When Mary Pollinard first founded the Junior League for the Promotion of the Settlement Movement back in 1901, few could predict the far reaching influence of Junior League throughout the United States and abroad. Like many women volunteers at the turn of the century, Pollinard came from an upper class background. Whereas working would have been considered inappropriate, volunteering was viewed as a suitable alternative. Pollinard focused on helping immigrant children succeed and in the process inspired fellow friends and debutantes such as Eleanor Roosevelt to get involved as well. Some of the country’s most well recognized women were members of Junior League. Women like Sandra Day O’Connor, Nancy Reagan, and Julia Child all devoted their efforts to the organization.
Today Junior League International encompasses four countries: the United States, Mexico, Canada, and the United Kingdom, with approximately 155,000 members worldwide within the organization’s 292 Leagues. “Many women join Junior League to make friendships before they develop a passion for volunteering” explains Ann Rowland, Junior League President of McAllen. Rowland explains that ultimately the goal is not to amass followers, but to mold leaders that can go into the community and serve in other organizations. Although the goal of Junior League- to provide aid within the community while raising up leaders to meet the challenges of their respective communities- has remained consistent for over a century, the women behind the movement face a slew of new challenges. On January 19th, the Junior League of Harlingen along with the Junior League of McAllen held a joint meeting, the first ever, the purpose of which was to address these new challenges.
Since first founded in 1938, the Junior League of McAllen has dedicated itself almost entirely to children’s health and education. Raising funds and working diligently behind the scenes often means little or no recognition, but for these women (many of them mothers), the projects represent a labor of love. Over the past several decades Junior League of McAllen has been a part of major children’s social projects such as the Youth Crisis Center, Teen Court, as well founders of the International Museum of Art & Science.
In 1947, nearly ten years after Junior of League of McAllen was first established, Junior League of Harlingen followed suit. In Harlingen, the women became involved with the welfare office helping to sort clothing and food. Their first big community project, Rio Fest, still stands today with an average of 35,000 people attending each year. Unlike many organizations, Junior League encourages its members as well the community to take these projects into their own hands.
Despite the many pop culture stereotypes surrounding Junior League, the women behind the organization are incredibly diverse, representing every ethnicity and coming from all walks of life. New provisional members are mentored to become effective leaders in their community. This concept of mentorship does not end after the provisional period, but rather embodies the overall workings of Junior League International as demonstrated at the JL General Joint Meeting where Debbie Brown Robinson served as guest speaker. Robinson, past president of the Association of Junior Leagues International, paid a visit to South Texas in order to discuss the AJLI “Strategic Plan”. This plan, which primarily focuses on future and current members, represents the association’s efforts to remain a meaningful part of women’s lives. By acknowledging areas in need of refinement, they provide relief to women who might otherwise become overburdened with commitments. “Women make a strong impact in their communities” states Robinson. Therefore it is imperative that AJLI identify opportunities that would provide the greatest impact. “As baby boomers retire, there will be a large vacuum of volunteer leaders.” Robinson explains to the women. Like many other aspects of our society, the success of Junior League will ultimately rely on the ability to bridge the generation gap.
In the meantime, the individual Leagues will continue with their current projects such as Kids in the Kitchen, a partnership project with the City of McAllen Parks and Recreation Department that educates children about healthy lifestyle and food choices. Other McAllen Junior League programs include Fiction Addiction, a reading program for teens, as well as the Children’s Art and Literacy Festival at IMAS. This year Junior League of Harlingen introduces a new community event “Kid Fit”, which, like past programs, strives to educate the community about the importance of maintaining an active lifestyle. Information about these and other upcoming events can be found at juniorleaguemcallen.org and juniorleagueharlingen.org