Rho Iota Zeta celebrates 20 years of service

By MARLAN JONES,

The women of the Rho Iota Zeta Chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc. will celebrate 20 years of service to the community on July 27 at the Mendenhall National Guard Armory.

Rho Iota Zeta members will be joined by special guest Dr. Tommie “Tonea” Stewart. Stewart is a native of Greenwood, Miss., and is a professional actress, play director, national museum exhibit director, and Dean of the College of Visual Arts at Alabama State University.

Stewart has received several accolades throughout her career and has been a pioneer for African American actresses. Her screen and television credits include A Time To Kill, The Rosa Parks Story, Mississippi Burning, Invasion of the Body Snatchers III, Living Large, "Walker, Texas Ranger," "Memphis Beat" "Matlock," "Leave of Absence," "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," "ER," "Touched by an Angel," "Mississippi Damned" and several Lifetime Movies, the latest being The Wronged Man.

Rho Iota Zeta will be celebrating the last 20 years, but the ground work for the program began much earlier according to the oldest member of the chapter, Lillie Hardy, who joined the sorority in 1966. She described a need for what the Zetas represented in the community. She said during 1969 and throughout 1970 the community grew complacent and less active in terms of activities for young people and the African American community. Hardy said that she and others began a Community Civic Circle Club that would host pageants and other programs to keep the community active and engaged. The club had a positive effect on several young women who participated.

Hardy said, “These girls went off to college and returned with the idea of starting a sorority in the community.”

It was Cassandra Walker, a 1995 initiate of Zeta Chapter at Alcorn State University, first fostered the ideal of a graduate chapter in Mendenhall. Rho Iota Zeta was chartered on June 19, 1999, in Mobile Ala., by National Grand Basileus Barbara West Carpenter, making them the first Greek letter organization in Simpson County.

The charter members of Rho Iota Zeta Chapter were Cassandra Owens-Walker, Sandrena Lofton Durr, Lillie Brown Hardy, JoSonda Logan McNair, and Eusheka Taylor. The first initiated members of the chapter were Sharon Gills, Floretta Clark, Shuwanda Hicks, and Laterra Carter.

Hardy served as the first president of the Rho Iota Zeta Chapter. The Mendenhall chapter has continued to pursue the ideas and goals that the organization was founded upon--scholarship, service, sisterhood, and finer womanhood.

Hardy said, “We’ve tried to enhance the community by providing services.” After receiving their charter the Zetas immediately established youth auxiliaries.

She said, “We started our youth auxiliaries where we mentor young ladies. We’re involved with the youth as early as 6 years old.” The Rho Iota Zeta Chapter also established an adult auxiliary known as the Zeta Amicae for women in the community who share the same ideas.

The organization has shown steady growth throughout the years and currently boasts 81 financial members who contribute to social, educational, religious, civic, and social development in Simpson County.

Hardy fondly reminisced about the first event Rho Iota Zeta ever held in Simpson County. The event took place in the Magee City Park and was called Blue and White Day. The organization was introduced to the community and a tradition was started. Rho Iota Zeta has since gone on to sponsor events and programs that have greatly impacted the county. Hardy said the organization is committed to assisting youth and annually hosts events such as back to school drives and step shows to speak out against drugs and violence. She said Rho Iota Zeta also adopts a Simpson County School each year and provides supplies and clothing for children in need. Through the years, Rho Iota Zeta has provided several students with scholarships to help further their education. Many members also participate in the Read Across America program to help promote literacy.

The organization is also on the forefront of bringing awareness to issues affecting the community, the most recent being bullying and human trafficking. Rho Iota Zeta spreads awareness and provides families with resources, knowledge of the laws, and avenues to reach out.

Hardy was especially proud of the Z-HOPE program which stands for Zetas Helping Other People Excel. She said the program celebrates people within the community who have done an outstanding job helping others excel. The program also empowers participants throughout the community to develop healthy lifestyle choices across their lifespan. Hardy said each year Rho Iota Zeta honors five people within the community.

Rho Iota Zeta has exceled at enhancing the community and frequently represents Simpson County well on the national stage. Mississippi has the second largest number of Zetas in the nation and Rho Iota Zeta is the third largest chapter in the state.

Hardy said celebrating their 20 years of service will be a big accomplishment, but this is only the beginning. She said, “We’re making a big impact in the community and are being supported from several different directions.”