Policewomen, that is. The cops weren’t there because the members of the Pink Hat Readers Club had gotten rowdy — it was because the girls wanted to learn something from the officers about the rough-and-tumble world of police work. This was part of a lesson in empowerment that Stiles had planned.
This week, while many will be giving thanks for the many blessings in their lives, Stiles will be thankful for the opportunity to continue what she sees as her life’s vocation: teaching, counseling and helping. Homebound by multiple sclerosis, she has lost the ability to control much of her life, but that hasn’t stopped her from teaching others how to be in control of their lives.
“What I want is for these girls to know is they can be anything that they want, and I want to give them the skills to learn the confidence that they need, the self-esteem that they need,” she said.
Stiles has watched members of the group who call themselves the “Pink Hat Readers” evolve from little girls who sipped tea and read books to young women who are ready to face down life’s challenges. From her motorized chair, within the confines of her house, she has led them to follow their motto of turning “compassion into action” – to raise funds, do charitable work and learn the skills of adult life.
“I’d been in the hospital for three weeks where they did not know what was wrong with me,” she said, speaking about what was happening about this time of year, 15 years ago. “They thought it was my heart, but it was not … they suspected I had MS, but they were not positive; it could not be proven and I did not get that diagnosis for a few more months.”
She came home from the hospital the day before Christmas facing not only a physical struggle, but an emotional conflict. “I had always felt that my purpose in life is to help other people. It was something very important to me, and I prayed very fervently.”
Stiles had worked as a counselor for the Georgia Department of Labor, starting out by teaching life skills to people enrolled in the department’s work incentive program, where she “taught them anything and everything that could help them get a job and to keep it. That was anything from birth control, to budgets, to child care and better parenting skills.”
Her interest in helping people continued throughout her career with the Labor Department and later as she joined the Chamber of Commerce, where she became the first woman president. But when she received her diagnosis, she feared all that would come to an end.
And it might have, had not a neighbor’s young daughter expressed an interest in starting a club similar to a book club to which Stiles belonged.
“She spent a lot of time with me here and she just happened to be here when I was going to be hostessing the (club). She loved to read, and so I said, ‘what do you think about our having a little readers group and have our own book club?’, and she said ‘I want to do it.’”
They quickly decided to call the group the “Pink Hat Readers Club,” after the “Pink Hats,” a junior association of The Red Hat Society, a national social organization for women over 50. The Pink Hat Readers soon attracted a small but diverse group of girls from Carrollton High School.
From the start, however, the club became much more than a book club. Organized around a tea service, the girls learned as much about etiquette as the books they studied. That gave them a sense of poise needed in any setting, social or business, and Stiles provided deeper lessons as the girls got older. She gave them leadership roles in the club so they could experience the challenges of planning, organization and keeping up finances. Later still, Stiles began introducing guest speakers – usually women – to provide the now-young adults with role models.
One of the policewomen at that recent meeting confided a secret to the young girls: inside her combat-style boots, the policewoman was sporting a freshly painted set of pink toenails.
Stiles provides many of the guest talks herself. Along with lessons in self-empowerment, she also gives them valuable lessons in community service.
“We have a lot of need in this community right here, we don’t have to go to foreign missions, we have it right here.”
To meet those needs, the girls collect spare change and will soon donate months of collections to a local charity.
Stiles’ illness has not stopped her drive and ambition to help people, and the young girls she is now mentoring are a reflection of a spirit of stewardship that she once described for her church as “an action of generosity (which) guides us to embrace our own humility and live less selfishly.”
“It’s my blessing,” she says of her role in these young lives. “I would certainly count these girls as my top blessings.”