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Girls' night out: Partying for a worthy cause

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It is a staple of many women's social lives - the cherished "girls' night out" - a chance to drink fruity drinks and catch up with friends.

It's girl-bonding. It's socializing. It's a chance to leave behind tired jeans in favor of something more uptown. But a group of Puget Sound-area women think it's time to upgrade GNO (girls' night out) by coupling it with a cause.

Call it partying with a purpose, said Julie Robinson. That was the impetus of the girls-only night of fun and fundraising she hosted at her Bellevue home last Thursday.

It's a simple concept: Instead of a GNO at a bar or restaurant, the pals gather at someone's house for the night, and whatever they would have spent on food and drinks they donate to a nonprofit group of the organizer's choosing. A food drive or toy drive or silent auction can also be added, depending on the party size.

"If Oprah had this on her show, there would be hundreds of thousands of these kinds of parties all across the country," Robinson said. "It would work as well for a gathering of five women or party of 40 women."

It's all part of a growing trend of adding a philanthropic edge to a traditional girls' night. Robinson and five of her friends who organized Thursday's party (the self-proclaimed GNO Hip Chicks) value both the chance to take the party to a higher level and keeping the all-important social aspect.

Robinson and her cohorts are hoping to make their GNO an annual event, growing in size and donations. For their first, they chose Eastside Domestic Violence Program to receive the party's charity proceeds. (The program provides support and services to women and children who have been physically, emotionally or sexually abused.)

About 50 women attended Thursday's event, raising $3,166 plus $400 in corporate matches for the program. Partygoers were also asked to bring a new toy to donate, and by the night's end the group had collected 50 toys for the Forgotten Children's Fund.

At Robinson's party, heels clicked on the hardwood floors as cashmere- and silk-clad women meandered from room to room while sipping pink martinis or white wine. A table of elegant hors d'oeuvres was laid out featuring cherry-tomato, basil and mozzarella kabobs, veggies with a pesto dip and sumptuous chocolate desserts.

Robinson also converted an upstairs bedroom into a boutique and silent auction room, where partygoers browsed Japanese imported ceramic bowls and serving dishes, Italian linens and almond-scented French milled soaps that Nancy Meade of Mercer Island sells in her home-based retail business. In keeping with the focus on fundraising, Meade donated 10 percent of the night's proceeds to the domestic-violence program.

Meanwhile, the silent auction, which raised about $1,200, wasn't very silent. From the middle of the room a full-bodied laugh bellowed out from petite Beth Billington as she chatted with friends while perusing items to bid on. Choices included two sessions with a personal trainer, courtside Sonics tickets, jewelry and art created by local artisans, and beauty products.

This kind of an event seems to make a lot of sense, especially in the Seattle area, Billington said.

"We have so many people involved with community service here and giving back to the community," she said. "And there's always a need for people to socialize. This is a chance to give back - and to drink Kamikazes."

Jeff Hansen and Tony Robinson, husbands to two of the party's coordinators, played bartenders for the night, pouring the event's signature drink, a Holiday Holly Drop martini (made with raspberry cider and vodka). Instead of a tip jar, women dropped charitable contributions into the donation jar set up on the make-shift bar.

The suggested donation amount was $40, an average amount you might spend on a dinner or drinks out with friends, Robinson said.

"It's such a great cause," said Sarah Worley, as she peeled mandarin oranges for a fruit platter. Worley plans to host a similar, much bigger event in Portland, Ore., in April. Worley is also part of a Portland gang of friends who have been throwing annual GNO fundraisers since 2003. The Portland GNO event, which raised about $8,600 last year and had about 150 in attendance, is the brainchild of Carrie Minns. Every year that party has nearly doubled in size and increased in donations. This year they are hoping for 200 to 250 to attend the April event, Minns said.

"What I hear from people is that they love the girls' night out event because they don't have a lot of time to help out in the community, but once a year they can do this, and see their friends," Minns said.

Minns is a friend of Jeanelle Gorsuch, also of Portland, and Gorsuch's twin sister is Robinson. After attending some of the Portland GNO events, Robinson decided to start a Seattle spinoff.

Now that the event has some "legs," both Minns and Robinson hope that some of their party-gals will start parties of their own.

And several of Robinson's guests seem to agree.

"This is such a good idea," said Crystal Bauer, of Seattle. She came away from Robinson's GNO with newly purchased stationery and some new friends.

"I have a funny feeling we might start seeing 'home-based philanthropic parties' starting to happen every month."


(c) 2005, The Seattle Times. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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