There’s a group of women who make it their business to know what’s going on around town.
These women are everywhere. They visit our schools. They attend our churches. They check things out in the hospitals. They even go into private homes – and invite everyone in town to join them.
And Lake Highlands residents wouldn’t have it any other way.
The women are the members of the Lake Highlands Women’s League. For more than 30 years now, they’ve kept their eyes and ears open to learn how they can help. And then they’ve helped.
Who benefits from all this? Just about everyone in town: anyone who’s visited our libraries, relaxed at our parks or attended our schools. And many who have faced the financial challenge of sending kids to college.
But if you ask them, the members will tell you they get the best rewards of all. We know, because we did ask them. Three of them, anyway: the founder, the president and one of the league’s newest members.
Barbara Hunt is the Women’s League founder and sole life member. In 1969, she decided there was something about Lake Highlands she just didn’t like.
Sure, she liked the community, the people, the schools, the churches and the hometown feel of the place. What’s left not to like? Only the fact that there was no central place for general neighborhood issues to be discussed, no social or civic events for the community.
So she decided to do something about it. She got the idea to form a women’s group “to support the community by promoting civic, cultural and social events.”
Hunt called together a group of women, not necessarily her closest friends, but women who she knew to be active in the community. One woman was a reporter for the White Rocker newspaper. Another she knew to be active in the PTA. A couple were involved with community sports.
And they all loved Hunt’s ideas. They formed guidelines, wrote some bylaws and – just like that – the Lake Highlands Women’s League was formed.
The league was popular right off the bat, with 20 original members. Its first fundraiser was a Country Dinner Theater, which was new to the area. The League sold tickets to opening night and raised $600 on a sold-out show. The funds weren’t much compared to what the league does now, but back then, it was pretty impressive.
“It just showed that the community was so ready for something like that,” Hunt says. “We were very pleased.”
Hunt says the group did have more of a social focus in the beginning, but their activities were hardly those of the well-heeled. The husbands joined the women for most of the get-togethers, and they’d put on, in Hunt’s words, “silly little plays and skits and practical jokes. Our activities were very simple, but we had a great time.”
More than 30 years later, the group has grown to 85 active members and more than 120 sustaining members. Hunt says the league has grown to accomplish things she never dreamed of. And when she’s asked, “Aren’t you proud of what you’ve started?” her reply is always the same.
“I’m proud of them,” she says, referring to the members. “They work so hard.”
Sharon Worthy is hard-worker No. 1, also known as this year’s league president. Worthy says sure, the members have a great time together, but the group is truly a service organization, not a social club.
“Our main thrust is raising money for scholarships and various community needs through our annual home tour,” Worthy says. “We’ve raised over $500,000 in total. We raise it, and we disburse it.”
Worthy says about 75 percent of the funds go to scholarships. Last May, the group raised about $58,000 for Lake Highlands High School seniors. Other funds go toward a variety of services in the community, such as literacy programs, clothes closets and child development screenings.
Members also give their time to other projects in the area. They meet monthly throughout the school year to plan various projects and are assigned to communities. Each is required to complete four service projects around town.
After members have served in the group for five years, they have the option of becoming sustaining members. Basically that means they get to do as much or as little work as they want and still can take part in all the fun stuff. Still, Worthy says the league’s sustaining members work hard, especially with the home tour.
“We really couldn’t do it without them,” she says. “And they always have the most fun of anybody.”
The league size is limited to 85 active members. Worthy says, to prevent growth so large the members don’t know each other.
“We don’t limit the number to be exclusive,” she says. “We seek to unite and promote Lake Highlands as a community, through our service. That’s what we’re about.”
New members must be sponsored by an existing member, but there are no interviews, voting or criteria for membership other than the desire to serve. If you’ve got that, Worthy says, it’s just a matter of filling out a short form, and your name goes on the list.
When an active member decides to become sustaining, whoever has been on the list longest receives a phone call, asking if she’s ready to join and serve.
Some of this year’s new members had been on the list as long as six years. And right now there are more than 30 women waiting to be called.
The group is popular, Worthy says, because it gives members a chance to do things they feel good about. And they have the opportunity to meet women outside their own circles in the process.
“It’s a very wide mix of women in the group. Some have grandchildren, and some are just starting a family. Some work full-time, and others don’t work outside the home. But they all want to serve. That’s what we have in common.”
What does Worthy hope to accomplish as president this year?
“I just hope to continue the good work the group has done,” she says. “The needs in our community are greater than ever. We just want to help as much as possible.”
One new league member already used to helping as much as possible is Jill Gunnels, one of 16 women who became a member this fall. She might be a rookie, but she’s hardly new to the league’s standards of service and compassion.
Gunnels has been known for years around Lake Highlands schools as a mom who has practically always been there, bringing food, drinks and her own personal bus service for anyone who needed it. She has worked so much with students that she routinely is asked which organization she’s with. Her reply to that question is simple enough: “None. I’m just a mom who cares about kids.”
It started back when Gunnels’ two sons, both now in college, were young. When she took them to sports practices, she noticed that some of the boys didn’t have snacks. So she decided that if she was going to bring food and drinks for her boys, she could bring food and drinks for other boys, too.
Gunnels had no special training and no corporate sponsors, but what she did have was a willing heart, two able hands, a welcoming smile and an SUV. She slowly but surely decided that if some of the kids’ parents weren’t involved in their lives, she’d get involved in them.
Afternoon snacks turned into rides home. Rides home turned into burgers on the grill at the Gunnels’ house. Then came trips to the doctor for annual physicals, followed eventually by early-morning Young Life meetings in her living room.
“My husband and I both had a very strong desire to train our boys to be men. So I treated the other boys pretty much the same way. If they let me know they were teachable, I’d let them know I’d be a friend to them, and I’d teach them.”
She taught them about compassion and generosity through all the things she did for them, but, she says, she didn’t want to teach them just to receive.
“I wouldn’t teach my own sons that, so why would I teach anyone else that? I never gave them a handout. I wanted to teach them to earn, to give back,” she says. “And so we’d practice cutting grass in a big field behind our house, so the boys could raise money that way. You know, you need to get those corners straight and not go into the neighbors’ yards. If people are paying you to cut their grass, they want it done well.”
Now, with her youngest son a freshman in college, Gunnels says the timing of her invitation to join the women’s league was perfect. She sees it as a natural progression for her long-held desire to serve.
“I’m really grateful for the chance to serve through this group,” Gunnels says. “I may not be CEO of a corporation, but I know what I do is important. This is my heartbeat.”