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LI women help themselves by helping others

Marilin Smolin holds decorations for this year’s MWI

Marilin Smolin holds decorations for this year’s MWI gala, whose theme was “Hooray for Hollywood.” (Oct. 14, 2103) Credit: Daniel Brennan

When Lori Schonfeld retired in 2004, she worried that she would lose her identity and become a "nonperson." "I didn't know what I would do with myself," the Island Park resident recalled.

Determined to stay active, Schonfeld, who is in her 70s and retired from a career in property management, joined a handful of community-service, recreational and social organizations in search of meaningful activities and friendship. One group stood out: a Long Island nonprofit now known as the Meadowbrook Women's Initiative (MWI). "I bonded with the women, and all the activities are during the day, so my days are full," she said.

Celebrating its fifth year under its current name, MWI is a 550-member organization of women with a threefold mission — education, community service and philanthropy. Its members meet those objectives with a calendar of study groups, a plethora of volunteer activities and financial donations to local nonprofit service agencies. In return, members say MWI imbues their lives with purpose and friends. "It's a community," said the group's president, Barbara Goldstein, 70, a member since 2005, who lives in Plainview.


Breaking with Brandeis

MWI ( began in 1958 as the Meadowbrook Chapter of Brandeis University National Women's Committee. The name was inspired by the large percentage of members living in communities along the state parkway in Nassau County.

But dissatisfaction with the university's policies regarding everything from fundraising to membership and a growing desire to support local nonprofit institutions, drove members to step away from Brandeis and recast their group as the Meadowbrook Women's Initiative, according to board member Linda Susman, 70, of Merrick. Their emphasis turned to helping others on Long Island "where most of us raised our families, where we have chosen to spend our retirement and where there are so many worthwhile charities," Susman explained.

MWI is open to all women. Members range in age from the mid-60s to their 90s. Many worked in marketing, advertising, real estate, education or retail before retiring. With guidance from an attorney, members segued from Brandeis to Meadowbrook while continuing the efforts that first attracted them to the Brandeis committee.

Annual membership dues are $65, and several fundraisers are held each year, including a book-and-author luncheon in the spring and a fall gala. This year's gala, held Oct. 15 at the Crest Hollow Country Club, was themed "Hooray for Hollywood" and proved so popular that attendance had to be capped at 300, according to Schonfeld, who served as the event chair. The dues and monies they raise go toward the group's annual philanthropic objectives. MWI allots 60 percent of its charitable dollars to different Long Island charities every year.


$45,000 to charities

June Stelboum, the group's vice president of philanthropy, heads a five-person committee responsible for selecting the charities. This year, MWI gave away $45,000, a 20 percent increase over last yer. Grants supported Angela's House in Smithtown and Family Residence and Essential Enterprise (FREE), in Hauppauge. Last year, the Head Injury Association in Hauppauge and the Long Island Crisis Center in Bellmore were recipients.

"MWI has our total admiration," said Fran Karliner, development director at the Crisis Center, which received $10,800. "They want to give back to the community, and they do it in such a generous and caring way." In light of government cutbacks, Karliner said MWI's gift helped in sustaining the crisis center's community education program for middle and high school students that addresses "suicide prevention and awareness and other self-injurious behaviors, such as anger management and cyberbullying."

Stelboum, a 70-something resident of Middle Island, said the group learns about worthy organizations from its members and newspaper articles. The committee researches the nonprofits' websites, interviews key personnel, reads the charity's literature and reviews its tax returns.

Every year, MWI uses 40 percent of its charitable dollars for stipends to Hofstra Medical School students volunteering in summer internships. Collin Fuller, 26, was one of six Hofstra medical students who received MWI stipends, which ranged from $2,500 to $5,000 this year. During the summer break, Fuller spent two weeks in the Dominican Republic researching neonatal care on a sugar plantation, with the help of an interpreter.

"It was an amazing experience, and I want to go back and serve the community in the future," said the Minnesota native and New York University graduate. "The people were so generous of their time, opening up to us so that future generations on plantations will have better health care." Fuller, a second-year medical student, said he is indebted to MWI for its $2,500 stipend, which covered his airline travel and living expenses. "It was pretty expensive, and I wouldn't have been able to do it if it weren't for their support," he said.

Earlier this year, MWI also gave a $1,500 grant to Advancing Women in Science and Medicine, an arm of the Feinstein Institution for Medical Research at North Shore/LIJ Medical Center.

Members also perform community service in a wide-range of volunteer efforts, including staffing a sundries shop and running monthly Bingo games at A. Holly Patterson Extended Care Facility in Uniondale; and helping at the Kiwanis gift-wrap kiosk at the Roosevelt Field mall. The women also craft Ouch Babies — dolls that enable children in hospitals to indicate where they feel pain and that help doctors explain a procedure to them.

With donations from members and stores, the group provides school supplies to abused and neglected kids living in a Long Island safe house and the children of parents who have cancer. Members also knit hats and scarves and buy gloves for these children.

Using her knitting and crocheting skills, Bea Wolf, 83, makes hats and scarves for children, as well as afghans for hospitalized veterans, children and AIDS-HIV patients. But, as she tells it, MWI's knitwear efforts take teamwork. Her husband drives her to various locations to deliver the finished goods, and she has marshaled 20 women, who don't belong to MWI, to help with the handiwork. "It keeps me active and going," said Wolf, who also lives in East Meadow.

Gloria Cohen's East Meadow home serves as a drop-off site for donations of clothes and other items from club members. "The more we do, the more we see there's a need, and we keep doing," said Cohen, 77, MWI's vice president of community service.

The group also runs programs tailored to its members. Elaine Myers, 77, is vice president of "singles." She organizes buffet luncheons and other outings, such as theatrical performances, on Sunday afternoons — when single women are likely to find themselves alone. The gatherings typically attract 45 to 60 attendees.


A supportive group

"It's not a support group where you sit and tell your problems, but it's a supportive group," said Myers, a Plainview resident who has been a widow for 22 years. She joined the organization after retiring eight years ago as an administrator and teacher at a private high school.

Members say MWI enriches their lives with study groups, classes in beginner bridge, drama and the Holocaust. Costs are kept down by holding these sessions in places that provide free space, such as libraries and synagogues, and mostly relying on members to run them.

Members say the classes have helped them to explore new interests. Cohen said she discovered a new talent when she joined a study group three years ago. "For the first time in my life," she said, "I took up creative writing and didn't know I could write — and I like it."


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