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    Junior League's 90 years a time of service to Memphis

    By Barbara Bradley - The Commercial Appeal -

    The front line of social change is not the first place one would expect to find the Junior League of Memphis. Yet its enormous impact on the city has sometimes involved dealing with race relations, drug addictions, the spread of AIDS and much more. And the league has always been a factor in the empowerment of women.

    "It isn't a breakfast club," said Sally Pace, president. "People know it's going to be hard work. Anyone who joins really cares about working in the community."

    This year, the Junior League celebrates its 90th birthday, which will include the recognition of 90 women, both league members and nonmembers, who have had a significant impact on the league and the community. A reception is planned at the Community Resource Center, the League's headquarters at Central and Highland. The league also plans a celebratory New Year's Eve party at the Pink Palace. Tickets will go on sale later this month.

    This year,the league will dedicate $90,000 to the community, said Pace. The largest share of the funds will go to the League's G.R.O.W. initiative at Lester Community Center, which includes a weekly supper club with classes for parents and their children, monthly special events and a pre-K outreach. Other beneficiaries are the Church Health Center, Girls Inc., Innovative teaching grants for public school teachers, and Baptist Trinity Hospice-Camp Good Grief for kids who have lost a loved one.

    Its primary funding sources are corporations and foundations, Merry Marketplace shopping weekend in October, 5K for Kids in May and Repeat Boutique thrift store, said league spokesman Amy Stack. But writing checks is not what the league is about. The goals of the Junior League are to promote volunteerism, improve the community by sending trained volunteers into it and help develop the potential of women. "We never give money without providing trained volunteers because our hands and feet are the most valuable asset we offer," said Pace.

    The League also offers leadership training through its LEAD program to fledgling nonprofits and other groups, teaching them how to become organized and self-sustaining. When the nonprofit is on its feet, the league moves on to other projects.

    Its success can be measured by the number of Memphis institutions it has either started or helped to start including WKNO, Volunteer Memphis, the Sunset Symphony, the Children's Museum of Memphis, the Pink Palace Museum, The Memphis Alcohol and Drug Council, the Memphis Speech and Hearing Center, Hope House, the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, ArtsMemphis (formerly the Greater Memphis Arts Council) and Friends of the Orpheum.

    Projects such as Hope House put the league out in front of the community and even the state. In the early 1990s, the growing number of women and children who were HIV-infected created children with dying parents and children born with the disease who had few places to turn.

    In 1995, the Junior League opened Hope House to provide a day care and support services for families and children affected by AIDs.

    "At that time, so many were scared to be involved with AIDS patients," said past president Anne Curtis, including day care centers who refused to take the children. "The most important thing they offered was cuddling and loving children and rocking babies," she said. "They planned birthday and Valentine's Day parties for them, and turned it into the happiest place. You hear children laughing and singing, and that's our volunteers in there singing with them."

    Former president Perre Magness remembers Black Mondays protests in the late 1960s, when black students stayed home from school as part of a demand for black representation on the city school board. The Junior League, which helped set up the Adopt-A-School program, was providing funds and sending volunteers to Florida Elementary School, which was in a very depressed area, she said.

    "Race relations were a hot thing, and it was not easy," said Magness. "White ladies volunteering in an all-black school like that was a new idea. And it was a year of turmoil because Black Monday went on for weeks," But the league volunteers "never missed one step," said Magness, who led the school project. "They kept going to help in class and never said, 'I'll stay home today because it's dangerous.' They planned a wonderful Christmas party and filled stockings for every child in school."

    Teachers and administrators there welcomed them, she said, and "the little children would come up and hug you. They didn't know things were tense. They'd be excited to have someone read them a story."

    League members have changed over the years. Of its 600 active members, 85 percent now work outside the home, said Pace. Years ago, membership was by invitation only, she said. Today, applicants must be 23 years old, have a recommendation and be willing to work a minimum of 40 hours a year.

    Ellen Rolfes, president from 1983-84, was a 28-year-old mother of two when she joined the Junior League, after working as a schoolteacher. "That was one of the only professions a woman could go into," she said. She joined the league because she had relatives in it.

    "They taught me how to run a meeting, how boards worked, how community engagement worked. They gave me training in how to talk to the corporate community, how to make donor solicitations and how to build a network of people," she said.

    It became the foundation of Rolfes' career. She went on to become the first full-time director of The Women's Foundation; to found the Ole Miss Women's Council for Philanthropy (which now has a $9 million endowment, she said) and finally to become a philanthropy consultant for clients including Baptist Memorial Health Care Foundation and the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, she said.

    "I credit them with just about everything that ever happened to me career-wise," said Rolfes.

    The Junior League accepts about 100 women each year for a one-year training program in which they learn about the league and participate in volunteer programs and projects to discover what they like and do best. "We allow people to build on their strengths," said Pace. "It's a safe place where you can try new things."

    Pace, a senior vice president of marketing and communications at FTN Financial, said her work at the league helped prepare her for the job . "No one was going to award me my own department, give me volunteers to manage, a budget and projects. All those are skills transferable back to the workplace," she said.

    Women join the league to serve the community, she said. "But the gift they get in return is the training and skills that make them better volunteers and employees."

    Rolfes said she took away an important lesson from the league: "I learned you can often cause systemic change working with a group of people aligned with something that you couldn't do by yourself. It's so powerful. You get a group of women committed to something, and you just need to move out of the way."