‘We have to be intentional:’ Yellow Tea Rose Foundation Inc. from Black sorority addresses poverty, education, health in Rochester


ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — The flower that shares their name, Yellow Tea Rose Foundation Inc. — the new charitable arm of the Theta Omega Sigma chapter of the Sigma Gamma Rho sorority — has roots that go deep.

“Sigma Gamma Rho incorporated was established November 12, 1922, on the campus of Butler University in Indianapolis,” said Jessica Lewis, with the local chapter of Gamma Sigma Rho, and President of Yellow Tea Rose Foundation Inc.

Lewis says that Sigma Gamma Rho is one of the original “Divine Nine,” a group of centuries-old Black sororities and fraternities. When it was founded, the sorority comprised of seven Black teachers, during what Lewis calls a “time of upheaval” in the 1920s.

“These women were trailblazers who were teaching in a city and a school system that was predominately segregated, predominately white,” she said. “They set the standard for what it meant to be in a Black Greek letter organization.

Today, the Theta Omega Sigma chapter — founded in 1999 and now with 20 members — continues their legacy. Just this year, they launched the Yellow Tea Rose Foundation Inc., which is named for the official flower of the Sigma Gamma Rho sorority, and is a 501c3. Lewis says that this means grants, their graduating high school scholarships, are easier to achieve, while adding that donations to the organization are now tax deductible.

The board members of Yellow Tea Rose Foundation Inc.

The Yellow Tea Rose Foundation Inc. aims to help Rochester and its communities by addressing three key areas: poverty, education, and health, all of it “underscored racial equity.”

“Everything that we do will focus on these areas, which are critically important to the community of Rochester,” she said.

The chapter today consists of college alumna who are originally all across the country — from their 20s to their late 50s — who try to improve their community. They have programs that range from “Operation Big Bookbag” that provides supplies to teachers an students, to a teen youth symposium, to “Project Wee Savers,” which aims to help young people become “good financial stewards,” to “Project Cradle Care,” which helps teen parents and moms and dads to the right support for their child.

Naturally, the pandemic has forced them to change many of their programs in format, but they recently added a program to help with another problem that the pandemic has created:

Vaccine inequity.

A sorority member passing out flyers to support their vaccine education event

“We secured a grant from the Rochester Area Community Foundation to host a COVID vaccine education program to help educate the community on the vaccine,” Lewis.

They targeted two of the ZIP codes that have the least vaccinated populations, 14605 and 14619.

“Are programs being intentional on where they are going spread their information, are they going to communities that need it most?” Lewis posited. “For us, that was a priority… We have to be intentional.”

At the virtual event, they had in a medical expert, Dr. Angela Branch from University of Rochester, to answer any questions that people had. Community members were also encouraged to share their own stories and experiences. They even had grocery store gift cards for attendees; Lewis says “we value people’s time.”

But it doesn’t just stop with that program, which Lewis called a success, receiving “lots of positive feedback.” Lewis says the pandemic has kicked their programs into high gear, and the Theta Omega Sigma chapter aims to make lasting changes, that go as long as their roots are deep.

“If we don’t address (these issues), they will continue to persist, and at some point we have to be intentional about our work,” Lewis said. “we have to be intentional about the ways in which we’re combating these issues, really from a systemic level. If we’re just doing work from a programmatic front, that’s just putting a Band-Aid on, it’s an immediate fix… That’s the work the foundation is looking to do.

“We want to help people reach self-actualization,” she said. “We know that there’s inequities, we know that there are marginalized communities, but how do we overcome that? What kind of changes need to happen at the local, state, and federal level to help address these issues? That’s what we’re looking to do.”

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