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Proud To Be a Junior Leaguer

AJLI glowstickTweeting from the Association of Junior Leagues International (AJLI) 89th Annual Conference in Philadelphia brought two very important worlds colliding together.  My decade-long affiliation with a 110-year-old women’s volunteer organization, and my passionate immersion in the tech world including a circle of blogging friends whom I see more often online than in person, and yet feel almost a spiritual kinship to.

The Leaguers are starting to tweet, but aren’t obsessive about it like my blogging friends, and my tweeting friends are mostly not Leaguers, so tweeting about things like the parade of delegates seemed as bizarre as if I were trying to describe the Mad Hatter’s tea party in 140 characters or less.  And yet, because AJLI has made such a concerted effort to move into social media (even writing for the Huffington Post) and because I am a blogger, I felt it was my duty to take great advantage of that hash tag #jlac11to tweet about the conference — both to get the Leaguers tweeting and the tweeters to get an insider’s view of a Junior League Annual Conference.

I have spent the past year serving as President of my local Junior League, the year before that as President-Elect, and several years before that in various leadership positions in the League.  When I tell people that, I get a range of reactions from, “What’s the Junior League?” to “Oh, I’m too old to join the League” or “Where are your pearls and twinset?”  (It’s okay, I get similar reactions to “I’m a blogger.”  They don’t ask about pearls though.)

What better place to dispel some myths than on my blog?

What is the Junior League?

The short answer is that we are a women’s service organization — we are volunteers who make a difference in our local communities — 292 communities in four countries.  The long answer is that we were founded in New York City by a debutante with a social conscience named Mary Harriman.   She mobilized 80 of her friends (thus the name “Junior”) to work to improve child health, nutrition and literacy among immigrants living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Her work inspired her friend Eleanor Roosevelt who joined the Junior League and taught calisthenics and dancing to young girls at the College Settlement House.  Every League has the same mission:  Promoting voluntarism, developing the potential of women and improving communities through the effective action of trained volunteers.  However, each League may choose its own community focus area, for example: homelessness, literacy, child health, childhood obesity, women’s issues and so on.  The Junior League of Northern Virginia focuses on preparing children in Northern Virginia for success — mentally, emotionally and physically.

Who may join?

Junior Leagues reach out to women of all races, religions and national origins who demonstrate an interest in and commitment to voluntarism.  Each League may set its own specific membership requirements, but many have done away with “sponsorship” requirements.  Many also have done away with a maximum age limit (i.e. there is no such thing as “too old”) although many require that you be a minimum age of 21 to apply.  The Junior League of Northern Virginia has no sponsorship requirement, a minimum age of 21, no maximum age requirement.  Because the two largest pools of volunteers are Baby Boomers and Millennials, we are actually seeing many mothers and daughters joining the League together!  (And no,  you do not have to wear pearls or twinsets, many Leagues dress very casually!)

People always ask me questions about whether League members are married or single, with kids or not, working or not, etc.  Take a look at these demographics.   Yeah, those numbers would make any advertiser, sponsor, or advocacy group drool and yet they often forget to look at this incredible resource of women! 

What do Junior Leagues do?

This is the part that makes me most proud.  We all have a limited number of volunteer hours to give and so many organizations asking for them — why give them to the Junior League?  I have spent a decade volunteering with the Junior League and I have received so much from my experience.  One of the very first benefits I received was that I joined the Junior League of Palo Alto Mid-Peninsula (California) and within six months found myself moving to Virginia.  Because we are an international organization, I was able to transfer my membership and had an instant community to help me settle into my new hometown.  What makes me most proud of the Junior League is that for over a century, as an organization, we have been at the forefront of identifying community need and creating a solution.  Time and time again, you see Junior Leagues identify the needs of our society long before other organizations do and swiftly put a plan in place – whether it is addressing the needs of immigrants, milk stations and birth control clinics in the Depression Era, war time efforts during World War II, or even childhood obesity through the Kids in the Kitchen initiative before it became popular to do so.  I tell prospective new members, “When you become a Junior League member, you not only become a member of an individual chapter, you become a part of this Junior League movement, and you help write the next chapter.”  Junior Leagues have built zoos, museums, homeless shelters, libraries and schools.  They have spoken on Capitol Hill as well as in front of state and local lawmakers.  They have advocated for change and have helped create or change laws.  They have raised millions and millions of dollars in their communities.  Junior Leaguers become local civic leaders and often local, state and sometimes national leaders.  Every Junior League committee is a training opportunity for members.  Most Leagues have leadership training series, some are open to the public.  Dollars raised and given to the community are enhanced by volunteer hours provided.  Members are given numerous opportunities to enhance leadership skills inside and outside of the League.  In my own League, I’ve watched women who weren’t being given certain opportunities in their workplace (i.e. to learn social media, to work on PR skills) spending their “spare” time developing those skills inside the League and then launching entirely new careers. 

So when I’m asked if an organization like the Junior League is still relevant today, when so many women, including the majority of our own members are in the workforce, I answer, “You bet!”

It may seem odd to hear about some of our antiquated traditions from the conference — lining up in a parade to represent each League in the order that we joined AJLI and then cracking open a glow stick to help light up the darkened room to demonstrate the spread of the Junior League movement.  Yes, it felt odd, tweeting it.  But sometimes, there is something to be said for traditions that have been around a while.  I’m pretty sure if Mary Harriman were alive today, she would’ve approved of the glow of the glow sticks, the tweeting cell phones, and the faces of the 800+ proud delegates representing their Leagues.

