The year was 1947, and a dozen or so women in West Baltimore — mainly mothers with young children — were looking for an outlet. The neighborhood friends wanted some time to themselves, but they also wanted to make wise use of that time. So they formed a group called the Covenant Guild, whose motto was, and remains, "Loving, caring, giving and sharing."
With that adage as its guidepost, the next seven decades saw the guild grow into a notable nonprofit that at times exceeded 500 members and raised millions of dollars. Celebrating its 70th anniversary this May, the guild, whose members meet twice a month in Pikesville, reflects on its vibrant legacy and looks forward to the coming years.
The guild's primary philanthropic goal is to provide funds for needy agencies and individuals in the Baltimore area, explains Lois Balser, the organization's current president. But at times the nonprofit has stepped outside these boundaries, raising funds for organizations beyond the Baltimore vicinity and even as far as Israel.
The guild's fundraising efforts, whether focusing on needs near or far, annually raise an estimated $30,000 or more, says Balser, of Pikesville. Over the years, the guild's steady philanthropic initiatives have reaped upward of $4 million. "One dollar at a time," is how Bea Yoffe, a guild member and its recording secretary, describes the fundraising approach.
Every dollar adds up, as evidenced by the guild's name, which appears on several buildings and equipment around town. Numerous departments at the University of Maryland Medical Center, as well as the hospital's Shock Trauma Center, bear the Covenant Guild name, as do several pieces of equipment at Johns Hopkins Hospital. It's also proudly emblazoned on the Pikesville Fire Department's first-ever telemetry ambulance.
The guild at times ventures into territory where others weren't willing to go. In the 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic was emerging yet not fully understood, the guild held a fashion show and raised several thousand dollars for a home in Lauraville that housed women with AIDS and their children.
Typically, organizations seeking support will send a proposal to the Covenant Guild's philanthropic review committee. The committee visits the organizations and analyzes their needs. It then brings its findings to the guild's executive board, which votes on which organizations will receive funds.
In some cases, the guild's efforts serve individuals rather than groups. Notice of a community member's need usually travels by word of mouth through the tight-knit group. The guild members will, in turn, respond swiftly and subtly. The source of the need varies, and often the recipient chooses to remain anonymous. "If someone's child needs clothes to go to a bar mitzvah, or if a child needs a new wheelchair or a special walker, we'll step in," Balser says.
While the guild's foremost objectives center on supporting the needs of the community, the members like to have fun, too. In addition to twice-a-month meetings at Temple Oheb Shalom in Pikesville, the guild gathers for a book club and holds mahjong tournaments and other social events. Current members reminisce about a time when the guild had an active choral group that would perform in various venues throughout Baltimore City. "They were known as gorgeous women. Some were still doing it in their 80s," Yoffe said.
The guild's fun and festive side was on full display recently as members held a number of events to commemorate the organization's 70th anniversary. They kicked off the week with a luncheon at the Woodholme Country Club in Pikesville, where the guild's past presidents as well as lifelong and legacy members were honored.
Other anniversary events included a bus trip to some of the local agencies the guild has supported over the years, plus a donor recognition event. The celebratory week concluded on May 27 with services and a luncheon at Temple Oheb Shalom.
The weeklong celebration gave the guild members an opportunity to reflect on their accomplishments and their fondness for fellow members of the organization, which has grown exponentially from its original dozen or so members. Now, it's holding steady around 250 members.
Due to the lengthy waiting list at the time, "I had to wait a year to get in," recalls Shirley Gambel, a longtime member and past president of the guild. Once she gained entry, she never left. With her walker on her side, she reminisces about the friendships made and the good times had.
Other members note their appreciation of the guild's past presidents. "The beautiful part about the Covenant Guild is that they [past presidents] never fade away," Yoffe says. They stay active, they act as advisers…They never lose interest. They're an inspiration."
Even those who originally were reluctant to join the guild have found themselves engaged, long-term members. "Thirteen years ago, a member approached me and said, 'You're going to a tea [sponsored by the Covenant Guid].' I said, 'No, I belong to another organization.'"
That hesitant joiner was Balser, who now presides over the organization. Like many other guild members, she initially was drawn to the organization's impressive philanthropic record. But over time, the bonds of friendship formed with other like-minded members kept her in the group.
One of the members says she considers the others like sisters. Her fellow guild members nod, acknowledging the meaningful bond the guild has allowed them to share. "None of us would have crossed paths [without the guild]. Age doesn't mean a thing," Gambel says.
She and other guild members, who range in age from their 50s to their mid-90s, hope they can hook new members with their enthusiasm and loyalty. But with many more women working outside the home than when the Covenant Guild was founded, fewer have the time or inclination to join. That's where members like Sharon Stadd see the need to begin promoting the organization to prospective members in a more modern way than its current recruiting methods: word of mouth and invitation-only wine-and-cheese events.
"We created a Facebook page last year. Eventually we want to have a website so we can get the word out in a broader sense," Stadd says. "We want to come up to the 21st century but still keep the existing organization the one we know and love."