‘Sista wives’

The Dubuque Hempstead High School class of 1997 has a few well-kept secrets. And when that many people have dirt on you, you tend to keep them close — at least that’s how Michelle Healey described it.

“We know so much about each other, what other choice do we have?” she said, erupting in laughter. “Can you imagine how many secrets we have between all of us?”

Within that class, a group of 15-20 women who found a common bond during their freshman year while playing on the school’s softball team has evolved into lifelong friendships.

“It just evolved organically,” said Stacy Beyer Raap. “Everyone in this group knows our truth. There is no facade. It’s just honest. At this point, we’ve all known each other for so long, we can be our most authentic selves and not worry about judgment.”

For Raap, finding a group of such kindred spirits has been particularly meaningful. She became pregnant between her junior and senior years of high school. But her friendships with her girlfriends never wavered.

“They threw me a baby shower,” she said. “They were all in.”

And from babies to marriage, divorce and all of life’s moments in between — even discovering that certain members of the clan were better off being besties and not roommates — nothing has managed to break the bond.

“There have been a few we don’t see as often due to distance,” said Shelby Wahlert. “But during high school reunions, we never miss a beat. We can pick up right where we left off. It’s as if we are still 17.”

When not gathering for formal reunions, the girls have a strict “sweat pants and no make-up policy.”

“You need people like that in your life,” said Leah Bender. “Who else can you complain to about your kids, your husband and stress but to other women who aren’t going to judge you for it and let you be yourself. We’re like ‘sista wives.’ I feel like these friendships have made us better wives and better moms just because we do have that support system that we can turn to. These girls have to love me, otherwise, they would have ditched me by now.”

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