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Club Gathers Together Foreign Women
02.16.2007 17:42

women By Jennifer Davis

Special to The St. Petersburg Times

The International Women’s Club will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a gala event to be held at the Yusupov Palace on March 10.

Originally conceived as a support and networking group for foreign women living in St. Petersburg, the IWC’s first goal is to help recent arrivals navigate this beautiful, but bewildering city.

“Coming to this city for the first time, when you don’t speak the language, can make you feel lost,” said IWC Communications Secretary, Steffi Muller. “You often need help.”

Muller, who arrived here three years ago with her husband, a project manager for Ford Motors, hails from Germany. Like many members of the IWC, Muller has previous experience of living abroad, having moved here from Brazil.

“St. Petersburg is a very beautiful, interesting city,” she said. “But it can be challenging to live here.”

Founded in Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was then known, the IWC is a non-profit organization comprising of both international and Russian women which aims to welcome and assist all English-speaking, international women and to foster communication with Russian nationals.

Current membership numbers 140 women from over 50 countries. The majority are foreign nationals but club membership is also open to Russian women married to foreign men and a few select English-speaking Russian women whose memberships are sponsored by current members.

According to the club’s charter, Russian women may make up 10 percent of the membership. The St. Petersburg IWC is entirely independent and is not affiliated with any other International Women’s Club worldwide.

One way the IWC helps women settle and start functioning in St. Petersburg is by producing an invaluable, constantly-updated resource called the “IWC Tips Book.”

With useful information on everything from visa support to English-speaking tailors, many grateful members refer to it as their “bible.”

IWC president, Jennifer Gaspar, is a U.S. citizen who moved here three years ago from San Francisco, California. Gaspar works as a philanthropic advisor to international foundations and as a management consultant for Russian and Ukrainian non-governmental organizations. Her move to St. Petersburg was inspired by meeting her now husband, Ivan Pavlov, who visited San Francisco for his work in 2001. Gaspar joined the club in 2006.

“I’ve met a lot of really great women through the IWC,” said Gaspar. “I found that I had a lot in common with many of them.”

Gaspar believes that the members themselves direct the group.

“We are a diverse community. Therefore, we will have diverse ideas,” she said. “I hope to find out more about what the women themselves want from the IWC and try to create a club for all of its members.”

Membership in the IWC has grown continuously over the past twenty years, not least thanks to the internet.

“It’s so much easier to get the information out now, said Muller. “In the past, hardcopies of newsletters were distributed by fax or available at certain hotels around town. With the constant turnover of members it’s important to keep getting the information out.”

The IWC sends out a weekly events newsletter and a monthly bulletin to all its members.

The IWC engages in fundraising for local organizations and its largest event is an annual Winter Fair held in the weeks before Christmas. The cornerstone of the Winter Fair is a raffle, where ticket holders can win prizes donated by various local and international companies such as IKEA and KLM Airlines. This year the Winter Fair raised $23,000 which was distributed to several orphanages in and around town.

The IWC is also home to several special activity groups that meet separately on a weekly or monthly basis. Peter’s Tea is one of the most popular events. Held every Thursday in a member’s home, Peter’s Tea is a purely social affair, where members get together to meet and greet each other over tea and biscuits. Members and guests pay a small fee which is later donated to charity. Other interest groups include arts and crafts clubs, local sightseeing tours, photography clubs, English conversation clubs, and even a ballet class for adults.

“With all the activity groups, we try to find some kind of interest group for everybody,” said Muller. “We want everyone to make contacts and friends.”

The next general meeting of the IWC will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 20 at the Novotel City Center. Registration begins at 10 a.m. Entrance is free for members. Non-members 200 rubles (later to be debited from the general membership fee if the participant decides to join).

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