Marsha Wallace's birthday potluck dinner 10 years ago grows to help women around the world become self sufficient

By Michaele Ballard and Alicia Dennis
September 05, 2013 04:45 PM
Jeffery Salter

It’s the birthday celebration that keeps on going – and continues to change the lives of hundreds of women and children around the world.

On Jan. 20, 2003, Marsha Wallace wanted to celebrate her 42nd birthday differently than the usual dinner out with friends. She wanted it to mean something more, and for longer. She invited 25 friends over to her Simpsonville, S.C. home, asking each of them to bring a dish to share and $30 to donate to a worthy cause.

“I knew that if we helped only one, it would make a difference,” says Wallace. “You never know what the ripple effect will be.”

Ten years and countless casseroles later, Wallace’s Dining for Women (DFW) has grown to 425 chapters and 9,200 members around the U.S., raising more than $2.78 million to aid women and girls living in poverty in 30 countries.

“I feel compelled to help women,” says Wallace, 52, a nurse who was raised by a single mother and was a single mother herself before marrying husband, Jim, a family physician. “I have been a single mother. I wanted to be self sufficient, independent and have a sense of achievement. I want them to have the same.”

Members of the dining club learn about each of the organizations they fund, giving grants of up to $50,000 to 21 organizations around the world per year – funding efforts like obstetrical care, safe havens and job training for sex-trafficking victims, literacy programs and job training.

“In developing countries, women are not only often deprived their basic rights,” says Wallace. “They are brutalized. We work in teams to vet organizations and make a decision [to fund] striving for different types of programs that solve different issues in different parts of the world. Then, we follow-up.”

Arlene Samen, founder of One Heart World-Wide, a nonprofit that provides obstetrical care to impoverished women in countries like Nepal and Mexico, says DFW‘s funding has helped create clean birth kits: a sterile drape, gloves, a clean razor for cutting an umbilical cord and string to tie it.

“Women deliver their babies alone in the garden, the jungle or a shed,” says Samen. “They often know nothing about pregnancy, prenatal care or delivery. Marsha has such great compassion for others. She is driven and unstoppable.”

For Wallace, growing the organization and helping more women is the goal. On a recent trip to India to visit a health clinic DFW was funding, she says she was overcome with the magnitude of the suffering of the women and children there.

“As a nurse and mother of four, I have a different perspective from most,” she says. “We were in a three-sided cinder block building packed with women and children sitting on the floor. Some had acute sores, infections, illnesses. There were lots of young girls with much younger siblings on their hips. When we left, I sobbed and sobbed, overcome with the level of need. How could we address it all?”

To Colleen Clines, who launched the nonprofit Anchal Project to help provide alternative careers to women exploited in India, supported by DFW, Wallace is a mentor.

“She has helped me as we continue to grow and try to help women,” says Clines. “She has such a warm heart.”

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