Not Your Mama's League

Not Your Mama's League

October 1st, 2011 Merrell McGinness in Local Regional News

Last month, the Junior League of Chattanooga shuttered its Bargain Mart store, a thrift shop supplied largely by member-donated goods. It was a difficult decision as the store was a 67- year legacy woven tightly into the League's identity.

But while the move probably dropped the jaws of several Sustainers (a term for a retired League Member), it was a testament to the organization's fluidity and willingness to adapt to changing times.

"Over the years we have become very accustomed to going back to the drawing board and asking, 'What can we change up to make this a good fit for everybody?'" says president-elect Karen Leavengood, 33. Turns out, that's not an easy question to answer. A whopping 90 percent of League women now work, changing the dynamic of an organization built largely on volunteerism.

Tour du Jour participants Ellen Wiberley, Molly Trainor, Lindsay Richardson and Chelsea Johnson

"It's not the 'girls with pearls' Junior League anymore," says 2010 Sustainer of the Year Ronna-Renee Jackson, 47. "The dynamics have shifted where most of the women are working today and you have young mothers who are trying to balance all those things, so volunteerism is getting cut as families and careers are taking precedence."

Formed in 1917, Chattanooga's Junior League took shape when social networking meant tea and cookies. Still, the League has made every effort to remain relevant amid women's rapidly changing social roles. In the 1980s, daytime meetings were moved to the evening for working women. Today volunteer placements have become more "on demand," allowing members to complete assignments on their own time if needed. There's also been a shift from the old punitive ways - miss a meeting, pay a fine - to a more motivational approach.

"Today's League focuses more on why you should want to come, why you should want to be involved," says Jackson. "It has to be something that a woman chooses to invest in because there are a lot of other demands on our time."

Leavengood agrees, noting there's a certain ownership that sets the League apart from other nonprofits. "We only have one person on our payroll and the rest is all volunteer work," she says. "The women who are there really choose to be there and are eager to make a difference."

JUNIOR LEAGUE 2.0

All of these updates have translated into record-breaking Provisional classes the past few years. Vanessa McNeil, a 25-year-old marketing director for SunTrust Bank, says she decided to join after attending the Chamber of Commerce's Small Business Awards, where the League was named nonprofit agency of the year. A friend had mentioned the League to her before, but hearing the presentation sealed the deal.

"It was a really great story and seemed like a great group of women to get involved with," recalls McNeil, who joined in August. "I used to babysit for women who did things with Junior League and I used to think it was this elite group of women and you had to be married to join. I think that's really changing as people get to know what the League is all about."

Already logging 155 volunteer hours this year on her own, McNeil doesn't need the League to feel invested in the community. But there's a certain camaraderie that can't be underestimated. In fact, every League woman credits the friendships she's made as her reason for remaining committed amid other demands.

A HARD BARGAIN

In the 1960s, members worked eight to 10 hours per week at the Bargain Mart. Today, members were barely doing that per year. Sales were in a five-year, 50 percent decline and the building was looking a little worse for the wear - spelling costly renovations. Above all, members' enthusiasm was lackluster. "When you work 40-plus hours a week - not to mention those who are moms, wives - it's hard to get amped up to go in on a Saturday and devote four to six hours at the Bargain Mart," says 29-year-old Meredith Rivers, a member since 2008 and development officer at the Children's Home/Chambliss Shelter.

She should know. As chair of this year's Clean Sweep rummage sale, Rivers and her committee spent every Saturday last month in the former Bargain Mart building. Once the decision to close was finalized, the location of the bi-annual sale - held Sept. 24 - was moved to the empty building. Eight months pregnant with her first child, Rivers even worked the day of her baby shower. But there was no time to spare. The date was moved up nearly one month because of the now-expired lease.

Holley Hasting, Ronna-Renee Jackson, Jennifer Franklin, Meredith Rivers and Vanessa McNeil

Photo by David Humber

Instead of complaining, Rivers was actually relieved since the original Oct. 15 date was two days before her due date. Overall, she enjoyed the challenge and knows the experience will help her in other areas of her life. "I feel like the League has taught me how to best put forth my talents in a nonprofit setting," she says. "I've been very impressed by the opportunities it has provided."

She's not alone. President Jennifer Franklin lists her favorite placement as chair of the League's largest fundraiser, Tour du Jour. Her second son, Jack, was born the day of the tour. "He'll forever be known as the 'Tour Baby,'" she jokes.

Franklin is a perfect example of the League's ability to develop the potential of women. "When I joined seven years ago I would have laughed if you'd told me I would be president," she says. "But there were some leaders ahead of me that saw leadership potential in me and encouraged me to pursue it." As a stay-at-home mom to three young children, she appreciates the fact that if she does return to the corporate world, everything she's doing in the League is resume-worthy.

LEAVING A LEGACY

As the second oldest League in the South, there are hundreds of nonprofits across the city touched by the organization: Chattanooga Nature Center, Children's Hospital, Erlanger Hospital, Tennessee Aquarium, Westside Community Development, Children's Home, Allied Arts, Orange Grove and Ronald McDonald House, to name a few. Today a focus on women and children's health has forged a "Healthy Start" initiative that includes a prenatal health literacy program through a partnership with Re:Start, as well as "Kids in the Kitchen" programs aimed at healthy eating, eating disorder awareness with the MCR Foundation and improving overall children's health with the Ronald McDonald Care Mobile. From 2009 to 2010, the Junior League impacted 25,332 families, women and children in the Hamilton County area through financial and volunteer support.

For the most part the League acts as an angel investor - injecting capital and manpower to get a project off the ground, then stepping aside to let the community take ownership. This behind-the-scenes approach means many of the League's projects fly under the radar, until now. In a sign of the times, the League has made recent efforts to brand itself in a sense, with social media making it easier than ever to engage the community it serves.

Despite all these changes, Leavengood maintains that in many ways the League remains the same. The core values, for one thing, haven't changed: to promote volunteerism, develop the potential of women and improve the community through trained volunteers. "We try to meet women where they are today, and the day-in/day-out management has changed, and the look of the League will always be evolving to a certain extent, we're blessed that we have such a firm foundation to build on and can continue building on it," she says.