When Angie Van Berkel read about men’s coffee groups in The Local, she contacted the paper to ask if we would be interested in meeting with a group of women who have been meeting once a week for many years.
We weren’t going to ignore a group based on gender — when doing the original story, it seemed odd that there were no women who meet regularly, at least not at coffee shops early in the morning.
This group gathers at 6 a.m. on Sharon VanNoort’s back porch, from about April to October, pushing the outdoor season with a heater. The view, and the birds, are part of the attraction, but when the weather turns cold, as it did last week, they move into a warm kitchen. When they met last Thursday, the smell of chocolate croissants VanNoort pulls from the oven welcomes the five friends who arrive within a few minutes of each other, and remain, chatting, until one has to leave for work about an hour and a half later.
“If we didn’t meet at this time of the morning, we wouldn’t be able to meet at all,” says VanNoort. “Everyone is so busy.”
In addition to Van Berkel and VanNoort, the back porch group includes Marion Frendo, Debbie Vreken, Elly Hoff, and Heidi Nickel. And unless one of them is away on vacation, they all make a point of making it for coffee every week.
“We try not to miss it, and if one of the women isn’t here, it’s just not the same,” says VanNoort.
On the table are coffee cups and saucers, cream and sugar jugs, a large coffee carafe, and a bottle of Bailey’s, the rich odour of Irish cream blending with the chocolate.
All the women have jobs, for some volunteer work, as important to them as any paid job. They are women who share faith, family values and a belief in giving back to their community, helping those less fortunate than themselves.
Frendo helps run a thrift store in Niagara Falls. Vreken is involved with Chorus Niagara. Some of them volunteer with Out of the Cold, or another church program in St. Catharines Van Berkel has convinced them to join, which provides support and friendship to developmentally-challenged adults.
Their volunteer work often overlaps, each receiving assistance from the others when needed, to organize events or collect clothes or food.
As would be expected, although there is a lot of laughter and gentle kidding of each other, the conversation is very different than the banter and light-hearted chatter amongst the men who do coffee and admit, when they’re serious, to trying to solve the world’s problems.
The women’s talk is closer to home.
It’s about their adult kids, the ups and downs they experience, and the challenges for those whose kids are living at home.
It’s about grandkids, who bring joy into their lives.
It’s about aging parents, and the role reversal they experience when they become their parents’ caregivers.
It’s about husbands, health, and sometimes, life and death.
Along with laughter, there are tears.
Asked how they began meeting, they recall it started as a walking group that sometimes involved sitting over coffee, and other days, walking with coffee, occasionally down to the waterfront, where they would sit to enjoy the early morning.
But as the years went by, and some health issues developed, it became more about the coffee than the walking, until, eventually, it moved to VanNoort’s porch.
One of the health issues was a battle with cancer for Vreken, who is now in remission, which she credits to Frendo.
The women were walking, she says, when Frendo, a doctor, noticed a mole on her friend’s shoulder. “I just said, I don’t like the look of that,” says Frendo. “You should get it checked.”
“I did,” says Vreken. “It was melanoma.”
After surgery, she had three weeks of chemotherapy every day, and a year of self-injected needles.
“That came out of this group,” she says of the treatment that has saved her life, and when she couldn’t walk during that period, they met for coffee.
Then came Frendo’s discovery of her own health issues.
“I was having trouble walking. Ten minutes in I’d be limping, and I had a weird sensation in my leg.”
When she went for tests to discover the cause, she found out she has Parkinson’s disease.
That was in 2009, when she would walk sometimes, sometimes not.
“But then we grew up,” says Vreken. “We stopped walking and started having coffee.”
Originally they met in the Tim Hortons on Mary Street, where they would see the early morning men’s group.
But eventually, VanNoort decided to host her friends, and that is where it has remained.
The worst the women have shared, they agreed, was the devastating death of Van Berkel’s son James, in 2005, in a motorcycle accident.
That resulted in a trip to Guatemala for her and Frendo in 2006, with Wells of Hope. “Angie was working out her grief, and she wanted to do something good, something for others, so we went to Guatemala,” says Frendo.
“After James passed away,” says Van Berkel, “it seemed people around town were losing their children.”
It was a dark time in the community, with the loss of four or five other young adults in motor vehicle collisions. Van Berkel reached out to their moms, and they began meeting on a regular basis, offering support for each other.
That, says Frendo, “is what Angie does. She helps others. We know a lot of the same people in this small community,” continues Frendo. “When any of us loses somebody, we’re all touched by it. We share the sadness.”
That included a serious accident for Hoff’s husband — they went through some scary times, and a long recovery period for him. He’s doing well now, but she had the women around the table for encouragement during a difficult period in her life.
“I loved my father-in-law,” says VanNoort. “When he died these girls arrived at the house with dinner. We look out for each other. I love these women.”
The conversation then turns to the Friendship Group, at Covenant Christian Reformed Church in St. Catharines, where several of the women help out.
“Angie sucked us into it,” laughs VanNoort.
Hoff is musical — she plays guitar. Others organize crafts, but the most important role of the support group, which has about 100 clients registered, is to provide friendship.
“And what do we get out of it?” says Van Berkel. “Unconditional love. They just love us so much in that group.”
She puts in a plug for more volunteers — they meet weekly at the church, on Parnell Road in St. Catharines, Tuesday evenings.
Although the women share their trying times, there is also much to celebrate. Milestone birthdays for the women, all between the ages of 60 and 70; weddings, the birth of grandchildren, or for Van Berkel, her second recently-adopted grandchild; and graduations.
“We’ve shared a lot of good celebrations in each of our lives,” says Nickel.
That brings up a story about how long Hoff and Vreken have known each other. “We carpooled when our kids were in Kindergarten,” says Hoff. “We grew up like cousins. None of our family were here (in Canada), so we were family.”
The other women were surprised to hear that — although they know each other well, there are still new things to be learned.
They bring out photos then of some of their past milestones celebrated together, and show off Nickel’s creativity. Her gift to the group is altering photos for fun — they produce a Christmas photo of the women as elves. “It’s my job to make us look good,” laughs Nickel.
Then, as if to prove the diversity of their conversation and support for each other, Van Berkel holds up a winter boot she has brought to show the others.
The upper boot of one has separated from the bottom, and these were expensive, name-brand boots, she says, asking if she should write to the manufacturer.
She receives varying advice, and some ribbing — the boots are probably 15 years old, says one of the women, and she laughs and agrees she’s had them for many years.
From life and death to what to do about a pair of boots, these are women who have each other’s backs. They meet weekly, and see each other occasionally as a group outside of VanNoort’s kitchen, but their lives are intertwined by years of shared joy and sadness, and the everyday challenges life brings. They wouldn’t have it any other way.