Discover the secrets of the Blue Skirt Society, a mysterious group of wealthy philanthropists with strong roots here in Seminole County
They are a driving force in the college journeys of several low-income young women in Central Florida. They are fairy godmothers, inspirational mentors, and believers in the concept of “paying it forward.” They also happen to be millionaires and billionaires or members of very wealthy families. They are the Blue Skirt Society –12 members strong, several of whom live in our community – and most of their identities are secret... even to this writer.
“Our secret handshake is in development,” laughs Terri Walsh, an accounting program manager at Seminole State College of Florida. Terri is a Blue Skirt Society member who was willing to be interviewed and, with the permission of the group’s other members, share a bit about its mission. Terri explains that the Blue Skirt society is a collection of very wealthy women from all over the world who make often-anonymous donations to individuals in need. While the givers’ identities are typically withheld, the group insists that each recipient knows the gift came from individuals who care about them rather than the government or any other organization. The Blue Skirt Society believes such knowledge creates a sense of accountability as opposed to entitlement.
“To see that people are doing good is important,” says Terri. “We want it to be a hand up, not a handout.”
College student Daniela Castro has experienced the Blue Skirt Society’s generosity, though she has yet to meet all of its members.
“At my graduation, they told me they will reveal themselves,” says Daniela, a rising sophomore at Florida State University. A biomathematics major, Daniela says the Blue Skirt Society paid for her trip to Nicaragua last summer so she could work in an FSU Honors Medical Scholars program. The group also picks up the cost of Daniela’s medical insurance while she’s in school, among other expenses. “To be chosen is amazing,” she says. “People believe in you more than you believe in yourself. That idea just floors me.”
The Blue Skirt Society supplements the work of Support Our Scholars (SOS), a Winter Park-based nonprofit organization that provides scholarships and mentors to deserving female high-school seniors who don’t have the financial means to cover costs that go along with college. For instance, SOS holds “dorm showers” to set up students for residence-hall living with shower caddies, comforters, and backpacks. SOS often pays for books, meal plans, and rent, as well. But it’s where SOS leaves off that the Blue Skirt Society picks up.
Susan Johnson, the former owner of a Winter Park boutique and wife of former Washington Nationals Major League Baseball team manager Davey Johnson, founded Support Our Scholars in 2004.
“Everybody [in the Blue Skirt Society] was already giving to SOS,” says Susan. “This was a way to engage people in a larger way, and it’s also to bond people together for the common good.”
The stakes for the Blue Skirt Society’s work are high, but the ante is surprisingly low. Stipends for both SOS and for the Blue Skirt Society are $1,250 per semester. Blue Skirt Society donors begin by making an additional $1,000 pledge over four years, but Susan says many members commit a lot more. No member knows what another member gives. Society members also make sure their college-bound recipients are paired with a mentor to help them make the most of the Society’s gifts and any other financial aid they receive.
“For us, it was being able to reach out and being sure girls had the extra little something and a mentor to sort out extra costs,” says Susan. “What does their scholarship include or not include? Do they need another small student loan? If they don’t have a mentor or parents who can help figure that out, 80 percent of them won’t graduate.”
The Blue Skirt Society convenes once a year, says Terri, always in Florida and often in Seminole County. The meeting location is practical because all Blue Skirt Society members have at least one home in the Sunshine State. When they gather, the Society plans the giving that goes beyond the members’ commitments to SOS.
“We all write down a random act of kindness, put it in a bowl, and draw,” Susan explains. “We pledge to do [what we draw] and come back next year and tell about it.”
One member recently drew a pledge to pay a child’s pre-school tuition. The Society member who drew that task worked with a day-care center director to find a single mom in need. Some of the pledges drawn from the bowl are large. Others are small, directing members to anonymously and quietly pick up tabs for textbooks, gym memberships, and dinners all over the United States.
But who are they? Terri won’t say, but she does offer some details about the Blue Skirt Society’s membership. They range in age from 28 to 65. One is a chemical engineer. Others include a CPA, a TV news anchor, a woman with ties to a popular home-shopping network, an investment broker, and a real estate investor.
But, in the end, who is in the Society may not be as important as the work it does.
“I have a Team Jasmine,” says Jasmine Rolle, a finance major at the University of Florida in Gainesville, who earned 33 college credits while still in high school. The Society has helped her buy a dorm mini-fridge, groceries, professional clothing for internships, and more. “They take the pressure off of you.”
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