The Junior League of Kansas City, Missouri: women building better communities.
By Kathleen Johansen, Inside Scoop Editor
When hearing the words “Junior League,” some picture debutantes wearing fancy dresses, white gloves and large hats sipping tea from fine china. Well, times have changed since the Junior League of Kansas City, Missouri formed 100 years ago. Fashion trends may come and go, but League ideals never change. The League is an organization of dedicated, trained volunteers working to build a better community. Since 1914, JLKCMO has focused on the needs of Kansas City. With each new decade, the League adapted its focus to meet the challenges facing the community, while also assisting with national and international efforts.
During World War I, JLKCMO played an active role by selling war bonds and working in Army hospitals. Members also served 1,300 meals daily to returning soldiers at its canteen. In 1918 member Lurannah Harris visited France to be a part of the Junior League Unit of the YMCA for French and German canteens.
Live theatre was very popular at the time. Many Junior Leagues around the country, including ours, created children’s community theater. Performances ranged from fairy tales to children’s literary classics. It made a significant impression on the Kansas City community by giving children access to the performing arts.
The League responds to the Great Depression by focusing on health and social issues affecting the community. Members operated a prenatal clinic and health center for mothers and babies and a convalescent home for disabled children.
The League helped with national efforts during World War II. League members sewed clothing for soldiers and served as nurses aides and Red Cross blood bank volunteers.
During the Golden Age of Television, many Junior Leagues across the country focused on developing high-quality educational programming for children. The League worked with KMBC-TV and the Kansas City, Missouri Board of Education to create the teenage quiz show “It’s in the Bag.”
Members rose to the challenge as federal and state laws strengthened mental health and juvenile justice services in the community. The League helped fund and support the Psychiatric Receiving Center, Juvenile Court Shelter for Children and several other programs.
The welfare of children is the forefront of our work, but public issues became a major interest during the late 1970s. During that time, the League funded programs and raised awareness on alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence and sexual assault. In the past, those problems were considered too taboo to talk about in society.
“The demands of an even more complicated and diverse society challenged our responses to community needs,” said Vicky Leonard, 1978-1979 President. “The future of the League depended upon the creativity of AJLI and our members.”
Just like McGruff the Crime Dog, the League ‘took a bite out of crime’ by supporting crime prevention efforts to keep our community safe. The Community Endowment Fund was also created through a $125,000 gift from Sustainer Helen Ridenour Riley to provide emergency grants to agencies in need.
One of our largest endeavors that decade was the Kansas City Zoo project in honor of our 75th Anniversary. The project created Jazzoo and the Zoo Learning Fund – both are still running strong in the community today. Members also created the Letters from Home project to support Operation Desert Shield troops.
Literacy became a 10-year focus at the turn of the millennium, providing $1.3 million to 33 literacy initiatives. The League donated funds to support the 9/11 tragedy and tsunami relief efforts. Members also helped rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.
As children’s obesity rates soared, the League began a five-year initiative to promote Children’s Nutrition and Fitness in the community. Our signature program, Healthy U, promotes nutrition, food insecurity and fitness to University Academy students. In 2011, members collected school supplies for Joplin students and helped rebuild the town after a massive tornado hit.
During the 1970’s, the League changed membership requirements to transform the perception that only high-society women could join. Back then, prospective members needed seven letters of recommendation and the Admissions Committee made their selections by secret ballot. Now, membership is diverse and open to any woman interested in volunteer work.
Before the mid-1970s, many members didn’t work and meetings were held during the day. It wasn’t until 1976 when the League held its annual meeting in the evening. Today most meetings, training sessions and volunteer work are done after 6 p.m. or on weekends to accommodate working members.
The League grew from 50 women in 1914 to more than 1,400 Actives, New Members and Sustainers today. Members’ ages range from 23 to 99. Of our Active membership, 81% work full-time and 44% have children living at home.
“I think what makes the League unique is that we are an organization of so many accomplished women who have so many commitments,” said Rachel Sexton, Director of Fund Development. “Yet we are so passionate about our mission that we are willing and eager to give our time to the organization.”
After 100 years, the League still remains the premier volunteer and training organization for women in our community. Our organization is always adapting to stay relevant in a changing Kansas City.
“The most inspiring part of our mission is that there will always be a need right outside our door that we will need to respond to. We will always need bright, smart, passionate women who have a desire to give back to our community and to make Kansas City an even better place than it is today,” said Marissa Schaffner, 2013-2014 President.
From White Gloves to Work Gloves
When our members are out in the community today, we’re most likely wearing jeans and work gloves. This year’s projects include building and renovating homes with Truman Heritage Habitat for Humanity and the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Kansas City. Some of us are in aprons teaching University Academy students and families how to properly chop vegetables. Or we’re rolling up our sleeves to grow gardens so Kansas City students can eat fresh fruits and vegetables at school.
“One thing that I can say about the Junior League is that it’s an action-oriented group,” said Sly James, Mayor of Kansas City, Missouri. “It’s not an organization that sits there and spouts about philosophy. You get your hands dirty, you get in and you work with people.”
The League has served Kansas City through 100 years of change. What will the next century hold for the League? One thing is for sure, the League will continue working to build a better Kansas City community. And that’s something that will never go out of style.