On the Space Coast, if you have heard of Zonta at all, it’s probably because at some point since 2004 you have attended the Melbourne club’s annual Chocolate Festival that takes place in March. You might have an inkling that Zonta is a woman’s organization that provides scholarships. Perhaps you glimpsed a billboard declaring “Zonta Says No to Violence Against Women.” However, it’s unlikely you truly understand the scope, reach, and impact of this mighty organization.
FROM HUMBLE BEGINNINGS...
Zonta was founded in Buffalo, NY in 1919. One hundred years later, Zonta is a leading international organization of professionals with 29,000 members in 1,200 clubs in 63 countries around the world. “Zonta” is derived from the language of the Teton Dakota, a large western branch of several groups of the Native American Sioux people. Zonta translates as “honest and trustworthy,” qualities members felt essential for female empowerment.
We often think of the Women’s Movement as starting with Rosie the Riveter in World War II. However, women began joining the workforce in earnest during World War I. When that war ended, professional women organized to remove impediments to their independence and ability to support themselves.
HISTORY LESSON: SUFFRAGE
On June 4, 1919, Congress passed the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution granting women’s suffrage, or the right to vote. Six months later, Zonta was founded, and together with many other important women’s organizations, helped get the 19th Amendment ratified on August 18, 1920.
Zonta is dedicated to creating a world in which every woman is empowered, and no woman lives in fear of violence. A non-partisan organization, Zonta values the participation of men. With UNICEF—a Zonta partner since 1972—Zonta recently launched a worldwide campaign to mobilize one billion men to collaborate in the achievement of universal gender equality.
On July 2, 1928, aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart was returning home from her famous transatlantic voyage when she received word from the Boston Zonta Club that she had been admitted as a member. Ms. Earhart remained an active member in this and later the New York club, until her untimely disappearance in 1937.
Although her name might not be as recognizable as Amelia Earhart, to members of the various chambers of commerce in Brevard, Sandy Michelson is the ever-present face of Zonta. As a domestic violence survivor, Sandy was attracted to Zonta’s goal of stopping violence against women when she became involved around 1990. Highly motivated, Sandy was named “Zontian of the Year” soon after she joined, served as president 1997-1999, and area district director from 2000-2002.
Thirty years later, Sandy believes Zonta builds leaders and provides the friendship and support that helps women reach their full potential. Since 1999, Sandy has spearheaded the Melbourne Club’s holiday ornaments fundraiser. The popular (and regularly sold out) ornaments featuring iconic Space Coast landmarks are sold at Zonta functions and at Meehan’s in Downtown Melbourne for $25. Best-sellers over the years include 2001’s Dragon Point and 2014’s Del’s Freeze.
CHOCOLATE TO THE RESCUE
Famous around town for baking fudge brownies to show gratitude for those who lend a hand to Zonta, Sandy’s delectable treats helped inspire one of Brevard’s most anticipated annual events, the Zonta Chocolate Festival.
The Chocolate Festival was the brainchild of Christine Tomasetti who felt that Zonta needed something fresher than the typical fashion show fundraiser. She came up with the idea while watching the Food Network and believed that since Sandy’s brownies were synonymous with the Melbourne Club, a chocolate-themed festival would be a perfect fit. The festival has grown over the years from a small affair with a few dozen guests in the gardens of a historic home on Pineapple Avenue in Melbourne to a giant event that sells out the Melbourne Auditorium.
LEADERS FROM WITHIN
Christine joined Zonta in the early 1990s. She was attracted to the organization because of its focus on professional development, provision of scholarships, and crusade against domestic violence. Christine also appreciated the international aspect of Zonta because, although a Jersey girl, her father’s family immigrated from Italy and her mother was born and raised in France. Christine is a past-president of the Melbourne Club and has been Area Vice-Director on the District level for the past two years. Next year, she will become Area Director for the Southeastern United States, Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas and will serve on the District 11 Board.
Immediately after joining the Melbourne club 16 years ago, Claire Ellis attended the Southeast Area Conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where she witnessed a presentation on Zonta’s first international project to fight human trafficking in Bosnia. Coincidentally, Claire had just returned from a trip to Bosnia, witnessing first-hand the poverty of that war-torn country. During the presentation, it occurred to Claire that if she had been a girl in Bosnia and someone had promised her a better life and a free trip to the United States, she probably would have been tricked into becoming a victim of human trafficking, too.
Shortly after returning from Puerto Rico, Claire went to a Human Trafficking Conference in Ft. Myers hosted by the Zonta Club of Sanibel, which was providing trainings to law enforcement and helping victims of trafficking in Southwest Florida. Today, Claire is the co-chair of the Space Coast Human Trafficking Task Force, which is underwritten by the Melbourne club. The task force creates awareness through education and advocates for laws like those that crack down on human trafficking through disreputable massage parlors and require hotel staff to be trained in identifying human trafficking victims. The task force has delivered several trainings in Brevard over the past decade, most recently for Brevard County Sherriff’s personnel, emergency medical staff at Rockledge Medical Center, and Health First doctors.
Before moving to Florida, Doris “Dodie” Larson was President of the Zonta Club of Annapolis, MD, where she had been a member since 1989. Dodie says that if the Melbourne club had not been established in 1983, she would have started a club upon arrival in 2002.
Instead, she immediately set upon growing the Melbourne club’s membership. Ask Dodie, “Why Zonta?” and she will tell you that she has learned more as a Zontian than from any other activity. She credits Zonta for giving her the courage to start her own business and become a leader in her community. Zonta understands the importance of education in empowering women around the world. When you empower women, Dodie points out, you strengthen the family and the community.
Dodie loves that wherever in the world she travels, she can always reach out to a Zontian and receive whatever sort of support she needs. Whether the issue is stopping violence against women, providing scholarships to girls, outlawing childhood marriage and female genital mutilation, advocating for the passage of equal rights legislation, or raising human trafficking awareness, you can count on Zonta to zealously work to improve the status of women at the local, state, national, and international levels.