LI service sorority celebrates 50 years

Senior members of the Delta Sigma Theta Nassau Senior members of the Delta Sigma Theta Nassau Alumnae Chapter, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. (April 13, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

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For Michele Van Eyken, serving others has practically been part of her DNA.

"My mother was a single mom, and I was the youngest of five siblings," says Van Eyken, now an administrator for the Roosevelt Union Free School District. "The older kids were always helping the younger ones. There was just a natural desire to help."

For Beth McKenzie, public service also has been an interest since her childhood in Setauket. "My father was a minister," says McKenzie, now a detective with the Nassau County Police Department. "We were always in the community, doing things for the needy."

And for Collette Frazier, education has long been an important focus in her life. Growing up in South Carolina with no sisters, the pursuit of "scholarship and sisterhood" has long inspired her, says Frazier, a retired teacher from St. Francis Preparatory School in Queens.

All three women are members of the Nassau Alumnae Chapter, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., a prominent national African-American organization established 100 years ago by collegiate women at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Today, the Nassau chapter also is celebrating a historic occasion: The 50th anniversary of its founding on April 20, 1963, by 16 African-American women devoted to public service through a wide range of community programs on Long Island.

The Nassau group now has more than 150 members, ranging in age from their 20s to their 80s, says Van Eyken, 45, of Amityville, who is the chapter's 20th president. (The chapter initially included members across Suffolk County, which was established as a separate chapter in 1989.) "There are women from all walks of life -- educators, judges, psychologists, doctors, writers," Van Eyken noted before the start of last Saturday's monthly chapter meeting at the Freeport Memorial Library.

At the time the first Delta chapter was established, white sororities were closed to African Americans. "It was formed in midst of social reform, the women's suffrage movement," says chapter historian Hildyne Bowens, 77, of Hempstead, a retired elementary school teacher.

Indeed, the first public act undertaken by Delta founders was their participation in the Women's Suffrage March in Washington, D.C., on March 3, 1913, a day before the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson.

Over the years, the national sorority developed a "Five Point Program" focused on initiatives promoting economic development; education and academic excellence; international awareness; physical and mental health; and political involvement. Today, this "Sisterhood called to Serve" includes more than 200,000 college-educated women in more than 900 chapters in the United States, Europe, Asia and the Caribbean. Among the dozens of notable Delta alumnae are actress/activist Ruby Dee Davis; former Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman; Brig. Gen. Hazel Johnson Brown, the first African-American woman general in the U.S. Army, who died in 2011; and Barbara Jordan, the first African-American to serve in Congress from the South since reconstruction, who died in 1996.

Many women first become a Delta while in college, says Van Eyken, who joined as an undergraduate at Adelphi in 1990, then became a member of the alumnae chapter about a decade later. There are 18 alumnae chapters statewide and there are 19 collegiate chapters, including ones at Hofstra, Adelphi, Stony Brook University, SUNY College at Old Westbury, LIU Post and CUNY.

Like Van Eyken, Bowens decided to join Delta Sigma Theta in college, as a sophomore at Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, the oldest of the 105 U.S. institutions designated as Historically Black Colleges and Universities. "There was something about these Deltas I liked," Bowens recalled. "I wanted to be in one [a sorority] where they were smart. But they were also the friendliest."

Throughout the year, Nassau Alumnae members -- "Soros," as they affectionately call each other -- spend hours engaged in community service activities, from hosting health workshops, readings and college information fairs at schools; to serving seniors in shelters and nursing homes. "Serving people, that's our goal," says Van Eyken. "We partner with just about everybody. Wherever there's work to be done, we join in, or lead the charge."

Once a month, Deltas play bingo with residents at the A. Holly Patterson Extended Care Facility in Uniondale. "I really enjoy that," says Delois Lewis, 75, of West Hempstead, a retired Nassau County probation officer who first joined Delta in 1956 as a junior at Fisk College in Nashville.

"They [Delta members] come here religiously, faithfully, every month," says Mary Grace Lynch, director of therapeutic recreation at the A. Holly Patterson facility. "They interact with the seniors, they build relationships. They've always been so loyal to us. They've been coming since I've been here -- 29 years."

McKenzie, 51, who joined Delta as an undergraduate at LIU Post in 1983, has long been active in raising scholarship money. "I enjoy working with the youth a lot, encouraging them to do education," says the retired detective who lives in Freeport. "I enjoy giving to others, making a difference in other people's lives."

Frazier, too, has "always liked the educational part [of Delta] more than anything else." Frazier, 70, of Rockville Centre, initiated the Black College Tour, a bus trip over Columbus Day weekend in October for high school students to visit several traditionally black colleges along the East Coast, such as Hampton University in Virginia, Howard University in Washington, D.C. and Morgan State University in Baltimore. (Frazier is a graduate of Wilberforce University in Ohio, the first college to be owned and operated by African-Americans.) "We try to expose students to campus life and motivate them to go to college," says Frazier. "We've had a number of students decide after the trip, 'This is where I want to go.'"

Pamela Washington, 42, of Queens, highlights activities such as "Jabberwock," Delta's talent showcase for young girls and boys -- also the group's largest fundraiser for scholarships. Another favorite: the annual poetry contest for Nassau County kids, says Washington, who is principal of the High School for Youth and Community Development at Erasmus in Brooklyn. "It's very competitive," she says. "They bring out their best poems."

Together with such community service is an unqualified commitment to other Delta members. "It's a wonderful fellowship," says Bowen. "It's a sisterhood."

Mentoring -- both formal and informal -- is an integral aspect of the camaraderie. Like Delta Sigma Theta chapters nationwide, the Nassau Alumnae (dstnac.org) offer a mentoring program for teen girls called GEMS (Growing and Empowering Myself Successfully) and the EMBODI program (Empowering Males to Build Opportunities for Developing Independence), recently started for young men.

Older Deltas also serve as mentors to younger soros. "They really treat their elders with pride," says Lewis.

And members frequently make time to socialize with other soros outside the organization, "even if it's just to go out to lunch," says Frazier, the retired teacher. "Once a year, we try to take a weekend together -- away from our husbands."

For many members, the sorority has become literally a family affair. Washington (whose aunt became a Delta in 1976) learned about the Nassau Alumnae Chapter from her sister, who was already a member there. Frazier now has a daughter at Spelman College in North Carolina, also a Delta. And when Lewis attends her family's 54th annual reunion in North Carolina later this year, she will be surrounded by soros.

"All of the women in my family are Deltas," she says. "All 10 of them."

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