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Local and stateside members of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority - the largest African-American women's sorority in the world - meet at Camp Zama this month. From left are Dr. Vanita Nicholas; Dr. Thelma James Day, far west regional director; Bonnie Cheatham, Tokyo Alumnae Chapter president; and Maj. Jacqueline Lett, Camp Zama.
Local and stateside members of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority - the largest African-American women's sorority in the world - meet at Camp Zama this month. From left are Dr. Vanita Nicholas; Dr. Thelma James Day, far west regional director; Bonnie Cheatham, Tokyo Alumnae Chapter president; and Maj. Jacqueline Lett, Camp Zama. (Juliana Gittler / S&S)

CAMP ZAMA, Japan — An organization of prominent African-American and minority women that promotes education, economic advancement and civil responsibility may not immediately seem a strong fit for military collaboration.

But the Delta Sigma Theta sorority has an unusual military connection that extends back through the 20th century, and an objective to impact military communities.

“We have a lot of collaborative partnerships with members who are in the military,” said Dr. Thelma Day, Far West regional director.

“There is no direct relationship between the two. However, you will find a Delta chapter close to almost every Army installation,” said Army Maj. Jacqueline B. Lett at Camp Zama, a member.

The reasons vary. Many sorority members are in service-related fields, a natural fit for those in military service. Some joined while in college, before becoming officers. Others, like Lett, joined alumnae chapters after reaching new duty stations.

“We know that we will have a smile and support as we in-process to a new duty station,” Lett said. “The same goes with other professionals that are members. DODEA teachers, school administrators, Department of the Army civilians, dependent spouses and many other professionals make up membership in chapters” in Japan, Okinawa and Seoul.

Day visited Tokyo and Okinawa this month to meet members, called sorors. She continued on to Okinawa to lead a retreat.

The visit marked the sorority’s 91st anniversary but also allowed Day to check on her members and meet with military leaders to discuss how the sorority’s projects are working.

Twenty-two women at Howard University founded Delta Theta Sigma in 1913 to use their collective voice to enact change, the organization says. They strived to support the disadvantaged, provide education and to help build positive public policy to solve community problems.

The sorority now has 250,000 members in either college or alumnae chapters like those in Japan, Okinawa and South Korea.

They include members of Congress, generals, lawyers, doctors, politicians, ambassadors, religious leaders and beauty queens — including 2004 Miss America Ericka Dunlap.

They supported World War I efforts before many women of any race were in military ranks. And Delta Hazel Johnson Brown, a Ph.D. and a brigadier general, was the Army’s first African-American female general.

The sorority’s Tokyo chapter began five years ago with 17 Kanto Plain servicemembers. Today, 44 women belong — including eight in uniform.

“What do we offer the military? Community service and support,” Day said. “That’s who we are. We’re here to service the community.”

Each chapter identifies specific community needs — a task the military support structure makes easier.

“You’re in touch with what the volunteer needs are,” Lett said. With the Army’s tight volunteer network, she said, “It’s easy for us to reach out and tap into other organizations,” such as MWR, Army Community Services or youth services, to find needs.

The group offers support through working for economic development, education, international awareness and involvement, physical and mental health, and political awareness and involvement.

In Japan and South Korea, the group offers programs to help young women, called Delta Teens and Delta Academy; programs for science education; voter registration drives; blood drives; support for orphanages; and breast cancer and HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns.

In Tokyo, members bought uniforms for Camp Zama’s girls basketball team and plan to support Japan’s new Special Olympics. Okinawa’s members sponsor a Breast Cancer Awareness Golf Tournament.

“We are part of the silent, nonprofit volunteer support in the military community,” Lett said. “We are quite often called upon to lend support to various projects of the military and local host nation communities. Whether it is monetary, physical skills or mental input, we serve.”

Starting last year, that support also became more visible: Delta was granted a seat on one of the United Nations advisory panels.

The sorority offers its own members support and networking opportunities. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the sorority has worked to honor its members in uniform. A Delta was among those killed at the Pentagon.

The organization’s national journal this year will highlight Delta’s military members.

“We hope to continue to foster the relationship we have with the military sorors. There are a lot of opportunities for us to continue this great partnership,” Day said.

With its U.N. affiliation — the group holds a nongovernmental organization status — the sorority is in a stronger position to influence global affairs, Day said. But she envisions no conflict between that role and Delta’s support of its military members, she said.

“As an organization we would respect what the military is doing,” she said. “There would be no reason or need for us to do anything counter” to that. “We hope to use the opportunity to encourage recommendations and suggestions from all of our chapters to make a difference in the U.N. It is great to have the opportunity to recommend policy changes — at that level, especially.”

The group will hold a national meeting next month to discuss issues that could be brought to the United Nations, particularly related to global health.

“We have a lot of initiatives that we’re going to discuss but health is at the top of the list,” Day said.

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