Mancus club founders Mary Ann Wright (l) and Angela Perrone.
Wilmington’s Mancus Club (Latin term for “maimed or crippled”) emerged in the late 1940s. It stands as the first non-profit in Delaware dedicated to serving physically and developmentally challenged individuals. The club focused on meeting the social, recreational, and transportation needs of these individuals, regardless of their disability.
The passionate president and club founder, Mary Ann Wright (1920-2006), was disabled from birth by cerebral palsy and confined to a wheelchair. She was the first handicapped individual to graduate from public high school in 1939 in the state of Delaware. Wright was a licensed life insurance agent as well as notary public.
She teamed up in 1948 with polio survivor Agnes Peronne. Together, they spearheaded the creation of what would later evolve into the Mancus Foundation. The six founding members, including Wright and Peronne, aimed to foster community advocacy “to help the handicap help themselves.”
Forming a Unified Front
Out of the depths of her own experience, Wright dedicated 58 years of her life toward making educational opportunities available to handicapped children.
A few months after the group’s founding, its compassion had spread among other Wilmington residents. Membership swelled to 35 handicapped people and 25 associate members (i.e., philanthropists).
“Your child’s future depends upon the efforts you make in demanding his rights for education,” Wright declared, “which no one can doubt is and always will be of the greatest importance to the handicapped.”
Wright established a series of weekly radio programs in June 1949 on station WAMS. Her broadcasts shared the club’s objectives and activities with a much wider audience.
The Mancus Club launched a school project by the end of 1949 to provide affordable busing for Wilmington’s disabled children. Wright defended her initiative, pointing out that $100-per-week car transportation costs were a significant barrier. The Women’s Insurance Club of Delaware followed through shortly thereafter with a generous donation.
Wright was an ardent advocate for statutory changes to benefit the handicapped. She voiced her support for House Bill No. 67 in early 1951. “The members of the club are shining examples of what handicapped persons can do if given the opportunity,” she said of the legislative proposals.
The Mancus Club was not solely about advocacy. Sponsors sought to embrace the joy of communal experiences. An annual Christmas party and variety show became a highlight, attracting public figures like Mayor James F. Hearn and Superintendent of Public Safety, A. J. Kavanaugh.
The Mancus Club flourished under a board of directors and officers to guide the growing group, as did their ambitions. They envisioned building a Wilmington clubhouse for physically challenged persons-a place where the disabled community’s potential could be publicly showcased. They were hosting benefit revues by May 1951, directing all proceeds towards this goal-oriented project. Their building fund had reached $2,500 by October, and the club announced a drive to collect an additional $5,000 for the building proposal.The fundraising target dramatically expanded to $25,000 in early 1952.
Mary Ann hit on the idea of creating 50 oversized piggy banks to be distributed throughout the area. Recipients took the idea one step further and decorated them with paint, ribbons and bows, transforming them into a friendly community competition.
Counting Coins: A Defining Moment
One of the club’s defining moments unfolded during the first count of coins from 36 returned piggy banks, an event reported in the Jan 10, 1952, “Morning News.” In a seemingly contradictory decision, the club’s blind members readily took on the responsibility. Yet, entrusting the least likely candidates epitomized the club’s core principle. Onlookers saw their success was absolute; every coin was correctly counted.
Endorsements from public figures like NBC’s Kate Smith, and generous donations from various Wilmington organizations began to bolster funds.
The club’s fundraising crescendoed with events like Mancus Club Week in June, capped by a star-studded show significantly increased the building fund.
By 1964, the Mancus Club had evolved into the Mancus Foundation, reaching an impressive milestone. After twelve years of tireless fundraising, organizing countless variety shows, and public campaigns, they reached their goal. They successfully purchased a Wilmington recreation center at Danby and Jessup Streets for $80,000.
The journey had been arduous but rewarding. The building underwent extensive renovations. “We’re holding an open house instead of having a show this year,” Wright triumphantly told the public, “…the friends who have patronized our shows over the years can come see what they’ve contributed.”
The Mancus Foundation had come a long way from its modest beginning of members meeting in Wright’s living room. The Hall of Fame of Delaware Women honored Mary Ann Wright’s lifelong commitment to advocating for others by inducting her as one of its inaugural members when it was established in 1981.