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Soroptimist International of St. Helena is hitting a few important milestones: it’s holding its 40th annual Crab Feed, with more than $1 million raised on behalf of local women and kids, and celebrating being named Nonprofit of the Year by the St. Helena Chamber of Commerce.

The Soroptimist Crab Feed will be held at 6 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 4, at the Native Sons Hall on Spring Street.

This year’s event will be slightly different from prior years. Instead of a live auction, the club has organized an enlarged silent auction, along with the usual raffle and dessert auction. Attendees will be asked to raise their paddles only once to kick off the club’s “Next Million” in scholarship and grant funding.

The club will also be honoring Bob Fellion, the Crab Feed’s longtime auctioneer and emcee who was instrumental in raising the first million dollars. Elaine Honig, local vintner and founder of the nonprofit Wine, Women and Shoes, will be this year’s guest emcee.

The club was chartered in 1954 and still has some members who pre-date the first Crab Feed in 1977. One of them is Claudia Gambill, who joined Soroptimist in 1962 when she was fresh out of high school.

In 1977, she and other members like then-president Seana McGowan decided the club needed a regular fundraiser such as a crab feed.

“We were the first ones in the community to even think of it, but now they’re all doing it,” said Gambill, who has volunteered at every Crab Feed since then.

The first event only raised a few hundred dollars, but it became more successful over the years, adding live music, silent and live auctions, and most recently a special silent auction of desserts prepared by club members. They even extended it to a second night, starting a more low-key Friday night feed for people who wanted crab but weren’t interested in the party atmosphere of the main event.

Patty Herdell DiTomaso said the 2015 Crab Feed raised $78,000, which was the highest total since she got involved in the bookkeeping in 2008.

The live auction was starting to decline, “so we decided to give it a rest in our 40th year and make it more about thanking the community for all its support,” she said.

The club’s mission is to lift up women and girls through educational and professional empowerment. It awards upwards of $12,000 in scholarships to graduating St. Helena High School seniors, gives dictionaries to third-graders, sponsors kids to attend camp, and recently donated toward an field trip to Washington, D.C. for eighth-graders at Robert Louis Stevenson Middle School.

The club also gives Live Your Dream Awards to women who provide the primary source of financial support for their families and are looking to improve their education, skills and employment prospects.

Last year’s winners were Novene Cusseaux, a single mother of three studying to become a biotechnical researcher, and Sarely Valencia, a single mother of two pursuing a career in mental health. Kristi Trebotich, who won the award in 2015, will be a guest of honor at Saturday’s Crab Feed.

Young women ages 14-17 are eligible for the club’s Violet Richardson Award, which recognizes girls for volunteering in the community or school. Last year’s winners were Marieli Rubio, who participates in St. Helena High School’s Interact Club and goes on Project Hope mission trips with Calvary Christian Church, and Isabelle Smith, who goes on the same mission trips and volunteers as a coach for Girls on the Run.

“Being a Soroptimist in St. Helena is no small order,” writes Soroptimist member Holly Preston. “We’re not a big club so every member must be prepared to do ‘heavy lifting.’

“No one comes just for lunch (the club meets at noon on Thursdays except for the first of the month when we gather in the evening for light bites and cocktails — usually to hear a scheduled speaker). The fact we have so many multi-decade members speaks to the profound if not lifelong obligation we Soroptimists feel about lifting up women and girls less fortunate than ourselves. To this end, our members juggle jobs and families and rigorous committee obligations.”

Soroptimist International was founded in Oakland in 1921 as a first-of-its-kind service club committed to improving the lives of women and girls through educational and professional empowerment. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote, had been ratified only the year before.

New chapters quickly sprung up across the country and eventually overseas. Today, Soroptimist International has almost 95,000 members in about 120 countries and territories who contribute time and financial support to community-based and international projects that benefit women and girls. It is one of 1,200 non-government organizations recognized by the United Nations as an official advocate for women’s issues.

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St. Helena Reporter

Jesse has been a reporter for the St. Helena Star since 2006.