After organizing in 1799 and first meeting in 1800, the Rhode Island General Assembly chartered the Providence Female Charitable Society in 1802. For more than 200 years, members of the society have worked to fulfill the organization’s mission of supporting “indigent women and their children” in Rhode Island.
Many of the Society’s members are able to trace a connection to the Society’s early founders. “There’s a tremendous loyalty to the organization,” states Alice Westervelt, the Society’s first directress. In recent years, membership has been opened to women interested in the mission; there currently are approximately 100 members.
The Providence Female Charitable Society is the oldest female charitable society of its kind still in existence in the United States. Of its founding, Betsey Hyman, the Society’s treasurer explains, “There was a small group of ladies in Providence who recognized a need in their community: women and children were living in extreme conditions of poverty and needed assistance.” Early on, schooling was provided for children; employment was found for their mothers. Age was not a factor when receiving assistance; help could have been in the provision of firewood to heat living quarters.
Today, the Society provides financial support. Last year, nearly 20 women were assisted. “It’s not just money we’re giving, but we’re helping make life easier for these women to remain independent,” explains Betsey, with Liza Roach, assistant treasurer, adding, “This gives them a hand up and not a hand out.”
Members learn about women in need through word of mouth, area churches, social service agencies, and nursing homes. Help comes in many forms: everything from wheelchairs to new brakes for cars and from field trip expenses for nursing home residents to home maintenance needs. “Beneficiaries stay with us for varying amounts of time; it all depends on the case,” Liza shares.
In looking to the future, Betsey says, “The endowment has positioned us to carry on the Society’s mission. This gives us peace of mind that the money (in the endowment) will be used as it has always been intended.”