Bonita Springs – The windows of the Bonita Springs Woman’s Club look out on what may be the most wellknown picnic tables in Southwest Florida. Just across Childers Street, in Bonita’s Banyan Tree Park, the Café of Life serves early lunch to those less fortunate on five small park tables. Last year, the removal of the tables by City staff led to a major controversy. Hundreds of Café volunteers packed City Council to protest, and the tables were returned.
For several years Woman’s Club members watched as Café volunteers served in the heat, rain and winter cold. And they had a front row seat to the picnic table controversy.
“Our members were very upset,” said Barbara Malloch, president of the Woman’s Club. “They were up in arms about those picnic tables being taken away. Those people had to sit on the ground to eat. That was not right.”
Meanwhile the Woman’s Club had challenges. Active membership dwindled to six or seven in recent years, as members aged and were no longer able to attend regular meetings.
Early this year the ladies met to ponder a tough, but inevitable decision.
“It’s time, girls. We just can’t go on like this. We have to consider folding,” Malloch remembers saying. “They saw the writing on the wall,” she said, and after six decades of good works, Bonita’s oldest service club decided to close.
The ladies’ next decision was what to do with their air-conditioned building, with a spacious central room that easily accommodates a dozen now empty tables. The answer was obvious. They could see it out the window, across Childers Street, in Banyan Street Park. The Woman’s Club donated the building to the Café of Life.
An Unexpected Gift
The Café didn’t expect the gift. It has searched throughout Bonita for its own home, with considerable frustration from time to time, all to no avail.
“I felt this was a miracle, a gift from heaven,” said Marietta Bala, the Café’s chair, reflecting on how she felt when the news first came.
“We have our highs and lows,” said Bala. “But we always hang in there. Something good happens like this, and it gives us a high.”
However, as often seems the case with the Café, good news comes with an asterisk.
It’s unclear whether the Café can serve food at the Woman’s Club building. The City’s Community Development Office is researching the issue.
“Our objective is simple. To address the needs of those who are hungry,” said the Café’s Bruce Wheatley. “I don’t think the City has unanimity in what they want to do. They have to wrestle with that.”
The lack of consensus was on display at a recent City Council meeting. Some members indicated the Woman’s Club might be used as an alternative to the Café’s planned Rosemary Park facility. Others indicated the use was inconsistent with plans for Old 41 redevelopment.
In any event the Café will use the Woman’s Club for office space, and is developing guidelines to make it available to other non-profit organizations. That fits the Woman’s Club’s goals. The terms of their gift provide the property must be used only by a non-profit for 99 years.
A Bonita Springs Institution
The Woman’s Club was founded in 1949, with the motto “dedicated to the welfare of the community.” Club scrap books document relentless charitable efforts of these women who, it is recorded, established the club to provide relief from “the ever present bore of cooking, cleaning and washing.”
Through the years, the club provided college scholarships to local students, and contributed to local organizations.
That practice held to the end, when bank accounts were closed and final distributions made. Bonita Assistance Office and Estero High School scholarship fund each received $2,000. The remaining $1,227.26 was given to the Humane Society of Lee County.
Club members spent many hours raising funds, yellowed newspaper clippings show. They worked spaghetti dinners, fashion shows, flea markets, Christmas raffles, bake sales, Easter hat parades, card parties, covered dish luncheons, bazaars and hobby shows.
But the fundraising workhorse was bingo. “There was a time we were so crowded that the fire marshal made us close the doors,” said Malloch.
Relics of those days remain in a cupboard, hundreds of leather bound bingo paddles with sliding translucent windows to expose called letters. “People don’t use hand cards anymore,” said Malloch.
“The whole idea was to raise money for our charities, and we did not have enough girls to keep it going,” she said.
“The Woman’s Club building is an historical structure and should be preserved,” said Wheatley. The Café plans renovations to the building faithful to the old Florida architectural style of downtown Bonita. A new sign out front will say, “Bonita Springs Woman’s Club” and, in smaller letters, “The Home of the Café of Life.”
“We realized how much the Café of Life needed help, and their own place. Period,” said Malloch. Later in the summer “we will have a little ceremony,” she said. “We will get our members together, and have some cake, and take some pictures.”
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