Sandy Roberts joined the Red Hat Society nearly a decade ago searching to celebrate life in a zany, fun-loving setting. The Independence woman wasn’t disappointed. She found a local chapter, wore red hats and purple clothes and danced alongside her newfound “sisters, reveling in joy and excitement. But, when her teenaged grandson took his own life seven years ago, she watched in awe as those same "sisters" delivered something she hadn’t expected. The group banded together to literally and figuratively “hold her up” through the toughest tragedy of her life.

She felt dazed and lost, but the feeling suddenly vanished with the arrival of her fellow red hatters. “It wasn’t until I saw my sisters from the Red Hat Society that I knew everything was going to be OK,” she said. “An overwhelming feeling of love and support came over me. That’s what got me through the funeral,” she said, remembering how the members literally enveloped her as they sat in the pews, wrapping their arms around her shoulders and refusing to let go. “It’s not just that day, but, every day since then,” she said. The society’s members also join in celebrations, Roberts said, such as when she finally decided to end an unhappy marriage, when she found a new job and after a major weight loss.

Roberts joined the Red Hat Flashes, a Kansas City area group with members hailing from Independence, Grain Valley, Blue Springs, Belton and Kansas City. The group holds the distinction of being Greater Kansas City’s first red hat organization. Sandy Fluty, who lives in Eastern Jackson County, started the group 19 years ago after reading about the group’s popularity in a women’s magazine. She launched the chapter with the support of a few friends from work. The magazine chronicled how the organization started when artist Sue Ellen Cooper of Fullerton, California, purchased a red fedora for a friend who was celebrating her 50th birthday. The concept took full shape when Cooper read a poem by Jenny Joseph, which stated, “Warning – When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple with a red hat...” Today, there are 600 chapters worldwide.

Traditions have grown to include fun-filled ceremonies, all intended to celebrate aging. To celebrate turning 50, hatters participate in a “red-uation,” where they advance from wearing pink hats for the under-50 crowd, to red hats. “We all have a pre-conceived idea about what happens when you grow older,” Fluty said. “You wait for your kids and grandkids to come over.” Fluty disputes the claim that old age must be lonely and sedentary. “We don’t sit around in rocking chairs and grow old,” she said. “These are some of the busiest and most energetic women I’ve ever seen.”

For a $30 membership fee, red hatters enjoy a monthly meeting, held at different area restaurants and two to three larger convention-style celebrations each year. The society holds many fun-filled ceremonies, all intended to celebrate aging.

Founders of each chapter, such as Fluty, earn the title “Queen.” Chapter members meet at least once a month, usually by dining out, but, also have a packed schedule of events. For instance, Fluty’s group plans to visit an area winery in the fall where members will get a tour followed by grape stomping. Other planned events include bowling, a paint class and riding go-carts. Each April, the Queen’s Council, which Fluty and another area queen formed, whose members are Kansas City area chapter “queens,” hosts a birthday party to celebrate the council’s founding. Fluty’s chapter also conducts community service, such as collecting items for area homeless.

Fluty considers the group inclusive and that’s why it draws members from all walks of life, ranging in age from 50s to 80s and includes married, divorced and widowed women. Roberts agrees that the group is welcoming. “It was just like I was made to fit in,” she said.

Fluty said she can’t put into words how the Red Hatters have enriched her life during the past nearly two decades. “My life has revolved around Red Hat…” she said, adding that without the group, there would be a huge void. “I’d have to find a hobby or something,” she said.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the national Red Hat Society, a milestone Red Hatters are eager to embrace by hosting a large convention, which this year, will be held in New Orleans. The six-day event is expected to draw at least 2,000 women worldwide. While Fluty’s group celebrates the organization’s founding each year, the 20th calls for a larger-scale effort. “This is kind of a biggie,” Fluty said.

A weekend celebration of Kansas City area chapters, a “Spring Fling” will be held June 15-16 at the Hilton Garden Inn in Independence and will feature live entertainment in the form of a 1950s-'60s Platters tribute group who are well-known performers in Branson and a Kansas City area singer, Rudy Amato, swoons the crowd in a style reminiscent of Dean Martin/Frank Sinatra. Meals are catered by Hereford House. The event is expected to draw about 300 women mostly from the Midwest, but, usually also has some out of the country attendees. The Friday night fee is $20, while Saturday’s is $50 or the entire weekend package is $68. Hat contests for hats with the most bling, feather boas, tallest, largest, hat representing 20 years of Red Hat Society, raffles, Cooper is donating a favorite painting for a raffle. Fluty said meeting people is one of the best parts of the larger events. “It brings you new friends you never would have met,” she said.

Another large event hosted by Fluty’s chapter is the annual Christmas celebration – this year it's Nov. 16-18 in Branson. The weekend event includes catered meals and attendance at some popular shows, where hatters are recognized as they walk in dressed in red hat attire. “The entertainers love us and they usually pick on us and that’s OK because the girls love that,” Fluty said. The weekend includes free time for attendees to conduct Christmas shopping, she said.

Fluty summed up the Red Hat Society when she referred to the organization’s founder. “We’re playing in Sue Ellen’s playground,” she said, adding that new members are always welcome. “If you want to come out and play with us, just call me.”

Sandy Fluty can be reached at 816-836-2680.