NEW TAMPA — They are 23 members strong with an active board of directors. They perform community service projects and distribute monthly newsletters, pay membership dues and vote on the direction of the organization.
They also change diapers, use colored yogurt as finger paint and referee disputes about toys.
Meet the latest breed of suburban playgroups in Tampa Bay, where Robert's Rules of Order reign loosely over meetings and treasurers reimburse members for juice boxes.
These members make up the MOMS Club of Wesley Chapel-Northeast, one of about 2,000 similar groups across the United States that offer mothers a chance to become a part of a playgroup governed by basic rules and goals.
MOMS Clubs can be like corporations for stay-at-home moms where field trips are decided through formal votes and bedtime books are suggested in order to carry out the month's theme. A bit over the top?
Not for moms like Toni Roberts, the Wesley Chapel chapter president.
"I think people are surprised when they learn how organized we are," said Roberts, a former teacher who now spends several hours a week making the club run smoothly. "But it's not just a playgroup. We try to focus on moms as much as we do kids."
There are about 20 chapters of MOMS (Moms Offering Moms Support) clubs in the Tampa Bay area, including Riverview, Carrollwood, Clearwater and St. Petersburg. Moms cannot join chapters outside their geographic boundaries, although some chapters are more active than others. The chapters are financed by an annual membership fee ranging from $15 to $30 and small amounts of money chipped in for supplies if the need arises.
The Wesley Chapel group, which formed in April 2006 to mothers in parts of the 33544 and 33545 ZIP codes, is known for its involved members. The executive board meets separately once a month, and the group has a calendar full of events, sometimes four days a week. Instead of performing one required service project, it opted to do several, such as donating school supplies to needy children and throwing a baby shower to benefit the Spring, a domestic violence shelter.
They also have play dates, moms nights out and book club gatherings. One member, Krista Carbone, tests out the art activity with her kids at home before it's introduced to the group.
A theme — voted upon, of course — for each month inspires the get-togethers. The theme for October was food, which meant field trips to a fish market, a bakery and a tea room. At bedtime, the books of choice included Green Eggs and Ham and How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food?
And during one weekly play date at a member's home, they made edible art.
The children — 4 years old and younger — strung dry noodles and Froot Loops through licorice to make necklaces. They rubbed their fingers around paper plates with ketchup, mustard and colored yogurts. And the piece de resistance: They painted milk tinted with food coloring onto slices of white bread to create landscapes.
"Trust me, we did it at home, and it looks really nice toasted," Carbone assured the other moms as they stared at the soggy bread. "Almost like real paintings."
They popped the slices into a toaster and out came colored canvases.
Ooohs and aaaahs all around.
Angelina Carter, mother to 3-year-old Mallory, said she was a member of a chapter in Arizona before moving to Pasco County and was delighted to find the Wesley Chapel group.
"What I like about being a member of a MOMS Club is that all the rules and goals are generally the same," she said. "You can move into a new city and be able to find other moms for friendship and support really quickly by just joining a chapter."
The concept of the MOMS Club was created in 1983 by Mary James, a Simi Valley, Calif., mother who was home with her then 3-year-old and 3-month-old children.
"I needed that mother-to-mother interaction very much," James recalled. "When moms started coming to meetings, I saw in them the same feelings that I had. We needed this. Once I saw that, I knew we weren't alone. If the moms in Simi needed this so much, then mothers everywhere needed it just as much."
The group evolved into a democratic organization and that today includes about 100,000 members.
"Most little playgroups are run by consensus, which usually devolves down to one loud mom telling all the others what's going to happen," James said. "Because our groups vote, and have expert moms to call if they need help, all the moms are treated equally."
If there's a dispute that can't be resolved within the membership, there's a volunteer coordinator, an experienced member of the organization, on hand to mediate.
That's lot of support and a lot of rules, which work out for some moms, but not for others.
At its peak, the New Tampa-West MOMS Club had about 65 members. It disbanded about two years ago, when no one wanted to step up and take the lead.
Filing taxes and keeping up with the newsletter just became too much work, said Christy Gupta, a former board member.
"We got to a point where no one wanted the paperwork involved with continuing with the national organization," she said.
But looking back, joining the organization was one of the best decisions she ever made because she formed friendships she still holds dear today.
"We were just at the park and there were about 20 of us," she said. "We're not an official group. We don't have official activities anymore, but we're still together."
For the moms out there who like playgroups with no frills, no fuss, no meetings, no dues, that's fine with James. But she sees nothing but good coming from clubs across the country.
"With a MOMS Club, you're meeting other moms outside your playgroup age," she said. "You're doing a wide variety of activities, speakers, discussions and really meaningful service projects that make a difference to the children in your community."
Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813) 269-5312 or email@example.com.