By Rick Cato
SaddleBrooke Community Outreach (SBCO) is very much a SaddleBrooke, AZ organization. It is therefore very much a SaddleBrooke, AZ story. It is also a story about a handful of women who took their appreciation for the good life and transformed it into a means for supporting those among us less fortunate. It’s a feel good story embodying grace, generosity, and ingenuity.
SBCO’s story began modestly enough in early fall of 1996. It began in the living room of Cyrene Schochet. Six women were discussing their collective belief that they should give back in response to the bounty of their lives. These women were Cyrene, Dorothy Steffano, Harriet Schultz, Roberta Spector, Marcia Weitzman and Anita Eagle. Today, 15 years later and to their grand amazement, their living room conversation blossomed into an award-winning organization with 230 volunteers, and with a reach into communities from Oracle to San Carlos Apache Reservation. Thanks to SBCO the burdens of poverty for thousands of kids and their families have been relieved over the past 15 years.
Relieving the effects of poverty sounds simple enough now, but in those early days they had no idea what to call themselves, no idea about what specific poverty to address, and no idea where geographically they would commit their good works. “Clueless” is the word most often used today by co-founders to describe their earliest days. “What kept us moving forward in those chaotic first days was our belief that we should and could do something meaningful,” recalled co-founder Harriet Schultz. However, as this story will show, their relative cluelessness would be short-lived.
These articles are the result of 16 interviews this summer with co-founders and with volunteers from the years 1996 through 1999. I have not spoken with everyone. Invariably once one begins naming names someone is going to be omitted. I apologize to anyone omitted. These articles also came from reviews of documents and newspaper clippings from the early years. Often recollections among those I spoke with differed. From all that I gathered I hope I have charted a successful middle path through this remarkable history. Thanks to all those who supported this effort.
Founding of SBCO: birth of an idea
Dorothy Steffano is acknowledged by most as the founder of SBCO. However, she is first to warn about the factual dangers inherent in identifying SBCO’s founder.
“Nothing about our history was clear cut. There were so many wonderful women who did such wonderful things and so early in the process. It is difficult to point to one founder,” cautioned Dorothy.
Who first thought of and uttered the idea? It might not matter. It might be a distinction but it didn’t matter to those involved at the time. It doesn’t matter to them today. It certainly doesn’t matter to the thousands of kids and families SBCO has helped over the past 15 years. Despite any historical ambiguity on this point, one thing is generally agreed upon. Six women, Dorothy, Harriet Schultz, Roberta Spector, Cyrene Schochet, Marcia Weitzman and Anita Eagle are indelibly associated with the birth of an idea that eventually grew into what we know today as SBCO. However, arriving at today’s version of SBCO occurred over a lengthy, circuitous, and sometimes tumultuous journey.
Its journey began 15 years ago. It was the fall of 1996. After reflecting on the bounty of their lives and on the beauty of their surroundings, these six women shared the collective desire to “give back.” But no one knew precisely what “give back” meant. As they mulled over the possibilities they reached out to friends. According to Harriet Schultz there was contagion. Word spread quickly. Membership in this still unnamed, unfocused group grew to over two dozen. It was an impressive group, recalled Sandy Simester.
“Iris Carr took me to my first meeting. I was so impressed by the competence of the women involved. After only a few minutes there I leaned over to Iris and said, Geewillikers! If these women are going to start something, to do something, I want to be part of it,” Sandy said.
Those involved in late 1996 recall an unstructured and unfocused period in which the group cast about looking for definitions for who they were and for what specifically they were to do. Recalled Willie Reich, “There was no board, no bylaws, and no mission. We decided and acted on our good intentions. It was experimentation.” Harriet Schultz agreed. “It was the strength of the group’s belief that eventually we could do something meaningful that propelled us through the early haze of our existence. We had to believe.”
The group’s first meetings were held in Cyrene Schochet’s living room. Meetings, often impromptu, moved around SaddleBrooke from living room to living room. Other members from those early days included Harriet Goldstein, Esta Goldstein, Roberta Goldstein, Sharon Knight, Sandy Qureshi, Willie Reich, Elaine Stamm, and Lynne Walther. With more members the group moved its meetings to Room #3 of HOA 1’s Activity Center. An early patchwork of committees formed. The group decided upon the name SaddleBrooke Women’s Outreach. A single focus began to emerge. It was at this time, according to Dorothy Steffano, that things really “took off.”