Women's group has fun while supporting each other

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Friendships are like marriages in that they have to be continually nurtured if you want them to last for more than a few years. But that's not to say the effort to stay in touch with your girlfriends has to be, well, an effort.

Just ask anyone in the Birthday Non Birthday Group.

For 20 years, its members have gathered once a month to eat, drink, laugh and, perhaps most importantly, talk about what's going on in their lives. And if last month's gathering in Sewickley is any indication, they show no sign of slowing.

More than two dozen women showed up at retailer Judy Bailey's new endeavor on Beaver Street to sip wine as they perused (and praised) the merchandise, which included the art of local painter Molly Amsler. Then, after everyone had caught up on children and jobs and dogs and vacations, they noshed on a catered dinner on the Victorian home's back patio.

As is sometimes the case with BNBG, the party included several women outside its original membership; that month's hostess is free to extend an invitation to any other friends and auxiliary groups. Yet rather than take away from the intimacy of the event, it added to the festive, "more is merrier" atmosphere.

"We're always saying I'm going to have lunch with this friend or dinner with that friend, but life goes faster than we go," explains Donna Rae of West Mifflin, who greeted guests on the porch with hugs and polka-dotted balloons. BNBG, she said, "gives us an excuse."

"It's an impetus to get everyone together," agrees Joyce Osterling, who made the trek from her home in Shadyside.

The group was started on a whim by Judy Linaburg, co-owner of Van Dyk Business Systems in Green Tree. Stuck at home after her husband had a skiing accident back in 1989, she invited some girlfriends -- some who knew one another, others who didn't -- to a pasta party at her Mt. Lebanon residence. They ended up having so much fun (was it the wine, or conversation?) that somebody suggested, "Let's do this every month."

Before anyone knew it, they had a name and a core group of 18 women. Lee Phillips, for instance, brought Mrs. Bailey into the fold; Mrs. Osterling, who acted on Bill Cardille's "Chiller Theater" with Ms. Rae (as Sister Susie and Terminal Stare) invited her good friend Bonnie Anton. Also on the list were Joan Siebart and Yvonne Zanos, who modeled together as teenagers and later taught at the Wheeler School, and Donna Sturgess, a neighbor of Mrs. Linaburg's, who recently left GlaxoSmithKline as the global head of innovation to become the founding partner in Buyology Inc., a marketing neuroscience firm.

Jeanne Pleva, also a former model who now lives in Greensburg, recalls feeling "very annoyed" she missed that first party because she just knew it would be fun. But she made it to the next and then the next, and, well, you get the picture. Some 200 parties later, she's still coming.

Part of the group's appeal is that everyone does something different, so there is always something to talk about or something new to learn. But the women also genuinely like one another, and share a similar life view.

To ensure BNBG's continued success, members devised a game plan from which they've never deviated: each girl would take a month and host a party. It didn't have to be her birthday month, or anyone else's for that matter, but she'd be responsible for all the invitations, food and other supplies if there were a certain theme, which at the beginning there were.

Mrs. Bailey still has vivid memories of her first party at Ms. Rae's, who at the time was living in Shadyside. Unbeknownst to her, the theme was jewelry. Really ugly jewelry.

"I remember wondering why all these attractive women would be wearing those horrible plastic beads," she says, laughing. "I thought, 'Get me out of here!' "

Then everyone burst out laughing, and someone handed Mrs. Bailey a box filled with costume pieces. And her next thought was, "How fun."

Other memorable events include a "kid" party where the girls played jacks and Pin the Tail on the Donkey, a party with a handwriting expert, and a formal English tea hosted by Mrs. Osterling. Still fresh in the mind of Ms. Zanos, who was on "Evening Magazine" with Ms. Rae in the late '70s, is Diane Grecco's bagel party. With no time to make anything, Ms. Zanos arrived with a bagel in a brown paper bag.

"I told them I was a pregnant Cheerio," she says with a grin.

As the group has matured, though, so have the parties. Themes have given way to laid-back events at members' homes, where people can eat when they want, talk to this person and move on to that person, and simply have a nice evening, says Mrs. Bailey. "We just want to be close together."

Because that's really what BNBG is all about: knowing there's a core group of women who will be there to support you through life's ups and downs.

Their careers might have taken them in very different directions, along with husbands, children, other friends and varying outside interests. But all 15 have always been there for one another, through good times and bad, as if they're one heart and one soul.

"It's about support and stability," says Mrs. Siebart of McCandless. "It's a wonderful group of ladies."

"It's family," adds Ms. Zanos.

Gretchen McKay can be reached at gmckay@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1419.


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