What began 80 years ago as a club to welcome new residents to Kalamazoo has become an enduring organization focused on forging friendships among women.
The Kalamazoo Area Newcomers Club, which celebrates its 80th anniversary this month, was founded in 1940 by Ann Ewing Smith, a resident of Kalamazoo and a former Welcome Wagon hostess. Smith created her own advertising service, A.E.S. Hostess Service, and would meet with new residents to tell them all about what Kalamazoo had to offer.
According to club member Nancy Greer, as Smith met with new families, she discovered a much larger need among the women she met: the need to make new friends in their new community. Smith’s hostess service would thus become the catalyst for what is now the Newcomers Club.
Since it was common in the 1940s and beyond that husbands would work full time while wives stayed home with the kids, many of these women felt they had little opportunity to meet and connect with other women. Smith partnered with the Kalamazoo YWCA to form the Newcomer Club of the Young Women’s Christian Association, and the group became very popular, growing to more than 400 members by the 1970s.
After meeting at the YWCA for more than 30 years, it split off from the YWCA in 1974 and became the Kalamazoo Area Newcomers Club, an independent group that’s not affiliated with any larger organization. In recent years the number of active members in the organization has averaged between 120 and 140, says Greer.
A lot has changed since the group’s inception — more women work now, for one — but what hasn’t changed is the need for women to connect with one another, say organizers.
“Initially it was for new people in the area,” says Marge Davies, a Newcomers Club member for more than 15 years. “Now it really is geared toward people experiencing a lifestyle change. Whether they have just retired, they lost a spouse, they are new to the area, it’s for them.”
Typifying the current makeup of the club is Greer, who has lived in the area her whole life but was seeking new friendships after retirement.
“Recently retired, I was seeking out a way to do activities with women who shared similar interests with me,” Greer says. “I find you still look for structure and purpose in your free time once you retire. I have quickly met many other women through the garden group, happy hours, luncheons, and other events. The diverse group of women I have met is enriching. I would not have met these women if it had not been for Newcomers.”
The club has a monthly luncheon with guest speakers for all members and has about 15 special-interest groups that meet regularly. These include book, garden and golf clubs, groups that play cards together, and groups that go to happy hours. Greer says these groups offer a way for women to connect on a more individualized basis and bond through shared interests.
“It allows you to make deeper friendships and get a smaller lens as to what is going on,” Greer says.
The smaller groups are also a good way for new members to ease into the organization. “Some people come in and they join for a particular interest group, and they meet fewer people and make friends easier,” Davies says.
“There’s a lot of meetup groups that are maybe tied to some other thing, like a church or a school,” Greer says. “Ours is much more socially based, with a component of charitable contribution and work in the community, but our key purpose is building lasting friendships.”
Suzette Ross, the club’s president, says that while the organization is focused on the present, celebrating its history has been reaffirming.
“Recently I borrowed the materials our organization has stored at the WMU Archives and Regional History Collections in preparation for the 80th anniversary event, and reviewing the history has been very enlightening,” Ross says. “There is much interest in our long, rich history from our current members and increasing community awareness of KANC and all it has to offer.”
Greer and Davies both attribute the club’s longevity to the opportunities it offers women to create lasting friendships.
“What has changed is the participation of who joins; women initially were stay-at-home moms, but as women entered the workforce the group became a mixture of stay-at-home women, retirees, working and non-working women new to the community,”
Greer says. “What has stayed the same is the need for friendship and learning amongst the members.
“KANC is a hidden gem in the community that supports friendships and learning opportunities for women. It’s an accepting organization for women where they can feel involved, appreciated, acknowledged, and can learn and grow through their life changes.”