There’s an old phrase, “home is where the heart is.” To many, family members mean a full heart. To some, great friends often become as close as family. For the Grand Rapids Women’s City Club, members found both family and a sense of home at the historic 1860s Heritage Hills home, the Sweet House, which up until this spring the club had occupied since 1927. This past April, due to financial reasons, the club said goodbye to its long-term home and entered into uncharted territory.
Originally established by a group of women in 1924, the Women’s City Club has united women and celebrated the community of Grand Rapids through educational, social and civic activities.
After leaving its home base, Women’s City Club experienced a loss of members. Membership dropped from roughly 220 members to a little less than 100 today. Despite the decrease in membership, President Nancy Dausman said this change has brought about a much-needed revitalization.
Many members, some who had been in the club for 40+ years, were not ready to make that big of a change, and did not renew their membership to the social club, Dausman explained.
“Those that renewed their membership and continue to be active are really excited about the changes that are happening and where we’re going in the future,” Dausman said. “We’re trying to revitalize ourselves, reinvent ourselves, and go back to our roots and see how we can make it relevant today.”
For an organization that started nearly a century ago, remaining relevant could be a challenge. But, just as the club originally began thanks to innovative, savvy businesswomen, the club remains vibrant and ever-changing today. Members are now volunteering for roles, which previously had been staffed in the house, and are learning about the behind-the-scenes operations of the organization.
It’s really an eye-opening experience,” Dausman said. “There’s been probably 20 to 30 people that have been really involved in this transition period, and they’re just really eager to see what can happen in the future and where we’re going to go.”
Mae Preston has been a member of Women’s City Club for 43 years, after being put on a two-year waiting list when she initially heard about the club from her neighbors.
“It didn’t take very long before I felt like it was my home away from home,” Preston said. “Everybody was so friendly, caring and generous. Friendships develop so quickly, and they last. These are people that you’d love to have in your family.”
Though Preston, and many other members, would like to return to a permanent home, like the Sweet House, for now, the club’s weekly Thursday programs are held at Kent Country Club. Off-site events include cultural and educational programs, fashion shows, monthly parties, classes, bridge games, book study, bus trips, celebratory brunches, and more. The Women’s City Club continues to connect hundreds of Grand Rapids residents with their neighbors and their community.
Preston and other members agree – even if they can’t go back to the house, they want the club to continue. “At least we have the friendships, the camaraderie, the programs and all the activities that we have,” she said.
The close-knit, deeper connections have enabled members to gain life-long friends. They’re often attending grandkid’s weddings, physical therapy appointments, and other meaningful moments – both happy and sad – together.
Given the average age of members is approximately 70 years old, there’s another often-overlooked benefit of this social club.
“Belonging to Women’s City Club keeps your mind active, and I think that’s very important,” Preston said. “The programs range from informative to theatrical performances, the programs keep us up to date, keep us involved in the community. Women’s City Club certainly keeps us involved in that, and what’s going on in Grand Rapids.”
Many members are retired and missed the social aspect of work, but quickly found activities to fill their free time. A longtime member of 40 years, Margerie Vanderploeg said the club wasn’t always filled with employed professionals, however.
“Of course, there was a point at which it became uncertain about the future of the club,” Vanderploeg said. “With the formation of the foundation and some transition from long-term members who were never employed — to an increasing number of members who were professional people or who were employed, they increased the focus of the club, and have brought in a new segment of the population.”
In hopes of gaining even more members, Dausman is looking to add lunch & learn sessions, catered towards working professionals downtown. No longer being housed in a central location, means the club is free to roam to other areas and neighborhoods they hadn’t previously discovered. This leaves room to make new connections with potential members, unique activities, and a fresh outlook.
“These have been challenging times, changing times,” Lois Manett said, adding, “ And change is usually a good thing. That’s another thing about the club I like –they’re forward-thinking.”
One thing that’s remained the same throughout the club’s history is the focus of the club: friendship and community. Manett has been a member since 1988 and feels uplifted by the pioneering and charitable women she’s met.
“I’ve learned a lot about the abilities of women, how strong women are, and how delightfully creative they can be,” Manett said. “Through the programs, I’ve learned a lot about Grand Rapids and the people who have shaped Grand Rapids since I’ve been a citizen here.”
The Women’s City Club works closely with local nonprofits including HQ, which provides services for homeless children, and the YWCA, adopting a family for the entire school year, and during Christmas time.
As the club gears up to celebrate its big anniversary in a few years, plans are being drafted to honor this ‘sisterhood’ that has stood the test of time.
“We’re looking forward to our 100 year anniversary in 2024,” Dausman said. “We already have a committee started planning some things, getting members to think about what we can do to honor the tradition of the past, and learn more about the Women’s City Club.”
Whether it’s 1924 or 2024, one thing that remains the same is the close, deep bond these active Grand Rapids citizens have found in the form of friends within the Women’s City Club.
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*Photos courtesy of Women’s City Club