From raising funds to renovate the Forsyth Park fountain and spearheading the effort to hire a Savannah City Manager to pushing for the installation of voting booths throughout Chatham County, the Savannah Jaycees have been one of the leading civic organizations for decades.
“There wasn’t much that happened that the Jaycees weren’t a part of,” said Jaycees alumni Cliff McCurry, director of business development for Seacrest Partners Inc., who joined the organization in the early 1970s.
An international organization complied of young business leaders between the age of 21 and 40, the Savannah chapter was founded in January 1942 with Nick Mamalakis at the helm as president.
Like all the other chapters the local branch strives to be the leading network for active young citizens while providing development opportunities that create positive change in their communities.
“Probably nobody in Savannah that I’ve ever known has done more behind the scenes to help people,” McCurry said of Mamalakis, who was also his mentor.
“To sum it up, the last line of the Jaycees creed is, ‘And that service to humanity is the best work of life,’ and I don’t think there’s anyone that I’ve ever known that personified that more in their personal life and career than Mamalakis did.”
McCurry said the organization gave him the opportunity to meet some of Savannah’s and Georgia’s most notable business and civic leaders and instilled the importance of community involvement that is still with him today.
“We have a culture (at Seacrest Partners) that encourages all of our people here to be involved in some organization. From the receptionist all the way up to the CEO, we’re all involved in giving to the community,” he said.
“Giving to the community and making Savannah a vibrant, healthy community educationally and economically and I think that started for me with the Jaycees.”
The Savannah Jaycees have raised thousands of dollars over the years for various non-profit organizations, Toys for Tots, March of Dimes and United Way and led the way for several notable projects, including an effort in the 1960s to build an auditorium in downtown Savannah, which is now the Savannah Civic Center; during that same decade they also campaigned in support of a referendum to build the Skidaway Island Bridge and raised funds to help build the Kicklighter School and Chatham Nursing Home.
The local chapter earned the title of No. 1 chapter in the state in the 1970s after they organized a massive cleanup of the Ogeechee River. In 1984, a Supreme Court ruling allowed women to join the organization and the first female president, attorney Patty Paul, was installed 10 years later.
More recent projects include the annual Charity Date Night Auction, which has raised more than $25,000 for various non-profits in the last five years, a Mayoral forum, a community picnic following Hurricane Matthew and the Leadership NOW program, a lecture series featuring prominent members of Savannah sharing insights on leadership, management and professional skills and this year they also launched the Junior Jaycees program for local middle school students.
A new future
In the early-2000s memberships at chapters across the country had started to dwindle and Savannah was no exception, but after employing some grassroots recruiting and fundraising membership began and is still continuing to grow.
“I’m really excited to see the Jaycees coming back as an organization,” McCurry said.
“… It’s an opportunity to know people and to get to know your peers on a professional level without feeling intimidated by being around a bunch of older people.”
While membership levels haven’t returned to the peak of the first few decades, it’s headed in the right direction with 28 current members and applications continuing to come in, according to current Savannah Jaycees president, Cynthia Wright.
This weekend the organization brought together dozens of those past members along with current ones and community members alike to celebrate its 75th anniversary with a gala that included U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter as the guest speaker at the Embassy Suites downtown.
“It speaks volumes to what the Jaycees have done in the community, that we’re still active and have a group that’s close-knit and working together,” Wright said.
Wright joined the Jaycees in 2014 first getting involved as a project committee member and then moved on to sitting on the board before being elected as president in January. The experiences with the Jaycees have also helped her move up in her career at Carriage Trade Public Relations, she said, helping her with time management and organization and leadership skills.
“It’s been my stepping stone, too… Showing that you care about where you’re from is so valuable and speaks volumes of your character. People want to work with people they believe in,” she said.
“… I thought that was really special to be a part of the leadership team for this year and I’m just honored to celebrate with the alumni and their past accomplishments and look forward to our next 75 years.”