to a friend. “Alice has helped an unknown number of individuals in need and saves every thank you note that she receives. She even pays for all of the Women & Girls Fund’s administrative expenses so that all donations go directly to the endowment.”

That day at Knightly, I watched in admiration as Alice tenderly petted and fed her Rhode Island Red chickens, gleefully showed us her newly acquired two-tone, cherry red 1949 MG convertible, and gently groomed her roses. I thought about the schoolgirl who was such a math genius that the schools couldn’t keep up with her. I thought about Alice’s inspiration and mentor, Sara Jane Davidson, the 2011 Women & Girls Fund Award recipient who was recognized for her contributions as a teacher, coach, counselor, advisor, mentor, community activist and tireless worker. How much like Davidson Alice has become.

After a hug from my new friend, I drove back down Knightly’s tree-lined driveway, thinking about all the faceless women and girls for whom Alice and her Women & Girls Fund friends are advocating, and I vowed to become one of the thousand friends by contributing $1,000. I also vowed to set some new personal goals for myself, starting with conquering my math and technology fears. Why not?