August 2019

Women’s Association of Hilton Head: Come for the fun; stay for the fulfillment

Author: Linda S. Hopkins | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

WAHHI has Heart for Our Community
A photograph taken of WAHHI attendees at the April 26th luncheon held at the Sonesta Resort, where Vera Stewart was the guest speaker.

In 1960, a group of seven friends sipping iced tea on the porch of Nancy McBride’s home on Wood Ibis Road in Sea Pines thought it would be a good idea to form a group to beautify Coligny Circle. As a result, the Hilton Head Island Garden Club, the mother of the Women’s Association of Hilton Head Island (WAHHI), was born. The club organized in January 1961 with McBride as its first president and the planting of Coligny Circle its first project. The seven women recruited enough friends to begin with 23 charter members.

Today, WAHHI stands 780 members strong, and these ladies are doing a lot more than sipping tea and planting flowers—although they still do that too! The organization is comprised of women of all ages from all walks of life. Many have enjoyed impressive careers and are now retired and looking for ways to continue using their skills and expertise. Some are in business now or are raising families or both. What they have in common is a desire to connect with other women in a meaningful way and make a difference in the community in which they live.
While WAHHI hosts four luncheons annually, this is more than a group of ladies who lunch. These are women who individually and collectively are playing a vital role in the Lowcountry by combining their ideas, talents and resources for the betterment of all. And they have such a good time doing it! With over 30 interest groups and 55 different activities from which to choose, whether you want to learn, play, tour, create, cook, or volunteer, you will find plenty of like-minded women and many opportunities to follow your passion or find a new one.
One special interest group, Difference Makers, started in 2012 by Donna Manske, has attracted 143 WAHHI members who are seeking out ways to serve the community in short-term volunteer projects—“having fun and doing good in one day.”

“We bring people’s attention to things happening in the community that they might not otherwise know about,” said Barb Magee, a former nurse and health care administrator now serving as Difference Makers co-chair. “The idea is people can see the needs and find where their passion lies, and they can be involved at whatever pace they can.” Last year alone, Difference Makers put in a total of 450 volunteer hours in over 27 places including SOAR (special needs); Hopeful Horizons (abused women/children); Meals on Wheels recipients; returning military; HHIHS Seahawks; The Children’s Center; Hilton Head History Day; and the Camellia Garden in Honey Horn.

The organization as a whole contributes in endless ways through both volunteerism and financial support. Current president Tracy Harris estimates that club volunteers contributed almost 4800 hours to WAHHI and the community this year. They also exceeded their fundraising goals for the year, dispersing 100 percent of those monies to selected charitable endeavors including their annual Youth Community Service Award program. (Highlights of projects and beneficiaries are listed on the WAHHI website under Community Impact.)

Reaping the rewards
Beyond the natural blessing that comes with giving, what these ladies are getting in return stands out. “It enriches your life in more ways than just being a social club,” Harris said.

After leaving a 38-year career in HR to take care of her mother and later relocating to Hilton Head Island, Harris mentioned to a neighbor that she was bored and wanted something to do. Invited to attend the September WAHHI luncheon, she sat in awe of the women around her (doctors, lawyers, teachers, professors, executives, entrepreneurs…). “Talking to these smart, intelligent women, I knew I wanted to get involved,” she said.

Harris spent a year trying out various interest groups and offered to serve as VP of hospitality. But she was gently steered towards programs, “which is throwing a big luncheon for 700 of your favorite friends,” she joked. “I was a little bit timid about taking on that role, so I suggested forming a committee, and that’s what we did—offering women the opportunity to come together and share their ideas and be involved.”

According to Harris, past president Sheila Ferguson came up with the buzzword “sparkle,” which has changed the way the luncheons are perceived. “We want it to be an experience,” she said. Harris’s first speaker as programs chair was Joan Robinson Berry (vice president of Engineering, Modifications & Maintenance for Boeing Global Services). “Women were coming up to her crying because of the message she gave.”

“For me, WAHHI has opened up a whole new world. It has helped me to grow so much,” said Connie Berding, current VP of events and co-chair of Difference Makers along with Magee. Berding has no regrets about the years she stayed home to take care of her children or her choice to be a secretary. She admits that she was initially intimidated by the powerful women she encountered at WAHHI, but she quickly found herself embraced by their warmth and inspired by their energy. Stepping into leadership positions took her out of her comfort zone, she said, but she has gained confidence and learned to appreciate and value the skillsets she brings to the table. “I get far more out of it than I give.”

Magee agrees that the benefits outweigh the investment of time and energy. “There has been so much in it for me in being able to connect with women all across the area—those who have had similar experiences as well as those who have had many different experiences that I benefit from.”

Past president and current communications chair Kathy Reynolds will flat out tell you that WAHHI saved her life. In 2013, after 43 years in several high-level corporate positions, she retired, leaving her home in Atlanta and landing here on Hilton Head Island, only to find herself just a little bit lost. The former VP of product development for Spanx, Reynolds said, “I retired on a Friday at 12:30, and by 7:00 I was here on the beach. My career involved a lot of travel and it was a very high-pressure kind of situation. I woke up Monday morning and felt like I had fallen off a cliff.”

Looking for a way to connect with other women, Reynolds found out about the upcoming WAHHI luncheon. Past the deadline to sign up, she called and begged her way in. Since that time, she has served in multiple leadership capacities within the organization and appreciates not only the opportunity to be involved in something purposeful but also the social network and camaraderie among the women. “Once you start getting plugged in and you find that network with WAHHI, you have an instant resource of over 700 women that you can call on and find common interests,” she said. “I didn’t have a chance to regret leaving my job. I missed it, but I didn’t regret it because my life was so full with the relationships I built.”

WAHHI wants you!
Membership in WAHHI is open to women residing on Hilton Head Island, in the Town of Bluffton, and in those communities with exits directly onto Highway 278, up to and including Island West and within the area bounded by the Colleton River to the north and the May River to the South. The ladies at WAHHI invite you to join in and take the unique place that fits your needs, whether it is finding something fun to do, making new friends, networking for business, or volunteering to make a difference in someone else’s life.

“There is a role for every skill set. Whatever your contribution can be, there is a place for it,” Reynolds said.
Citing the diversity of talent within the group, Magee added, “You’re never at a stage in life where you can’t find a purpose. We can all be useful no matter our age, physical abilities, or economic status. It allows you to take some gift you have to a new level. Sometimes it is related to the career you had, and sometimes you’re ready for a change. Sometimes you find out, as I did, that you are using your skills in a new way. It’s a fresh outlook, and there’s always something you can look forward to.”

“You don’t have to be a former executive. It’s for everybody,” Berding said. “We tap into what interests you.” 

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  1. Thank you so much for the wonderful story on WAHHI. Linda Hopkins totally captured the essence of our organization! Thank you Maggie for your support!
    Well done! Kathy Reynolds

    — Kathy Reynolds    Aug 2, 07:31 am   

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