By Shelby Schroeder
CHILDHOOD CHUMS MEET IN FLORIDA, reminisce about life in hubbard
"We have done so much together, and still have all the fun we did as kids."
- Janet Balestrino Forbing, Stewart Street Gang member
After careers and husbands placed many of them hundreds of miles away, the women, known as the Stewart Street Gang for their closeness growing up on and near Stewart Avenue, recently made time for a lively reunion on the beaches of St. Petersburg, Fla.
The women, who all graduated from Hubbard High School in 1977, said they found one another at a very young age and at times of hardship and change.
Now 50 years old, or teetering on it, each recalls the special moments that sealed their sisterhood: crab apple fights with school boys, creepy stories on Diane Laney’s front porch, and falling in love with the Muppets on Sesame Street.
“We were never bored,” said Connie Tarr Bellino, who now owns a fashion boutique in Lake Milton.
“We shared each other, shared our toys, shared our dreams, and looked forward to long summers where we could ‘sleep’ out, ride bikes and look for boys.”
The women recall Hubbard as “a small town with very good values” in a time facing an uncertain economy. They said many of their own families also were broken or troubled.
Barbie Mandis was reared by her grandmother; Diane Kaden Coy and Diane Laney Fitzpatrick each lost a father; Jill Epler lived with her aunt; and Jeanne Williams, Janet Balestrino Forbing and Connie all had struggling parents.
But the closeness of their homes brought personal connections among the seven.
Most of the girls became acquainted at Roosevelt Elementary School, near where Diane Fitzpatrick’s home sat on the corner of Stewart and School Street. Her home’s proximity to the school meant it was the likely stop for the neighborhood kids.
“My house was where everyone went to go to the bathroom or get Band-Aids when we were at the school playground,” said Diane, now a freelance writer in Jupiter, Fla., and a former Vindicator reporter.
As they grew up, the girls adopted one another’s families as their own. They knew Barbie’s “Yia Yia” — Greek for grandmother — had the great stories, and that Connie’s father would trade an after-work back massage for a trip to Dairy Queen.
The girls would wander in and out of one another’s homes and eat dinner with the family of their choice.
“We really did not know it at the time,” said Jill, “but we really built an SSG [Stewart Street Gang] family, away from the problems and sadness all of us were facing in our natural families.”
However difficult it was growing up, the women said, the gang remembers mostly the positives.
“Friendships that form in early childhood are the most binding,” explained Diane Kaden Coy. “I think it is because they are some of the earliest memories that we formed, and they were good memories. I often tell people that I wish I could have recreated the same childhood for my kids.”
Those pleasant remembrances are why they remained tightly together.
It was Janet’s idea to regather the group, some of who had remained in contact through class reunions, Christmas cards, e-mails and phone calls. While some women had seen one another in the last 32 years, all seven hadn’t been together since shortly after graduation.
So Janet, of St. Petersburg, designed SSG T-shirts with cartoon illustrations to give to her faraway friends when they arrived at her hometown for a long-awaited reunion.
And, like the old days on porches and in back yards, the women found their bonds were as strong as ever.
“What I realized is that we can still finish each other’s sentences,” Connie said. “We all just get it.”
“We get that we are unique, we get that we came from the same stock, and we get that we are all spiritually connected,” she said.
Some of the women are married, some have children, but all share a fulfilling life.
Jill is a cosmetologist based in Pompano Beach, Fla.; Diane Kaden Coy lives in Charlotte, N.C., and is vice president of a home-building company; Barbie is pursuing a master’s degree in psychology; Jeanne is considering a pet-sitting business in Franklinton, N.C.; and Janet credits massaging Connie’s father’s back for her path into licensed massage therapy.
“We have done so much together, and still have all the fun we did as kids,” Janet said.
“The kick ball, the cheerleading, the dance classes and all are still on our minds as if it as yesterday,” she said.
The women are planning another reunion, but said they don’t plan on waiting so long this time.