It all started with just a couple of friends.
In the 1970s on Hilton Head Island, population 2,500, everyone knew everyone. They were the pioneers in developing the community that Charles Fraser was building.
Arriving on the island about the same time around 1978, and no doubt attending the famed 6-to-8’er cocktail parties where newcomers met up, were Billie Rogers and Martha Baumberger. Upon meeting, they discovered many mutual interests. Among them, both the women had been members of Zonta, an international women’s service club founded in 1919. Rogers had been vice president of her club in Frederick, Maryland; Baumberger had been president of her club in Evanston, Illinois, and then served as executive director at Zonta International Headquarters in Chicago for eight years.
Wishing to make a difference in their new community through service to others, the friends set out to establish a Zonta Club on the island. They quietly began to make a list of potential new members – business owners and executives, professionals, leaders of all kinds. Over the months, as they talked with these women and received positive feedback, it was determined that a club should indeed be established. Its mission would mirror that of all Zonta clubs – to empower women through service and advocacy.
Fast forward about 15 months and many conversations and formalities later, when the Zonta Club of Hilton Head Island was accepted as a member of Zonta International on Dec. 10, 1979.
A Charter Presentation Dinner was held Jan. 26, 1980, with 40 members initiated.
Ellie Dagle was at that dinner and was initiated as one of those charter members, the only one who is still active in the club.
In the 1980s, membership grew to 80-plus. Even now, Dagle said, there are likely more than 100 former members still living in the area.
Dagle said one of the club’s first efforts was to donate a washer and dryer for the Children’s Center, formerly on Mathews Drive.
“Then, we raffled a Ford Pinto that we got from the Ford dealer, who let us just have the car without any up-front money,” Dagle said.
Club members sold a set number of $100 tickets. “We made enough to pay for the car, and to set up a scholarship for the Children’s Center,” Dagle said.
The Children’s Center remains the club’s longest-running service project. Current club members continue to give volunteer hours and the club donates specific items and financial gifts.
“Our mission is supporting the nonprofits,” said Amy Covington, the current club president.
Other nonprofits also have benefited from Zonta’s efforts over the years, including Island Recreation Center and Hopeful Horizons. The club sponsors four high school Z-Clubs and awards scholarships to young women who are members.
Jennifer Baker, a member for 10 years and current president-elect, said the club recently completed its five-year commitment to the Island Rec Center for its Discovery Room. “We committed to $25,000 over five years,” she said.
To date, the club has donated more than $400,000 to the local community, and more than $95,000 to Zonta International service projects.
Of particular interest to the local club is advocacy and support for women who are victims of domestic violence. Each year the club makes contributions to agencies that work to combat violence against women, including human trafficking and rape.
Baker said the club has provided “dignity kits” for women who have been assaulted.
“The first thing they do at the hospital is take the woman’s clothes as evidence,” she said. “We provide a kit with undergarments, sweatshirt, pants and a hygiene kit.”
Dagle said the club also has helped outfit the Victims Services Center at the 14th District Solicitor’s Office in Okatie. “We repainted the cozy room, and a separate exam room, and donated supplies and equipment,” she said.
C.J. Humphrey, a member for 37 years, recalled a series of women’s financial programs that the club offered in the 1990s. “We worked with AARP and held workshops on personal accounting and business,” she said.
Dagle said it was especially helpful for widows who had no business acumen, “some of whom didn’t even have a checkbook.”
Missy Santorum, a member for 12 years, said they couldn’t believe the turnout. “It was amazing,” she said. “Maybe we should do that again.”
Amy Covington, a member for three years and current president, said they did present a similar program one holiday season. “It was Outscam the Scammer,” she said. “We held it at the Cypress, and brought in Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, someone from Edward Jones (me), and talked about how to avoid scams.”
Dagle, who served as president of the club twice, and served on the district level as well, explained that even though it has been 42 years since the club’s founding, they are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year because most activities were suspended for two years due to the pandemic.
Women of all ages are invited to a social Wine & Chocolate event Oct. 27 to get to know active members, meet new friends, and learn more about the club and its mission of empowering women through service and advocacy.
The event will be held from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at the Island Winery, 15 Cardinal Rd. Admission is free, and wine flights are $10, with wine also available by the glass. To RSVP, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about the club, visit ZontaHHI.org. For those who wish to pursue membership, meetings are held at 5:15 p.m. the first Thursday of each month at the Hargray Building, 862A William Hilton Pkwy. The next meeting is Oct. 6.
As in the beginning, it all comes back to friends.
“I have friends across the United States that I’ve known for 42 years, Dagle said. “And those women are my sisters.”
Baker said she joined because of the difference Zonta makes locally for organizations that serve women and girls. “I stayed because of the women I’ve met who have dome so much for me personally and professionally.”
Her friend, Suzanne Brown, said, “Jenn and I came in at the same time, and we’re really good friends now. It’s the friends that make you stay.”