Success of local Acorn Club stems from roots of humble beginnings

By Tony E. Windsor

For over 107 years the Seaford Acorn Club has served the area with an array of philanthropic projects. These include supporting the building of the Western Sussex Boys & Girls Club, donating annually to the Nanticoke Little League organization, sponsoring two $3,000 scholarships at Seaford High School each year and providing heart monitors and founding the "I Was a Beary Good Patient" children's outpatient surgery teddy bear project at Nanticoke Memorial Hospital. One of its most recognizable projects, the Seaford-Blades and Vicinity Telephone Directory has been a staple in the community for 59 years and provides the lion's share of its charity finances. There is no doubt that the members of The Acorn Club have volunteered countless hours of service to citizens of the greater Seaford community, doing much community service that few are even aware of. Despite the extraordinary public service provided to the area for over a century, recent national headlines have created an unfortunate, unintentional confusion that the organization hopes will soon pass. In recent weeks, the national "grassroots community organization," ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), has been the focus of much media attention regarding allegations of voter registration fraud and activities caught on film where ACORN staff were advising clients on how to engage in illegal activities. In an undercover operation, conservative activists James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles, posed as a pimp and prostitute seeking ACORN's assistance in setting up a brothel.

Teresa Blades, past president of The Seaford Acorn Club and now chair of the Telephone Directory project, says the national headlines have caused people in the area to mistakenly think that the local civic group has ties to ACORN, which was founded in 1970 in Little Rock, Arkansas to assist welfare recipients. "Our Seaford organization has absolutely nothing to do with the national ACORN group. Their name is an acronym, our name comes from a phrase that has been around for hundreds of years," Blades said. Sue Ockels, past-president and current Assistant Chair of the Acorn Club telephone directory project, says the problem seems to be worsened by the fact that over the years there have been many people who have come to live in Seaford from other areas. "These are people who are not necessarily familiar with our organization and simply hear the name and assume we are affiliated," she said. Blades and Ockels recently met at Seaford Pizza King to discuss not so much the concerns about the mistaken affiliation with the national ACORN group, but more the rich history of one of the Seaford area's oldest community service groups. For the record the two adamantly affirm that the Seaford Acorn Club is an organization with ties only to the General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC), with over 100,000 members representing over 4,000 clubs throughout the world dedicated to volunteer community service. The GFWC was formed in 1868 by professional New York journalist Jane Cunningham Croly. Blades said The Seaford Acorn Club is most known by its annual publishing of the local telephone directory, a project that almost literally consumes the lion's share of the year in planning. "We have committees dedicated to this project and we start in January. We have club members out helping to update advertisers and proof reading the book before it goes off to the publisher. It is an extraordinary job, but it is a labor of love for the members," she said.

Ockels said the hard work throughout the year pays off when the telephone books are completed and sent back to be packaged for delivery. "Everybody loves getting together to stuff the envelopes," she said. "It is great fellowship and we have members helping to do this who otherwise are unable to go out and do a lot of the more strenuous jobs that come with preparing the telephone book," she said. Blades said that she remembers when the membership had to handwrite the addresses on the phone book envelopes. With over 9,000 telephone directories being delivered annually, the organization has had to accept the technology of modern times and relies now on computer generated address labeling. Both Blades and Ockels joined The Acorn Club in the mid 1980s, a time when the membership was as high as over 170 members. Today the membership is at about 80 members, still a significant number for a local volunteer organization. The history of the club dates back to 1902 when 12 Seaford women met to form a women's club. Dues for the organization were set at 10 cents a month for 10 months. The group decided to name its club after the phrase that can be found in Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, 1374, which states, "mighty oaks from little acorns grow."

The newly formed club began having members bring books from their homes and collectively loan them out to members of the public. Each member served as a "librarian" for a period of one month. Books brought back late were assessed a one-cent overdue fee. At one point Mrs. Van Leer Stephany donated tale leaves to make up a set of book shelves. Before long the club was forced to hire a part time librarian who was paid $1 per week. By 1909 there were 404 books in the Acorn Club Library. These modest beginnings were the formation of what was to become the Seaford Public Library. In 1944 the Acorn Club took a challenge from the Delaware Federation of Women for all women's clubs to help raise $280,000 to purchase a WWII bomber airplane. The amount being suggested to contribute per club was $2,500. The money was raised through the sales of war bonds. The Acorn Club surpassed the challenge and contributed $3,000 to the cause. In recognition of setting a record for War Bond sales, a decal of Seaford's Post Office was inscribed on the plane in honor of the Acorn Club's efforts. In 1948 the Acorn Club pledged $3,000 to the building fund for the newly designed Nanticoke Memorial Hospital. It was this year that there was a suggestion to replicate a project being done by the Smyrna Lion's Club, who published an annual local telephone directory. The project was adopted and the group set out to sell ads, print the book and deliver, via children's wagons, to every home in the Seaford community. The project, along with a Christmas Shop held at Mt. Olivet Methodist Church raised $2,200 and enabled the Acorn Club to pay its pledge to NMH in just two years.

Since the early days of the Acorn Club, members have not slowed down in terms of active involvement in community service. Over the years the club has been responsible for such projects as the building of the tennis courts at the Seaford High School and erected a clock in front of the former Seaford Post Office and now Seaford Historical Museum on High Street. The clock was given to the City of Seaford to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Acorn Club in 2002. Teresa Blades, who joined the Acorn Club in 1985, says that few people probably realize that the Acorn Club also funded a project to help bring Christmas lights throughout the city of Seaford. Sue Ockels, who joined the Acorn Club in 1984, at the urging of a friend's mother, said she has always been grateful that she accepted the recruitment offer. "I have met some of the most wonderful people through my work with the Acorn Club," she said. The words written into the minutes of an Acorn Club meeting held in 1909, seem to have been prophetic in terms of the growth and accomplishments of the club. The minutes state, "On examining a little oak of seven years' growth, we believe its branches of influence are spreading and those who take shelter under it, in years to come, will realize the planting of this Acorn was not in vain." Information for portions of this article was derived from "The History of the Acorn Club, Inc., Seaford Delaware," which was compiled in February 1984, by club Directors, Mrs. Milton Manlove, Mrs. Eugene Northrup, Mrs. Paul V. Mulrine, Mrs. William P. Stewart, Mrs. Albert L. Fager and Mrs. Fred Rummel.

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