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Community life: The American Women’s Club of Brussels embraces new chapter in its long history
The American Women’s Club of Brussels ASBL (AWCB) is a social and philanthropic club for Americans and expats of all nationalities in the Brussels area. It’s now embracing life without a clubhouse after selling its long-time base in Sint-Genesius-Rode in 2021. AWCB’s current president Jan Allen (pictured above, far left), a US and Belgian national, tells the Bulletin how the club is continuing to evolve to meet the needs of a growing and increasingly diverse membership base while delivering on its many fundraising activities for local and international charities.
What are the origins of the club?
The club was founded in 1949 by a group of US expatriate women who wanted to create a local community for social support and philanthropy. They rented facilities until 1970 before purchasing a clubhouse in Sint-Genesius-Rode, which included a restaurant, library, gift boutique and day care centre. Membership grew to over 1,000. The clubhouse has a rich history, having hosted many distinguished guests such as first ladies Mamie Eisenhower and Barbara Bush (pictured above, centre right), as well as Queen Fabiola (pictured below), Princess Paola and US Ambassadors and other dignitaries.
About 10 years ago, many multinational companies started moving their headquarters to other European locations and the expat population in Brussels reduced to a point that the clubhouse became unwieldy and impractical. Hence the decision to sell the clubhouse and focus on our core activities of organising social events and charity programmes.
Today, the club has over 140 members and is proud to have a diverse membership from dozens of different nationalities living across Belgium (and around the world), who are united in their desire to share the American spirit and inclusive values still at the heart of the club. In 2021, the AWCB made the leap into a virtual community, and a broad array of social events are held in prestigious and historical venues dotted around Brussels and its surroundings, as well as at members’ homes and online.
Describe your membership?
It may seem surprising given our name that not only do we have non-Americans, but also male members. We have always been multicultural, but the membership expanded in the past few years to include men interested in attending our events and activities. Beyond gender, we are lucky to have an eclectic and multicultural membership, several of whom have Belgian permanent residency or citizenship. Others join for a few years when they or their partner is working in Belgium. We simply ask that members speak English so we have a common, unifying language for club activities.
Many members work or have backgrounds in a range of commercial and government sectors, both locally and globally, in the academic world, medical profession, philanthropic sector, public services and military. Some are new parents, retirees, full or part-time workers, entrepreneurs and/or trailing spouses. This rich mix of diverse backgrounds and perspectives means that when you attend club events you have the opportunity to socialise with many well-travelled, international and interesting people that you may not normally meet on a day-to-day basis.
What types of activities do you run?
Membership allows people to be instantly connected to a large group of expats and locals who serve as a support community for those settling into Belgium for the first time. There is always someone who can assist or point you in the right direction when looking for a doctor, accountant, school or even where to buy the best turkey for Thanksgiving.
Due to our diverse membership base, we offer a broad spectrum of fun, social and cultural events and activities that present monthly opportunities to make friends and discover or re-discover Belgium: art gallery and museum visits, reading club, shopping, historical visits, forest and city walks, running, cooking classes, cocktail parties, wine tastings, movie watching, coffee chats, brunches, lunches and dinners at lovely restaurants and outdoor dining at beautiful locations in the good weather. As many of our members are also parents, we offer events geared for them like crafts workshops and children’s museum visits. With the good weather starting, we are planning a walking tour in Leuven and a boat trip in Ghent.
During Covid we developed online events to keep people connected; one highlight was a magic show broadcast live from New York City. As Zoom calls have proved popular, we’ll continue to offer some events, including yoga, cooking classes, beginner language conversation, wellness and informative sessions such as those held recently on US tax filing from abroad and security while travelling.
With philanthropy being a cornerstone of our club, we organise a multitude of charity initiatives. We have long-standing programmes to support breast cancer patients, brighten the lives of underprivileged children and families, and support the American Overseas Memorial Day Association (AOMDA), which ensures that the half-million American Armed Forces who lost their lives in Belgium during the first and second world war are honoured every year. Last year, we supported those impacted by the massive floodings through donations to the Belgian Red Cross and we’re currently running a charity programme that has supported over 100 Ukrainian refugee families so far.
We collaborate with a few local partner clubs to extend our activities, and our members enjoy automatic membership in the Federation of American Women's Clubs Overseas (FAWCO). This is an NGO affiliated with the United Nations, which allows us to benefit from a vast array of events (virtual and in person) and advice offered specifically for Americans who live overseas, about topics such as US tax, voting, banking and employment abroad, UN advocacy and global human rights and environmental issues. Members can also apply for educational grants for themselves, their children and grandchildren.
What brought you to Belgium?
In 1995, I was living in New York City, working on Wall Street, when I met my husband while on vacation in Belgium. The rest is history as they say! We’ve been married 25 years, my husband is a colonel in the Belgian Air Force and our two sons, aged 19 and 21, are studying at KU Leuven. In addition to my career as an executive in the software industry, I have been on the AWCB Board since 2018, and serving as president since 2021. I’m grateful for all the opportunities the AWCB has provided to explore Belgium, make friends and give back to the community.
How do I join AWCB?
Recognising that it has been a tough two years for many during the pandemic and to celebrate being able to have in person events again, we’re offering a new special annual membership of €60 instead of the usual €90. Once you’re a member, you can invite a friend to join us for 50% off the normal price.
Our website explains how to join online as a member. In addition, we offer corporate sponsorships for reasonable prices. We’re always happy to have a conversation about the club, just contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.