From Soroptimist International of Panama to Soroptimist International of Raleigh

Sarita Harkness was born in Panama of immigrant grandparents. On her paternal side were Syrian Jews, from Jerusalem and Alexandria, respectively. On her mother’s side, her grandfather was a US citizen, first generation Italian, who found his way to Panama to work on the building of the Canal. Her grandmother was the only one born in Panama, from Spanish descent. She has 2 younger sisters, one living in Panama and the other in Florida.

Her dad was a renowned Interior Designer in Panama, designing offices and residences. He took Sarita with him at the end of her school day to clients’ homes, so from elementary school she was already learning the family business. Their clients were top national and international executives, diplomats, political leaders, including every president starting from the 50’s until 2008.

When the time came to go to college, Sarita looked at NY since her only US relative lived in Brooklyn. She discovered that Syracuse University had an outstanding school of art, not realizing that it was a long 8 hour Greyhound ride to visit her aunt! But it proved to be exactly what she had dreamed that college was supposed to be.

She met her husband Bruce sophomore year. He was also studying interior design. They got married on graduation day, and few weeks later they moved to Panama. They worked with her dad for 21 years designing complete interiors, including much of the furniture for both homes and offices which was custom made at their factory. One of the most challenging parts of the job was making sure all subcontractors like plumbers, electricians, and painters reported to their assignments daily, particularly since this was before there were cell phones or the internet.

A few years after returning to Panama, Bruce enlisted and attend officer school, so that in the event he had to go to Vietnam, he would go as an officer. Sure enough, his first assignment after graduating was Vietnam. Sarita was pregnant with their first child, so Bruce first got to meet Marc when he was 4 months old. He only served in the Army the necessary 3 years to be able to return to the family business.

When Leah was 4 years old and Marc was 7, Sarita discovered Soroptimist in Panama. It was exactly the right organization for her to feel that she was contributing to the good of humanity, especially the cause of improving the lives of women and girls. The year was 1976 and the Panama club was celebrating its 20th anniversary. About half of the members were American citizens and the other half were Panamanian. There was a lot of translating involved, and the minutes had to be written in both languages. Sarita held every office on the board, with the exception of treasurer. One of her biggest responsibilities was as committee chair of the yearly UNICEF card sales. The club would order $30,000 worth of cards, of which we made 10% of the sales as a fundraiser. Members would sell the cards to their clients, and Sarita had the huge responsibility of tracking the sales and inventory. She also clearly remembers sitting in front of a supermarket on a Saturday afternoon with her two children, selling the UNICEF cards from October to December. That was dedication!

Sarita and Bruce moved to Raleigh in 1988, when Noriega was in power and life was unsettling in Panama. They had friends who lived here and said Raleigh was a good place to live. Marc was returning as a sophomore to Penn State, and Leah would start her sophomore year at Broughton High School. Sarita starting working at Ethan Allen, where she stayed for 23 years until she retired. It was there that she learned about Raleigh’s Soroptimist Club. The weekend receptionist asked her if she had done any volunteering in Panama. When Sarita mentioned Soroptimist, she recognized the name because her manager was a Soroptimist. The club had just been founded and she put them in touch. Sarita attended a meet and greet at Linda Drummond’s and the rest is history.

Sarita has now been a member of the Raleigh club for 35 years. She is currently the co-chair of the membership committee, which she has led or co-led for about 12 years. She has served on the board as president, vice president, secretary and director two times each. And for 5 years she served as coordinator for a Habitat for Humanity service day.

She is glad to be retired and with time to volunteer for service projects of the club. They have a grandson, Joshua, who is 8 years old and lives in Raleigh. Their granddaughter, Charlotte, age 7, lives in Asheville. They travel to Panama just about every year to visit her sister and extended family.

Sarita feels that the overarching cause of Soroptimist is the bonding agent that keeps her involved. She keeps her eye on the common goal as she finds enjoyment in the challenging work of any of the committees. Especially gratifying are the lasting friendships made with the club’s members of like-minded women. It is important to her to continue to keep the legacy and dream alive of the women that founded Soroptimist a hundred years ago.