No More Pearl Girls

The Junior League of Wilmington has shed its old reputation. Now it’s for anyone and everyone who wants to help add to its impressive record of service.

It’s said that if you want something done, ask a busy person.

For a very big job, that person would, collectively, be the Junior League. Over the past 92 years, there is hardly a worthy project in Wilmington that this group of committed women volunteers has not been involved in.

Depression-era baby clinics, literacy classes for immigrants, child welfare services, and a program for pregnant teens, as well as establishment of institutions such as the Delaware Nature Society and the Ronald McDonald House are all causes adopted at one time by the Junior League.

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“What we’re doing is looking for the area of greatest need and where there’s a need we can fill,” says Tara Agne, league president and mother of four young children. “We’re all working together to make the community better.”

The Junior League of Wilmington has about 500 members. About 100 are either active or first-year provisional members. The rest are less-active “sustainers,” who have been involved with the group for at least eight years. The league promotes “the concept of lifelong membership,” Agne says. Members come from all three Delaware counties and nearby Pennsylvania.

One spring weekend in 2008, leaguers armed with tools—spouses and children in tow—landscaped four of the five homes that the West End Neighborhood House manages for people 18 to 21 years old who have “aged out” of the state foster care system. At another house, members had hung curtains and artwork and furnished bathroom accessories and bed linens. “We have provided a safe place for [the youths] to live. The Junior League has made it feel like a home,” says Hayley Schmittinger, director of the Life Lines program at West End.

For the next year and more, volunteers will continue to help with life-skills mentoring and career-building workshops for children, along with childcare and maintenance of homes and myriad other smaller services for West End. By the end of 2011, the league will have contributed hundreds of hours of work and $90,000 to the community center—“an incredible investment in the youth we serve,” says Schmittinger. Members will also have accomplished more than two-dozen other smaller endeavors there and elsewhere, including what Agne calls “done-in-a-day” projects.

The group raises money through dues, donations and various activities. For the past 29 years, volunteers have donned their signature red shirts and run the popular fall Whale of a Sale. The giant indoor yard sale attracts bargain-hunters at every income level, netting as much as $30,000. Another fundraiser is the Heart of the Home kitchen tour each April, which raised $45,000 in 2008. And for anyone who loves food, there’s the League cookbook, “Dancing on the Table.” Recipes are triple-tested in members’ kitchens.

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Michelle Pena, league vice-president for administration and communications, remembers the impact her first Whale sale had on her. She noticed parents with young children counting their money as the day was drawing to a close, hoping that it would cover all the necessities in their shopping basket. Then they were told merchandise had been reduced 50 percent. Says Pena, the mother of two young children, “If you could have seen the tears in [the mother’s] eyes.”

The event is typical of the league’s super teamwork and organization. Says Agne, “They put together this place like nothing you’ve ever seen, thousands and thousands of items. And when it’s over, it’s packed up and taken out to the trucks to be delivered to Goodwill, or wherever, and the place is vacuumed and put away inside of an hour. It’s the most amazing breakdown I’ve ever seen.”

“Only women could do it,” Mary Fenimore says with a laugh. A former television broadcaster, she joined the league two years ago because, “I was looking for something to change my scope and introduce me to different people.” Like most members, she already had a busy life outside the home as a school volunteer and a part-time waitress. She has gained new skills and friends and discovered a surprising amount of diversity within the group. “It was inspirational to see how we come from such different backgrounds. It wasn’t what I had envisioned, which was ladies with pearls and idle time to spend,” she says.

For years, that was the image the Junior League projected. And for good reason. The movement was founded in New York City by debutante Mary Harriman, friend of such notables as future First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

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In 1901 Harriman organized 80 of her well-connected friends to help immigrant families of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Members were all young—Harriman was only 19—and thus the “junior” in the name.

Women in other cities followed Harriman’s example and established their own leagues. In addition to local charity work, leaguers have a history of advocating for larger issues—women’s suffrage and war bonds, for example—and they were at the forefront of the nation’s children’s theater movement in the 1920s and ’30s.

In the century since its founding, the Junior League has grown into an international network of 292 leagues in the United States, Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom and more 160,000 members, according to the Association of Junior Leagues International.

Today, says Agne, a Junior League member can move from one part of the country to another and find a local group to join. “It’s an instant connection and a network that helps you re-acclimate to that environment.” Members become friends for life. “A lot of people develop their play groups or the group they go out to happy hour with [from among league members]. I know Junior League members whose fellow members have been godparents to their babies.”

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The Junior League of Wilmington traces its founding in 1918 to Mrs. William Bergland, who was a friend of Mary Harriman. Early members were wives and daughters of the pillars of the Wilmington community. Because it was a time of war, the first activities focused on soldiers’ needs.

Later projects included raising funds to start an orthopedic hospital, founding the state’s first school for hearing-impaired children, managing a consignment shop, which provided an income for needy families, and distributing fresh fruits and vegetables to city residents during the Depression. In the 1920s, when the state could no longer afford to maintain a health center, the league stepped in to buy the building and paid the salary of a nurse for a year. It also paid for the services of a visiting doctor at another clinic.

The list goes on. League members were the first tour guides at Winterthur museum. They put on plays and puppet shows for schools and hospitals. They helped the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects inventory pre-1850 buildings in the area. They started the Wilmington Senior Center in 1956 and later helped establish the adjacent apartment house for low-income seniors. And they raised funds to save their current headquarters in the restored 18th-century Lea-Derickson House in Old Brandywine Village from the wrecking ball.

The other half of the league’s mission is personal and unique to each member, notes Agne, who worked as a policy analyst on Capitol Hill before moving to Wilmington.

“Our goal is to develop the leadership potential of women through hands-on community service and fundraising. And once they get the training at our organization, they are able to go out and work in other community service organizations and to join other boards in the community. Our members are very dedicated, and service and training are really priorities in their life”

Delaware Senate Minority Whip Liane Sorenson was an active member of the group for 15 years and served a term as president. The organization gave her an entree into the legislative process that she now navigates professionally. She was part of a league team that lobbied Dover to make the Foster Care Review Board, which overseas the progress of children through the foster care system, a permanent entity. The board was set to expire under the state’s sunset law. “The first time I was in Legislative Hall was for the Junior League,” Sorenson says. “The first time I testified in front of the Finance Committee was for the Junior League.”

Sorenson recalls when league membership in the 1980s transitioned from housewives to working mothers. That’s when daytime membership meetings were dropped. Today a room is always set aside for children who accompany their mothers to evening meetings. And an installment plan for paying dues ($100 for active members) can be negotiated. “We have become a very family-friendly organization,” Agne says.

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At the same time, the group is trying to keep its operations up to date, using the Web and storing records digitally. Facebook and Twitter are a growing part of its communications network. A capital campaign recently brought the league’s historic headquarters more usable space and handicap accessibility. Yet, the past is still treasured. In another eight years, the group will celebrate its centennial. Pena is organizing and preserving the league’s archives of photos, clippings, posters and memorabilia so they will be accessible to future junior leaguers.

“We’re so much more than you think,” says Fenimore. “We’re not the pearl girls. We’re just this amazingly diverse group of women that have an amazing opportunity to learn and make a difference in the community.”

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