Pilot International Celebrates 90 Years of Volunteer Service to Communities

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This month Pilot International, a volunteer service organization started by seven women in the Deep South, celebrates the 90th anniversary of its founding. The Pilot story mirrors vast cultural changes that span the decades.

In early September of 1921, Macon, Georgia native Elizabeth Leonard met with six of her friends to discuss forming a volunteer service organization of businesswomen that could one day become international in its scope of service. It was an ambitious idea, given that women had only recently received the right to vote with the passing of the 19th Amendment.
The name Pilot was chosen to represent the stalwart riverboat pilots of that era who steered their vessels through the rough waters with confidence and a steady hand. The organization’s name and mission have nothing whatsoever to do with aviation. The organization’s International Headquarters have been located in Macon, Georgia since that time.

OCTOBER 18, 1921
With the Pilot International charter petition filed, Elizabeth Leonard and 40 charter members held their first formal meeting in the Gold Room of the Dempsey Hotel in downtown Macon. An orchestra played, notable civic leaders addressed the group, and the press covered the event. This was a gala affair with lavish food and dress, and the printed news announcement for that meeting read, in part: “A civic club composed of the most wide-awake and intelligent business women has formed with headquarters in Macon.” In the Jazz Age of the 1920s, women were making notable contributions in the fine arts…entertainment…politics… science… and in the workplace. To add to that, Elizabeth Leonard and her group were now “piloting” forward with their volunteer service club movement. To be a Pilot in that era of “modern” advancement and change was an honor and privilege, heightened especially by the fact that membership was structured around an elite vocational classification system that is no longer in place. Before the second Annual Pilot International Convention was held, there were five Pilot Clubs in existence in two states: Georgia and Alabama. Pilot’s growth continued to rise, at one time topping 23,000 members in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

With vast cultural and generational changes, Pilot’s -- as well as other volunteer service organizations’ memberships -- have steadily declined in a sociological reality termed “aging out” – older members die and are not replaced by younger ones at a fast enough rate to offset the losses. Nature has also taken a toll. Pilot Clubs in Japan, which have been a mainstay for the organization for many years, took a blow during the tsunami and its disastrous aftermath this year. Some members whose lives were adversely affected resigned, and a few long-time clubs disbanded. Yet the existing Pilot members and clubs in all five countries seem fiercely loyal, with many remaining members for life.

In the past few years, membership recruitment and club growth have been high on the agendas of each Pilot International President who takes office. This year’s president, Beverly Wilkes of Louisville, Mississippi, has challenged each of the 20 Pilot Districts to build at least one new Pilot Club, and has asked each Pilot Club to recruit as many new members as possible.

Since those early founding days 90 years ago, the organization has made a decided mark on the world stage. Newsworthy volunteer service work attributed to Pilot International includes:

  •     Purchasing a Red Cross ambulance for use at the front during World War II;
  •     Furnishing the children’s ward on the famed medical hospital ship, the S.S. Hope;
  •     With the urging of Atlanta author Margaret Mitchell, rebuilding a French village that had – in a disastrous error -- been bombed and leveled by U.S. Forces during WWII;
  •     Promoting the impact of art creation and performance through the Very Special Arts Program;
  •     Teaching brain protection to children with Pilot’s own educational program, BrainMindersTM ;•    Providing thousands of scholarships for college educations;
  •     Plus the vast number of projects under Pilot’s brain disorders service focus undertaken by Pilots and Anchor Clubs (youth clubs) at the community level.

In addition, Pilot International was the National Presenting Sponsor of the first Memory Walk held nationwide by the then-fledgling Alzheimer’s Association. Pilot has also enjoyed representation for many years as an NGO (non-governmental agency) at the United Nations.

Pilot’s volunteer service focus is brain disorders/diseases, and each year, Pilot Clubs receive matching grants from the Pilot International Foundation(PIF) to conduct programs and projects that assist those in their community who are affected by illnesses that include Alzheimer’s disease, traumatic brain injuries, brain tumors, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, depression, shaken baby syndrome, Moya-Moya and similar illnesses. Grants are also given to prevent brain injuries, especially for projects using Pilot’s award-winning educational program, BrainMindersTM. There are now 9,400 Pilot Club members in the U.S., Bermuda, The Bahamas, Canada and Japan.


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Paige Henson