GREEN COVE SPRINGS – A white building on Palmetto Avenue welcomes visitors with a decommissioned white fountain on its lawn and an elegant sign in a modern Gothic script that reads “Village
GREEN COVE SPRINGS – A white building on Palmetto Avenue welcomes visitors with a decommissioned white fountain on its lawn and an elegant sign in a modern Gothic script that reads “Village Improvement Association.” Its main room includes a stage where a full-color mural depicts a lake and a Mediterranean-style garden.
The Village Improvement Association in Green Cove Springs has been serving Clay County since its founding in 1883, when the members held meetings at their homes and raised money to beautify the town. While cherishing the club’s rich history, the women of the VIA work every year to improve their communities through fundraising.
One of the VIA’s longest-lasting projects has been the Hacienda Girl’s Ranch in Melbourne.
“We founded that in the ‘70s. . . . Girls are put out: families put them out, or for different reasons they don’t have a home, so they go into the home, and we – this is our project – we pay for their keep,” said Clara Freeman, VIA historian.
This shelter for homeless girls between the ages of 10 and 17 can house 45 young women while offering education, recreation, vocational training, counseling and more. The club plans to continue supporting this cause, and hosted parts of the CalaVida Music & Arts Festival, which took place Oct. 8-13.
The VIA is taking on another fundraising project
“This year, it’s Operation Smile,” Freeman said.
Operation Smile is an international charity that provides free corrective surgery to young people born with a cleft lip or palate who live in developing countries.
“Now, the president 10 years ago had Operation Smile, and I think we [the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs] raised somewhere between $300,000 and $500,000,” Freeman said.
One of the VIA’s most beloved traditions is its annual scholarship. As Freeman put it, “Even if we don’t give them but just a little bit, they will remember that, and it will help them to know somebody cared about them.”
This sentiment rang true for one of this year’s recipients, Matthew Voigt.
“It really was a lot,” said Voigt, who is studying the science of exercise at Florida State University.
Freeman has been serving Green Cove Springs as long as she has lived there. She joined the VIA 47 years ago, when she moved to Florida with her husband.
“We came here in 1970 and bought our property. We couldn’t get in to our property because we had to get the people out of our property in order to get in. So, we rented two apartments over at Magnolia Springs. When we finally had a sit-down to the woman that we bought the house from, she told me two things that I needed to do when I come here. One was to get involved in the school system, and the other was I had to join the women’s club. So, I joined in ’71,” Freeman said.
Just as it cares for the community today, the VIA treasures the past. Each room of its building contains relics of the club’s history, from antique chairs to portraits of past members. The most adorned room is the former library, which has become a sort of archive for the VIA’s artifacts.
In the old library, a room no larger than an ordinary classroom, shelves line the walls containing a few books from the library’s past, but these are outnumbered by tokens of the VIA’s history, from photographs of members engaged in service to a grandfather clock that has been in the building since 1899 and was built more than 100 years earlier. Although the clock is unwound today, Freeman set off its hourly bell. As it rang, the small scene above the clock’s face began to move: a painted ship rocked back and forth in front of a cloudy sea and a waterfront castle.
Later, she read aloud a speech she had written about the VIA and its history, and concluded, “If we stand together, we have a stronger voice to accomplish what our communities need from us as volunteers, as our girlfriends yesterday. The very best to each of you.”