What do you do if you’re new in town, busy setting up your business and a year later realize you don’t know anyone to pal around with?
If you’re Gena Murphy, you turn to Facebook and write, “Hey, married mom here, 44, I like to work out, I like to do this and that. Who wants to hang out?”
Murphy’s husband was starting a company, so the family dropped everything and moved from Greenville to Savannah in 2017, and then to Bluffton.
“We couldn’t find a good school system, so we moved here,” she said. “I’m trying to build up my business in photography and trying to be a stay-at-home mom. For like a year I couldn’t make any friends. I started following the Bluffton Ask and Answer page. There were women everywhere, and they would talk to you randomly, but you felt like, ‘Hey, can you be my date? I need a friend.’ So I just jokingly one night in a moment of depression wrote on Bluffton Ask and Answer.”
The response was overwhelming, especially to Murphy.
“It was just left and right with people saying, ‘I want to.’ ‘I need a friend.’ So in order to not bombard the Bluffton Ask and Answer page, I started Friends of Bluffton,” she said. “I did not know anything about what I was going to do, but knew I didn’t want to have just one lunch – and I thought I needed something consistent.”
While she would have been happy with just adding a small circle of friends to her life (“I honestly just wanted like three friends. I’m not a big people person.”), she organized the first lunch to be held at Truffles in Bluffton. The Facebook page is women-only, and the ladies who lunch recently gathered – again – at Truffles, one of their regular restaurants.
“I just thought this was so out of my comfort zone if you know me, but five or six people showed up, and it was awkward, but it was nice,” said Murphy. “And it’s great now because you have the quiet people who don’t talk, and then you have the people who talk, and then you have the people who talk too much.”
That comment got laughs from the dozen or so in attendance.
“It’s all women, different ages. It started as weekly lunches, and then it just kind of took a life of its own,” said Laura Higgins. “People started saying ‘We’re going go to happy hour on Friday at the Dispensary. Does anybody want to go?’ and whoever could go, would go.”
The lunches were the first activities, but as the group grew, so did the requests for getting together for other activities, and for sharing information.
“It was great to see all different types of lives. Young people will tell their stories of medical issues or divorces or babies, children or whatever. And it seemed like even though we were all different, everybody had a common denominator – they needed a friend,” said Murphy. “But what’s even better is everybody shared their story, and – it’s going to make me cry – out of a dark place, it became a beautiful movement of women.”
One of the tenets of the group is “No drama.” Murphy said she was concerned about that at first. “I didn’t want people to get up from the table and feel like somebody was talking about them,” she said.
As it turns out, she needn’t have worried. “We’re very, very blessed with beautiful women of Bluffton and Beaufort and Hilton Head that came, and we haven’t really had a problem,” she said. “I quickly learned no one’s talking bad about people.”
Before long, splinter groups broke off within the membership and there were support groups, people who played Bunco, a canasta group, and people who wanted to bowl joined a couple of members who were already in a bowling league.
“It was just really great. Honestly, what happened is some people found their little crew, and they stopped coming to lunches,” Murphy said. “You see them all over their Facebook and they’re best friends, and that’s the whole purpose. You can’t be friends with everybody all the time, but you have an option.”
It’s a good thing there are options to mix with various members of the Friend of Bluffton page. There are 2,900 of them now, so fitting everyone into a local restaurant would never work. But breaking off into little groups with special interests works for members like those who went to Mardi Gras.
“I moved here last March and I knew no one,” said Becky Jennings. “My family’s only two hours away but I had no one – no girlfriends – and I left such a strong girl tribe at home and I was so devastated. I had never lived anywhere other than Charleston for my entire life.”
But when she read about FOB, Jennings wanted to participate. “And then one lunch led to another thing, and now I had 60 some people come down to Mardi Gras, and they all wore black tie and fancy dresses,” she said.
Working from home meant Lauren Sands wasn’t out and about like many women in her age group.
“It’s hard for me because I’m 30, and I don’t have any kids, and everyone in my neighborhood has kids everywhere,” Sands said. “I work from home, so how am I going to meet people? Now I’ve got friends. … It’s nice to get out because I lived in Charlotte for the past three years. I was working too much, and I didn’t really meet any friends. I said when I move down here, I’m going to meet people. I want some friends.”
Not long after she joined the group, Sands took the initiative to start a book club.
The challenge about meeting people is not just building a business, being a mom or working from home. The past two years have impacted every facet of people’s lives, as Cindy Evans can attest. She moved to Bluffton in late 2019, just before COVID hit.
“We came down from Virginia, and we didn’t know a soul, so we bought a golf cart just to be able to drive around our neighborhood and see the houses because we knew nobody could go out,” Evans said. “We were trapped in our houses for however long, and I came to this group and met some ladies. Then I joined the Bowling Divas, and it’s just been really a godsend to me.”
People move to Bluffton and then move away, like Murphy. She didn’t want to delete the page after so many connections had been made. So she left the control of the page and the group to her close friends Emily Crowe and Jennifer Tate.
“I knew without a doubt that this crew would be amazing without me. I had gotten so close with Emily and Jen, because they just were always there, I asked them to take over the page,” Murphy said.
When the group went to lunch, they went to locally owned restaurants, but initially didn’t think about the impact that had on the businesses like Corks Wine Bar.
“When COVID hit, a lot of businesses were hurt really bad on top of people being lonely. I knew we were helping businesses in our small way by going to lunches, but I never realized how much we really helped businesses,” Murphy said. “Corks had a really hard time. They nearly had to close down. And come to find out, Friends of Bluffton really, really impacted their business by going to lunch there, and holding our Christmas party there. I never told her, but this was another ah-ha moment about why you empower women and support your friends in small businesses.”
That impact reverberates in many ways.
“When you take 20 women in for dinner, they go back and tell their families and their friends,” said Higgins, who works for the Hilton Head Island-Greater Bluffton Chamber of Commerce. “And, you know, when I realized how many people were active in the group, I thought, well, we need to do some good with all these women. That’s because there are a lot of women in neighborhoods that know their neighbors, but they don’t know how to get plugged into the bigger picture.”
Higgins took that idea, and asked Bluffton Rotary President Dan Ciuffreda if he needed any volunteers for Mayfest, Bluffton’s recent community celebration.
“He said, ‘Oh, yeah, we have a beer truck. We’ve got welcome tents. We need people to park, we need all sorts of help.’ So I started a little offshoot group that’s called Volunteers in Principle. Within a day, I had 25 volunteers lined up and ready to go for Mayfest,” said Higgins. “And it’s all these women from the community. A lot of them have just moved here and want to get involved.”
Whether it’s books, bowling, brunches, lunches, cocktails downtown or even planning for a trip to Mexico, there’s always something to do or a new idea to grow in the Friends of Bluffton Facebook group.
Murphy’s wish to make a few friends was granted far beyond her wildest dreams, turning new arrivals into a close-knit and growing community of involved women.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.