Having celebrated 60 years of ministry in 2018, GEMS Girls’ Clubs are rapidly expanding and include more than 25,000 members in churches and other settings in North America and in 17 countries around the world.

In the midst of this growth, a GEMS club at a small Christian Reformed congregation in Willard, Ohio, has become a model for how this ministry can attract dozens of girls and teach them about God.

In January 1958, the group for girls, first known as Calvinettes, was founded in Grand Rapids, Mich., by Barbara Vredevoogd as a Christian Reformed Church-affiliated ministry. And in 1995, to more clearly identify the purpose for which the ministry was created, the name GEMS came into being. GEMS is an acronym for Girls Everywhere Meeting the Savior. Today there are clubs in such countries as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Kenya.

Even as the clubs for girls in first through eighth grade expand, they tend to grow slowly.

“Typically, we don’t see groups grow as quickly as the one in Willard has,” said Cindy Bultema, executive director of GEMS.

“But when women can see the bigger vision of GEMS and what God is doing. . . . They can grow like the one in Ohio.”

Nikita Holthouse, who attended GEMS at John Calvin CRC in Truro, Nova Scotia, had the vision for starting the club at Willard CRC.

Her mother had been a GEMS leader, and Holthouse had attended GEMS throughout elementary school. “I loved going to GEMS, and I earned every badge in the book,” she said. “Even today, I’m close to my GEMS counselors, and will call them when I need help. I believe every community should have a GEMS club.”

She met her husband, now the owner of a large vegetable farm, when they were in college. After they married, they settled in Willard, a city of about 8,000 people, and began attending Willard CRC.

About three years ago, she volunteered to start a GEMS club even though there were only five girls in the church who were in the right age range to join GEMS. So the group began, with the help of Holthouse’s mother-in-law and the pastor’s wife, in the hope of reaching girls outside the church.

“It’s all come together, but at first we were a little worried,” said Holthouse, a speech therapist. “We were hoping for at least 10 girls to join, but we only got eight.”

But the GEMS group grew that first year from the original eight to over 20. Then it grew to more than 35 the next year, largely through word of mouth, as  many of the girls brought friends.

“We are a small enough community that lives overlap,” making it easier for word of what was happening at GEMS to spread, said Terrence Visser, the pastor.

 “For sure, we were surprised at the growth — and yet we believed a good program would connect.”

This year up to 50 girls are attending the Willard CRC GEMS club. Meeting on Wednesday nights, they fill the fellowship hall with their energy and laughter. They are there to work on merit badges, write in their prayer journals, exercise, paint, play games, worship, and, above all, meet in small groups with counselors for lessons based on the Bible.

One mother who brings her daughter to GEMS heard about the club a year or so ago through a friend. “Of course, my daughter wanted to join in on the fun. I love that she learns to work with others and has caring counselors that take an interest in her life.”

Her daughter can’t wait for Wednesday nights. “I love the fun things we do,” she said. “My counselors are really cool. And they make learning about God super fun!”

About half of the girls coming to the Willard GEMS club don’t usually go to church. The rest are from Christian homes. And some of those girls are from a large church in town. The parents from that church send their daughters to GEMS because they like the approach to spiritual life, said Visser.

Through magazines, an annual conference, and other gatherings — as well as through its lessons and by training counselors — GEMS works “to be girl-friendly and relevant to today’s girls,” said Bultema.

GEMS continually finds itself broadening its reach — not only to girls but also to their families, said Bultema.

“We recognize that more girls who are coming don’t necessarily have homes of faith. We even find ourselves sometimes teaching grown-ups how to pray,” she said.

Opening itself to all girls and their families, said Bultema, GEMS has adopted a simple approach: “Loved. Period.”

In Willard, that motto is embraced, said Holthouse. “We talk to the girls, and we prepare ourselves to answer tough questions,” she said.

“I knew I was loved by the counselors when I was in GEMs. We are doing that here and trying to build relationships that will last a lifetime.”