From left, Zonta members Jean Burke, Jill VanBuskirk, Donna Lancaster, Vicki Budnick and Sandy Bricker.
CLEARWATER – Back in the early 1900s when Rotary International was only for men, women wanted a similar organization for themselves. So 14 years later, Zonta International was formed as an organization for women who wanted to make a difference in the lives of women. The world has come a long way since then, but they believe there is still much more to be done.
“Zonta was started in 1919, just prior to women getting the right to vote,” said Donna Lancaster of Clearwater, president of the Zonta Club of Pinellas. “So even though we have achieved a great deal, the equal rights amendment is not part of law yet. That is strange to me. Women still don’t get equal pay for equal work. And we (in Zonta) strive both locally and nationally to improve women’s status in education, health, economics, human rights, and to stop violence against women.”
According to Zonta International, its members over the course of its history have been pioneers in women’s equality.
“Early members were among the first generation of college-educated women, the first generation of North American women to vote, and a part of the growing, though still comparatively small, legion of women entering the workforce,” according to the Zonta website. “Over the decades, Zonta International has grown into a worldwide service organization of executives in business and the professions working together to advance the status of women. There are more than 30,000 members in more than 1,200 clubs in 65 countries all over the world.”
The Pinellas chapter of the club may be small, but it has a big mission, and it works hard to better women’s lives. In particular, the Pinellas club strives to help human trafficking victims, to be role models for foster kids, provide scholarships to women, and it partners with local domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers, among other things. For instance, Zonta provides care baskets for women and families in transitional living and those moving out of transitional living into permanent housing, Lancaster said. The group provides Christmas gifts to kids with the Homeless Emergency Project.
“It’s to provide them with self-esteem to realize someone does care for them,” Lancaster said. “Even though they are in an unfortunate situation, people do care, and they can improve their situation.”
Club members also meets monthly with girls ages 12 to 18 who are in foster care. It’s a tough audience, Lancaster admits, but they keep coming. Some of the girls are more receptive than others.
“But it’s to show them that there are women that do care about them, and we want them to have a good self-concept and hope that they can improve their lives and go on to college or go to a technical school,” Lancaster said. “Something where they can be self-sufficient and not feel that they have to either depend on someone else or just be left in that cycle of poverty.”
Another way Zonta of Pinellas helps women further their education is by offering scholarships. Each year, the club awards a high school student interested in public service and who is a good student with a Young Women in Public Affairs Scholarship, she said. The scholarship is for $1,000, but there is a possibility to go on and receive $7,000 from the national foundation. There also is the Jane M. Klausman scholarship for a woman in college who is in her junior or senior year and are majoring in business. Often this is for a woman who may have children or is going back into the workforce and needs a little boost, Lancaster said, for something like technical school or special training.
It is important that women of all ages feel empowered to reach for their dreams, especially now that there are more opportunities available for women, Lancaster said.
“There are no boundaries for women,” Lancaster said. “I think they should do whatever they think they want to do. And certainly when I was growing up, that was not the case.”
The Zonta Club also deals with darker issues that too many women and girls face. About seven years ago, Zonta took a firm stance on human trafficking, and that has been a major issue for the club ever since. The club has worked closely with the Clearwater Area Task Force on Human Trafficking and with local police, such as the Clearwater Police Department.
“We try to support law enforcement with the awareness, and then we have provided little care kits,” Lancaster said. “The victims don’t trust law enforcement, and sometimes they don’t even realize they’ve been victimized. They think this is just how life is. So (the police) go back and back again to try to create a rapport with the victims and provide them with like McDonalds or Starbucks gift cards. Something so they can say, ‘Let’s sit down and you can have a cup of coffee with us.”
Since law enforcement agencies do not have a lot of money for such things, Zonta helps provide the gift cards. Additionally, the group helps provide appropriate clothing for victims who are going to trial, Lancaster said.
“Juries can be so judgmental,” Lancaster said. “And (these women) don’t always really look like victims, and it’s a really tough sell because to keep them, they’ve obviously been forced on drugs to get them to comply (with the traffickers.) Some of them become addicted to drugs. Some of them are able to get out of that.”
However, it often can be easy to dress up the suspects to make them look respectable, but it can be harder for the victims to afford the proper clothes for court, and appearances matter to juries, she said.
Zonta also has been working with the Junior League of Tampa with the Abolish Movement, which focuses on ending child sex slavery. The club is working with Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco County schools to get some information to the students about trafficking, although so far it has had the most luck in Hillsborough County. A lot of schools are hesitant because of the subject matter, she said, but the group is still trying because traffickers are going after younger and younger girls. Sometimes even middle school girls can be targeted, she said.
“They’re experts at picking out who’s the weak link and who might be receptive to offering them a new phone or a new dress or something like that,” Lancaster said. “They’re the one that’s disadvantaged or have a poor self-concept. They’re really smart guys. Horrible, horrible people. But they know how to exploit them.”
Trafficking isn’t just something that happens overseas or to foreign girls who are smuggled into the country. This happens locally as well, and runaways are especially vulnerable. Zonta and the Abolish awareness committee are talking to malls – security guards and people in the stores – to help educate people about the issue, she said.
“(We) hand an informational sheet out to let them know in case they see what looks like an older man coming in who has several young girls and they call him ‘daddy,’ that they might have been lured into it,” Lancaster said. “Unfortunately, it’s very common, and there are not too many opportunities to be able to step in and rescue them because they’re not going to speak up. They’re afraid. And by the time they brainwash them, they don’t even realize what’s going on is wrong. By that point they think they really are a prostitute and the police will arrest them. It’s a vicious cycle.”
Lancaster encourages women of all backgrounds and ages to join the Pinellas club. Whether it’s helping improve women’s equality, address sexual harassment and violence against women or enhancing women’s economic and educational status, she believes the world is a better place when women have the rights and resources that they need.
“I think as women’s lives are better, I really think it creates more peace in the world,” Lancaster said.
The local club meets monthly at local restaurants in north Pinellas County. Yearly dues are $130, which also qualifies members to attend Zonta International conferences and other events which can take place across the globe. However, people are welcome to attend meetings without becoming an official member. The club is now open to men as well.
Look for the club on Facebook by searching Zonta Club of Pinellas County.