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Serving with good taste 'Tea Ladies' add real class to fundraising

The lace tablecloths are straightened, the delicate china and sterling silver are placed just so, and piano music fills the air as guests arrive in their finest -- some even resplendent in genteel dress hats.

The event is an old-fashioned tea party, hosted by a small group of friends calling themselves "The Community Tea Ladies."

But these special tea parties also serve as successful fundraisers for local nonprofit groups -- an endeavor that has helped raise close to $40,000 in recent years.

The ladies collected $4,000, for example, at a sold-out tea they hosted Feb. 7 in the Van Horn Mansion in Burt for the Newfane Historical Society.

"By doing this, we can take what each of us would normally donate to a group and make it 100 times better," explained Joanne Stanton, a founding group member. "And we really enjoy it. We're such a diverse group of women, and we come from different backgrounds, but we share a love for what we do and for each other. It's really special."

The Tea Ladies are a very small core group who met years ago in Lockport's Grace Episcopal Church, when a former pastor's wife encouraged them to get involved in raising money for a Honduran orphanage.

In recent years, they have begun hosting teas for a variety of local groups, bolstered by help from other friends and family, Stanton explained. This includes a friend with an authentic British accent who volunteers his time as a butler.

The women all live in Lockport except Jane Haenle, who has moved to Amherst but still regularly visits Lockport. She is a retired Niagara County Community College dean.

"Katherine Littlefield is an accomplished pianist, and she plays piano at our events, Karen Carroll is a retired supervisor for General Motors, Carol Tomaino is a retired realty owner, Sue Miller works for an attorney, and I am a financial adviser," Stanton said.

They organize three to four teas per year, asking for only a $250 donation "to cover the cost of a teapot if we need to replace it," she added.

The teapots, china, sterling silver and linens all belong to the women, who plan the events, decorate, handle some ticket sales, send out invitations, make and serve sandwiches, scones, fruit and vegetable platters and other goodies, and, of course, tea. They also contribute to, and conduct, a basket auction. And they clean up when it's over.

"We all take on a fair amount of work," Stanton said. "We ask the group we are doing the tea for to supply 1,000 cookies and some help, but we do the tea. I make all of the sandwiches -- about six different kinds -- Carol makes the scones, and Katherine puts together the baskets for the auction, for example. We also donate quite a bit to the baskets, but we ask the organizations to come up with some items, too."

Stanton also raffles off a gourmet meal for eight in the Van Horn mansion at each tea for $5 a ticket -- a dinner she organizes and cooks herself -- and turns this money over to the nonprofit group, as well.

Stanton also handles some of the ticket sales and sends out the invitations for the teas. She has close to 40 who attend every tea the ladies hold -- on a list of 175 regular invitees on her mailing list.

"We always charge $25 per ticket and give all of the money we raise -- minus the $250 donation -- to the group we're giving the tea for," Stanton said. "The most we've raised at one event was $6,100 last year for the Dale Association in Lockport. We have another tea coming up for the YWCA of Niagara's domestic violence shelter on Saturday at the Olcott Fire Hall banquet facility, where we can handle up to about 200."

Linda VanBuskirk, president of the Dale Association, said she appreciates the "subtle" way the group raises much-needed funds for not-for-profit groups while presenting a stately tea. She has attended "almost every one they've had."

"The ladies are absolutely unique," she said. "They do a wonderful job, and it truly makes for a lovely afternoon. Even when they hold the teas at a fire hall, they have a florist come in and turn it into a Victorian garden, and you get caught up in the atmosphere. Their special touches make the day feel special. . . . And lots of ladies dress in period costume, and many of them wear hats. I've worn a hat to one. It's just fun."

VanBuskirk said she's looking forward to the next tea Saturday.

"It's a good cause," she said. "I'll be there."

The doors will open at 12:30 p.m., with the tea beginning at 1.

The group will return to the Olcott Fire Hall on May 2, with a tea planned for the Lockport Rotary Club, in an effort to sponsor the establishment of a Haitian village well; and will travel to First Presbyterian Church of Lewiston on Oct. 17 for a tea to benefit its Home Assistance Referral Team (HART) program, Stanton said.

For tickets to the Community Ladies' Teas, contact Stanton at 434-2316 or the organizations for which the teas are being held.

Annemarie Bettino, president of the Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Niagara County, has attended several of the teas.

"For the ladies to do this for the greater community is just wonderful," Bettino said. "I remember attending teas with my mother when I was young at Niagara-on-the-Lake, and it was such a special time."

Bettino also had the pleasure of working alongside the women when they presented a tea for 40 young girls from her Big Sisters program last year in Lockport. It was not a fundraiser, but rather a chance for children who might not otherwise have an opportunity to attend such an event, she said.

"The ladies approached us with this idea, and it was just wonderful," she recalled. "A dress, stockings and shoes were provided for every little girl who needed them by our board of directors and donors. We provided what we called 'mini-in-services,' to teach proper etiquette. The ladies used their fine linens and china but were very accommodating, and the menu was child-friendly, with chocolate milk in the silver pitchers, and teapot-shaped cookies. And we have pictures from that event, and some of those children actually look transformed. It was very dear.

"And I stayed after the tea and worked alongside the ladies, and they not only shop and bake and make all of the treats -- and they provided wonderful surprises for the girls -- but they wash and polish and fold and clean and pack up afterwards," Bettino said. "It's a hefty amount of work. But they are all smiles and enthusiasm, and we are the beneficiaries. . . . I can't say enough about them."

Stanton said the better known the group becomes, the more in demand it is, "and it's tough to choose [which to do teas for] because they are all good causes."

"It's a lot of hard work," she said, "but we enjoy spending time with each other, people enjoy going to the teas, and we're helping organizations at the same time."

e-mail: niagaranews@buffnews.com

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