Pandemic-born group prioritizes female friendships, inclusivity

The goal was to plan three or four events a month. There are now sometimes three to four events per day. While the events started in Palm Springs, they now happen throughout the Coachella Valley. 
Members of the Sunshine Sisters pause during an outing in La Quinta earlier this year. The group, formed at the start of the pandemic, offers nearly 400 women in the valley opportunities to socialize and also to give back to multiple charities. (Photo: Catherine Darras)

When Mary Miller moved to the desert in November 2019, she was excited to experience all the Coachella Valley had to offer. By February, however, most major events and social activities, including pickleball and golf, were temporarily suspended. 

Miller spent time with her husband, but she was missing female companionship. By June 2021, just before mask mandates were reinstated in California, she decided to take matters into her own hands by starting a social group on the social media app NextDoor. 

“I was a little lonely and wanted to meet some other women,” she said. 

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Quickly, Miller realized she wasn’t the only woman feeling the void, and moved the group to MeetUp, another platform where events were easier to organize. In just over a year, her Sunshine Sisters group has now grown from a few dozen members to a few hundred. 

Miller’s initial goal was to plan three or four events a month. There are now sometimes three to four events per day – more than even Mary can attend. While the events started in Palm Springs, they now happen throughout the Coachella Valley. 

“A lot of the events we have now are things I never would have thought of,” Miller said. Volunteers help organize and plan many of the outings, which include everything from fitness-related activities to fine dining. Community service projects are also important to the group; they participate in at least one per quarter, including Paint El Paseo Pink, the breast cancer awareness walk in Palm Desert. 

The women help the community as well as one another. 

“I think women, by nature, are supportive,” Miller said. When she was having a tough time earlier this year, she said, members of the group routinely called or visited to check in, sometimes bringing her cards and meals. 

That kind of support isn’t unusual, she added. If someone in the group needs a ride to an event, for example, Miller can always find her one. 

The group’s members are supportive and Miller is intentional about making events feel welcoming and inclusive. One of the group’s policies is not saving seats for friends. If someone new shows up and is turned away from a seat at the table, they may never return, she said. 

Miller wasn’t in any cliques in high school and she doesn’t want to be in one now, she said. “My core mission of the group is to enable and facilitate female friendship,” she added. 

But Miller knows that about a third of the members still haven’t shown up to any events. Some may be reluctant due to the ongoing pandemic, but others, she suspects, are just nervous. Trying something new can be scary. 

“Everybody has fears,” she said. “Don’t let your fears stop you from trying something new.”

Jami Woods was one of those members fearful about what may happen when she showed up as a newcomer in the group. She waited an entire year before attending an event, despite craving the emotional intimacy that often goes along with female friendships. 

“Loneliness is a huge problem,” Woods said. “We had lockdown loneliness for a couple of years, where everybody was lonely. A lot of those people are still reluctant to get out – they’re still experiencing those symptoms.”

Woods, a psychiatrist and assistant professor in psychiatry at UC Riverside School of Medicine, moved to the area during the pandemic and experienced some loneliness herself. 

 “I didn’t know if I was going to truly be accepted,” said Woods, who identifies as a transgender woman.

Instead, she found just what she needed. There are a number of women in the Sunshine Sisters who’ve found an accepting place for female fellowship, Woods said, including divorcées, widows and those who are neurodivergent. 

“They came along at the right time,” Woods said of the Sunshine Sisters. “They fill a niche for me that no other group can fill.” 

More information: You can find The Sunshine Sisters on Meetup here.


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