As president of the venerable Savannah Widows’ Society, nothing in Alison Harris’ life makes sense. She is not a widow. She’s not from Savannah. She has no mother or aunt who preceded her in this 200-year-old organization.
Despite her age, her rank as a newcomer, her marital status, she shares one thing in common with many people in Savannah: she had never heard of the Widows’ Society.
“I couldn’t believe that something so meticulous, so perfectly executed could exist so under the radar,” he said. “It’s a hidden secret, a gem.”
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But don’t expect the title to change. The name has a tradition. He has gravity and Harris respects that.
While palliative measures in the form of grants were initially offered only to widows, they are now granted to women in Chatham County who are single, divorced or widowed. The money could be for a heater that stopped working, a copay someone couldn’t find, an interrupted utility bill. Each month, a commission meets to examine the applications one by one. The group distributes an average of $2,500 to four to eight women.
Unlike most nonprofits, the money is already there, mostly from accrued interest from a fund started by Dorothea Abrahams in 1859, a fund that grew into a $2 million endowment. Dorothea was the widow of Abraham DeLyon Abrahams, a merchant from Charleston, South Carolina. The couple believed in doing “good works”. He is buried in Sheftell Cemetery on Cohen Street, behind Garrison Elementary School. Dorothea is buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery.
The organization originally housed 41 needy women in a large three-story building on the northwest corner of Broughton and East Broad streets. For women who could not own and outlived their husbands, housing was a creative and generous boon. In 1984, the organization withdrew from the real estate business and transferred the money into investment businesses. The judicious and prudent financing paid off. With very little bureaucracy or internal costs, there is money to help those in need when they need it.
At 41, Harris is one of the young directors (yes, that’s the word they use). She came to Savannah 16 years ago from California when her husband David was hired as manager of the Lucas Theater.
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A UCLA theater graduate, she got a job at the Savannah Arts Academy as a technical theater teacher. “I grew up acting, singing, playing instruments and dancing. I wasn’t particularly good at any of that,” she said. But she loved the theater.
Despite the low pay, the job at the Academy of Arts seemed like a perfect fit until David’s job at the Lucas didn’t work out. It was then that the couple had to come up with a new plan. That’s when Alison’s real estate agent-turned-friend, Robert Jones, turned to her and said, “You should be thinking about selling some real estate. She didn’t flinch. She was organized. She loved spreadsheets. She took the suggestion seriously.
“It’s amazing how much real estate and governance have in common,” she said. “They are both detail-oriented and project-based. They are in production. They are based on communication between the lender, the seller, the building inspector.
Sixteen years and two children later, Alison sells real estate and David manages the house. “It’s perfect,” she said, “a complete reversal of roles. I haven’t been to a grocery store in years. When I go there, I have to call him to ask him where something is.
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Alison heard about the Widows’ Society when a client invited her to serve on the board. The individual aspect of the organization appealed to her. Each month, the jury meets to review the applications. It’s not a permanent solution, she said. But it’s immediate. The organization is solvent. There is no revolving debt. And that, she says, is a beautiful thing.
For the upcoming 200th anniversary of one of the oldest, if not the oldest, nonprofits in the city, Harris hopes to bring the organization out of the shadows. She wants to reach the youngest. She wants to raise more money to help more people.
“It’s the women who help the women,” she says.
What could be more appropriate.
Jane Fishman is a lifestyles columnist. Contact her at [email protected] or call 912-484-3045. See more of Jane’s columns at SavannahNow.com/lifestyle/.