Children of the Recession: We Have to Act NOW to Save a Generation

I wept.

After not allowing myself, a former television reporter, to watch the news for weeks because I found the doom and gloom about the economy too stressful, I watched several CBS news clips from the Children of the Recession series online, and when I watched as an emergency room pediatric nurse practitioner showed the x-rays clearly depicting the multiple injuries of a young child — TWO broken arms, TWO fractured legs, I couldn’t hold back the tears any longer.  And neither could the reporter on the story. 

There is a marked rise in child abuse in the country and it is being attributed to the stresses related to the economy.  But that is only one of the many ways that our most precious resource in this country is being harmed.   As you can see in other segments in the network-wide series by CBS, children are being harmed psychologically, they are not receiving the medical care they need, they are ending up homeless or separated from families.  This is not the life any of us dreamed of for our children, or for anyone’s children.

What are we going to do about it?

Yes, I said we.

Your children and my children may be in their warm beds tonight with healthy food in their bellies, but they are going to school with children who are not.  What are we going to do about it?

With one out of ten children not being able to get the medical care they need or delaying routine visits, a child near ours is sick and getting sicker.  What are we going to do about it?

With jobless rates around the country anywhere from 7% and higher, a child near ours has one, maybe two parents unemployed and is living in a house full of stress, worry, and maybe worse — violence.  What are we going to do about it?

Families are spread further apart, governmental support systems such as social workers, homeless shelters and state- or county-funded counseling programs have all suffered cutbacks — there are more problems and fewer safety nets.

Non-profit organizations, often dependent upon grants, individual donations and corporate sponsorships are all scrambling to survive as well.  They, too, are trying to help more, but with fewer resources.

As a society we have the ability to more connected than ever with every form of technology imaginable.  But are we using it to help this youngest generation through this tough time?  Are we using it to match needs with solutions?  All it takes is the right person at the right moment and you can change a child’s life.  Do it often enough, and you just may change an entire generation.

At a conference this weekend, I heard that my generation, Generation X, is characterized by a “belief in survival” and jaded by growing up in the shadow of nuclear weapons, divorce, AIDS, and crack cocaine.  What a legacy.  Let’s try to create something better for this generation.  Let’s not let their young lives be forever shaped by the economy, but rather teach them the lessons of compassion and community and doing the right thing.

Through my affiliation with the Silicon Valley Moms/DC Metro Moms, I was able to participate on a conference call with Katie Couric, senior producer Katie Boyle, producer Tony Maciulis, and Sonya McNair, VP of Communications.  During this call, she let us know CBS News (The Early Show, Evening, and Face the Nation) is shining a light on the issues, through a network-wide look at Children of the Recession this week as well as through weekly segments over the next several weeks.  When one blogger asked if she found the task depressing, she said, “I feel it is really important work and I feel there is not enough of this kind of journalism going on…  and I feel it is  higher calling for all of us and yes it is very upsetting and heart-breaking and depressing but the only way that we are going to get these families help is to expose the problem and so I think we feel like there is a higher purpose here and that is why I think we feel really motivated and excited.  I haven’t felt this proud of my work in a long time because we can have an impact.  And that is why we need your help — we can’t do it alone in this fragmented media culture, like my colon cancer work, it can’t be a one-shot deal, we have to keep pounding away at it and be committed to it and keep reminding people.  We’re doing something that ultimately will be impactful and hopefully, really helpful to people.”

I’m no longer a television reporter, and I’m certainly not as powerful as a national network, but what I, a mom and a blogger, can do is this, I will tell you of programs and initiatives as I know of them and either highlight them myself, or invite them to guest blog here.  You are also always free to post comments or email me about groups/initiatives/ideas you think should be put out there.   Will you join me, in looking for ways to help — small or large?   Will you help get out the word on the GOOD things that can happen in these turbulent times?

I hope so.  Because the next time I weep, I hope it is with joy.

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  • I know of two programs that are packing non-perishable “weekend lunches” for children who are on the free hot lunch program at school in Fairfax County — because these kids may not get lunches on weekends otherwise.  These two groups are working “under the radar” right now.  If you are interested in helping them, email me or post here telling me you are interested and I will contact you.
  • Louie’s Kids, which helps fight childhood obesity, is just $10,000 short of its goal to bring it’s successful Fit Club Program to a school in Alexandria.  Read about their compelling program and success and see if you know someone who can help them in the final stretch.  Duke University reports that with parents having to buy lower-cost foods, we may see a huge increase in childhood obesity.
  • The Junior League of Northern Virginia (of which I am a member and a leader, in the interest of full disclosure) focuses on helping children in Northern Virginia succeed.  We have many programs, including Back-to-School Health Fairs (immunizations, physicals and backpacks jam-packed with school supplies), an innovative My Life photography program and Kids Can character-based program in local homeless shelters, and the Kids in the Kitchen nutrition program to help fight childhood obesity.  We’re always looking for new members, community partners, sponsors, and donors.
  • Katherine K. Hanley Family Shelter (of which I am on the Community Advisory Board), a Fairfax County shelter run by Shelter House, Inc. is always looking for volunteers, community partners, sponsors and donors.  This shelter has done amazing work in “rapid rehousing” for homeless families, but the need continues to grow in these tough economic times.
  • The faith-based community is “filling in the gaps” — look to your own faith home (church, temple, mosque, etc.) to see what they are doing and how you can get involved.

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Silicon Valley Moms Post and Round Up: http://www.svmoms.com/2009/05/silicon-valley-moms-group-katie-couric-children-recession.html