I joined the Junior League of St. Louis against my will. No, it wasn't my mother who forced me; it was a boss who thought it would be a good organization for networking. I was looking for an organization to volunteer with, but the Junior League was not what I had in mind, since I thought it was primarily a social club for well-to-do women looking for something to do with their free time. What I was looking for was a volunteer organization that took an active role in the community with hands-on work. I figured the women of the Junior League would be hesitant to get those pretty white gloves too dirty.
As it turns out, my perceptions were quite mistaken. In reality, the Junior League of St. Louis is the most impressive volunteer training organization I have ever seen. The skills and friends I have gained through the Junior League have been invaluable to every other volunteer endeavor I have undertaken.
Junior League members are hard-working and dedicated women sincerely committed to improving the community. They are not afraid to tackle problems and issues and are certainly willing to get their hands dirty doing so I have the photos to prove it.
The impact of the Junior League and its members on the St. Louis community is difficult to fully convey. It is almost impossible to mention a non-profit board in the St. Louis area that has not had a Junior League-trained woman serving on it. Organizations too numerous to mention were either begun or assisted by the Junior League.
Some of the Junior League's most prominent projects include:
- Occupational Therapy Project (1915) - later developed into Washington University's School of Occupational Therapy
- Forest Park Children's Center (1945) - later merged with Edgewood Children's Center
- Arts and Educational Council / Fund (1963)
- Junior Kindergarten (1964) - forerunner of the national Head Start program
- Vaughn Cultural Center (1979) - in cooperation with the Urban League
- Women In Leadership Program (1981) - launched with the CORO Foundation
- Teen Outreach (1982) - nationally replicated teen pregnancy prevention program; widely recognized as one of the most successful programs in existence
- Girls Club of Soulard (1984) - now Girls Inc. St. Louis
- St. Louis Crisis Nursery (1986) - in collaboration with Deaconess Hospital and Coalition of 100 Black Women
- St. Louis Family Theatre (1988) - bringing live, professional theatre to the children of St. Louis at affordable prices
- St. Louis Child Health Initiative (1990)
- Children's Advocacy Center (1992)
- Our Little Haven (1993)
- TOTAL: Teen Opportunities To Achieve in Life (1994) - a collaborative program between the Junior League, school districts, and health care providers to prevent teen pregnancy / recidivism and encourage appropriate pre-natal care, parenting / life skills, and educational completion in teen parents
- Komen St. Louis Race for the Cure (1999) - two other groups had tried to bring the Race to St. Louis and failed; since the Junior League began the Race in St. Louis, it has continued to break attendance records
- Foster Care Coalition Little Wishes (2003)
The mission of the Junior League is to promote voluntarism, develop the potential of women and improve the community through the effective action and leadership of trained volunteers. Junior League training entails both "classroom" training and hands-on training through committee work. It is very easy for someone with little or no volunteer experience to jump right in and start making a contribution. With 2000 other women to serve as mentors, motivators and resources, you can always find someone willing to help you develop a new skill or solve a problem you are not sure how to handle.
And who are these 2000 women? It might surprise you (as it did me) to learn that the Junior League of St. Louis has members from every zip code of the metropolitan area and from all kinds of lifestyles. Some can trace Junior League membership back generations, but others, like myself, stumbled into it on their own.
Career-wise, members include stay-at-home moms, artists, entry levelers, and top-level executives, with the majority of members working outside the home. Some are political leaders such as Catherine Hanaway, Barbara Fraser and Betty Sims (a former Junior League of St. Louis President). Others are leaders of non-profit organizations either locally or nationally. However, most have jobs unrelated to their volunteer work and turn to the League as a way to give something back to the community.
Members range in age from their early 20s to their mid-80s. Their volunteer and life experiences are just as diverse. Membership interests (and therefore Junior League projects) vary among topics such as the arts, social issues, children's issues, women's issues and the environment.
There are endless opportunities to take on different volunteer roles within the Junior League and its committees. This variety allows each member to tailor her involvement to her particular schedule and interests. Once you master one area, there are plenty more to try out. Plus, through the women you meet through the Junior League, it is easy to branch out to other organizations in the community.
After 13 years of membership, I continue to be amazed at the accomplishments of the Junior League and the tremendous enthusiasm, talent and leadership its members provide to the community. And I must report that the only gloves I have ever seen around Junior League headquarters are heavy-duty work gloves.
Jan O'Leary has served as an officer for the Junior League of St. Louis,
Metropolis St. Louis and the 15th Ward Democrats ... and actually owns both
pearls and white gloves.