Neighborhood initiation has become a necessity for Michelle Ballarini, whose husband’s corporate career has kept her on the move. Five years ago, she moved from Chevy Chase, Md., to Wynnewood. Ballarini is originally from the area, but three decades had passed since she’d left. Perhaps that’s why she waited a full year before she began searching for a social outlet to help with reintegration.
At Ballarini’s first Newcomers Club of the Upper Main Line luncheon, name tags were used to identify existing members (white) and their prospective counterparts (yellow). Far from being marginalized, the yellow-tagged women were the center of attention. “It made me feel good,” recalls Ballarini, who has since headed some of the same luncheons and meet- and-greets.
There are other such groups in the area, including the Main Line Newcomers Club, Newcomers of Great Valley, and Newcomers and Neighbors of West Chester (see page 25). Open and inviting, they aim to project an aura of warmth and acceptance in an area known (wrongly or otherwise) for its chilly first impressions and impenetrable social circles. Their members want to reverse Robert Frost’s sarcastic “old-stone savage” notion that “good fences make good neighbors.”
“We don’t worry about fences,” says Berwyn’s Lee Guertin, the new publicity chair of the Upper Main Line club. “We encourage joint activities.”
Ballarini actually belongs to both Main-Line-proper clubs, and she’s been on both boards already. She also attended one Great Valley meeting as a prospective member before realizing that the distance was a bit much. When she lived on the other side of the state, she was involved in a Pittsburgh-area club, but there wasn’t one in Chevy Chase.
“The Washington, D.C., area is more transient,” she says. “In this region, you find that most people have grown up here. That can make it difficult to penetrate because people already have an established group of friends and family.”
The 47-year-old Ballarini says the Main Line group is younger. She has two teenage daughters, and there’s a mothers’ group. The Upper Main Line club dates back to the early 1960s and has a membership better suited to stay-at-home types.
“A lot of women want to do things, but they don’t want to do them on their own,” says Ballarini, who’s also part of one Main Line subgroup called the Gallivanters, which embarks on various day trips, usually followed with a stop for food. “You’re always meeting new people, and everyone has tidbits you can use. The Main Line group’s resource list is invaluable.”
The Upper Main Line faction takes a more restrained tack. “They feel like it’s soliciting and don’t do [day trips],” says Ballarini. “I see differences, but both have such good women, wonderful women—and Great Valley, too. When I moved here, I was impressed.”
Sherrin Baky is another member of both clubs. She started with the Upper Main Line group when she relocated to Radnor in 1998, then also joined the newer club six years later, when she moved to Bryn Mawr. The latter group was founded in 1951 by Dorothy Taggert as the Newcomers Club of Bryn Mawr, but changed its name in 2007 for fear that it was becoming too geographically narrow.
Today, the Main Line club has about 300 members, a bit less than twice as many as the Upper Main Line organization. “Anyone can join if you’re willing to drive,” Baky says. “But we mostly attract people from about a 20-mile radius.”
Belonging to both Main Line groups only increases the amount and diversity of activities and friends. Sherrin Baky was a member of multiple newcomers’ clubs when she lived in California and New Jersey, so she obviously subscribes to the concept. “They’re good to get to know others, and those others are full of good advice,” she says. “I didn’t have any kids, so there was no school networking.”
What has Baky taken away from her experiences at both clubs? “Women on the Main Line are well-educated, culturally interesting people who are involved in unusual things,” she says. “There’s a range of women, from those who remain professionals to those who retired or are stay-at-home moms. There’s a good variety.”
Most of the women Michelle Ballarini has met are clearly financially established. “You can feel more anchored in a group like that,” she says. “There’s more of a sense of stability, and the women are genuine in wanting to make friends and explore other areas of interest. They’re curious, and that makes a difference.”
Now retired, Baky worked in pharmaceuticals. She’s also in her seventh year as a widow, so the clubs have filled a need for companionship, too. “Without the friends I’ve made, I don’t think I would’ve made it through it all,” she confides. “The support I received (after her husband’s death) was quite inspirational, really. I’m quite thankful.”
Baky likes to cook, so the Main Line club’s gourmet luncheons were a big attraction. About 40 women are assigned recipes and dishes to prepare and share at a host home; costs are divided. The Upper Main Line club’s lunches are held at restaurants and double as meetings. At the September kickoff, all activity chairs attend to pitch their subgroups and set
Baky, who sat on the Upper Main Line board last year, says there’s always new blood. Prospective members can sample morning coffee events before joining.
“There’s still a mixture [of new and old members],” Baky says. “You’re not forced to leave like other clubs I’ve known, where after a year or two or three, you’re asked to leave. It’s good for the new people to benefit from the experience of the old. We’re resources, and there’s good knowledge sharing—like what is the best grocery store or restaurant.”
The Main Line club keeps a list of contractors and hosts an active Yahoo group. Both also have a charitable component. The Upper Main Line bunch has monthly 50/50 raffles; the Main Line club has its Holiday Tea at Appleford Estate in Villanova, where it matches member contributions up to $1,500.
“For me, it’s about friendship and creating a social life—a lot of us feel that way,” says Lee Guertin. “There’s nothing about it that isn’t Main Line.”