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Beline Obeid

September 13, 2012
For nearly 100 years, the Junior League of Detroit has focused on community service, commitment and camaraderie, and as it gets ready to mark its centennial in 2014, those tenants remain strong.

But make no mistake, the Junior League of Detroit that is heading into the next century is not your grandmother's League. The League members of today long ago traded in the traditional teas, pearls and white gloves for briefcases, laptops and work gloves.

"We enable women to be catalysts for effective change in the City of Detroit," said League president Therese Bellaimey. "We are women building a better community."

That doesn't mean the League has changed its original vision, put in place nearly 100 years ago when a group of young women came together in 1914 to address the social needs of women and children in Detroit. From its first project, a lunchroom for working girls in Detroit, to its current support of literacy programs for children from preschool through third-grade on the far east side of Detroit, the women of the League are committed to positive change for residents of Detroit, both young and old.

The Junior League of Detroit is part of a broader volunteer network started in 1901 in New York City by Mary Harriman, who had brought together a group of other young socialites to form a "Junior" League that would focus on improving the lives of children living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

That mission continues today, and was the message several women heard a few weeks ago when they attended a casual get-together brought together experienced League members with those who were interested in finding out more about the League and its projects.

The Junior League of Detroit welcomed both new and returning members at a gathering last month in Grosse Pointe Farms. photo by Kathy Ryan.
Katie Clark, 26, an accountant with Price Waterhouse, attended as a way to learn more about the League.

"I'm eager to become more involved in community projects," she said. "I wanted to get an idea of what the League had to offer, and I'm definitely looking forward to becoming more involved."

According to Bellaimey, about 35 women are part of this year's Provisional group, the first step in moving to active membership in the League.

For the next nine months, they will join with other provisional members and learn through interactions with active members about the projects administered by the League. It gives prospective members an overview of the League and allows them to select possible opportunities to pursue when they move to an active member status.

The League has streamlined the provisional program, with a nod toward the lives women live today.

"We recognize you have busy lives, jobs and families, and we want to provide you with as much flexibility as possible," the League's Community Council Trustee, Rosi Triano, told prospective members.

Recruitment chairwoman Ann Turnbull and community council trustee Rosi Triano helped answer questions from prospective JLD members at a meet and greet held last month at the Hydrangea Kitchen in Grosse Pointe Farms. photo by Kathy Ryan.
And with that nod toward the lives of women today, the League has done away with its longstanding age requirements. For years provisional members had to be under 40 years of age, but that no longer applies, nor does the requirement active members be moved to a sustainer status at a certain age. In today's League, members may remain on active status as long as they desire, and oftentimes what the League is seeing is women who had been active before moving to a sustainer status have now returned to active status and taken on major roles within the League.

The provisional membership allows women an overview of League activities, including its several volunteer opportunities, its community assistance grant program and its major fundraising project, the Designer Show House.

Over the years, the League has funded such diverse projects as the Poison Center at Children's Hospital of Michigan, the playscape on Belle Isle and improvements to the Belle Isle Nature Center. Its community assistance grants provide small grants to small non-profits with a focus on supporting grass roots start-up organizations.

And while the League has changed its membership structure, it will also change its focus this year, as it moves into its next century.

"This will be a learning year for us, "Bellaimey explained. "We are going to focus on who needs help, what parts of our community are falling through the cracks. We want to deal with what we call the basic needs, the things a family needs to keep functioning. We define those basic needs as a place to live, nutritious food, clothing and educational opportunities."

The League will be reviewing those needs and how to achieve them, and will announce projects as part of its centennial year celebration in 2014.

Anne Kohnke and Trudy Morency renewed a friendship made nearly 20 years ago whey they were part of the same Junior League provisional class. photo by Kathy Ryan.
But even as the League focuses on its newest project, it looks to its past traditions of commitment and camaraderie, and many women who attended the gathering spoke of the lifelong friendships they have formed.

This year's Recruitment Chairwoman, Ann Turnbull, told prospective members the League will provide them with not only volunteer opportunities, but with a connection to other women throughout the country and even in to other countries.

"I moved here from Chicago, where I was a member of the Chicago League," she said.

"When I moved to Detroit, the League gave me a natural connection to other women and provided me with a great introduction to the area and a network of women committed to making a difference."

Nearly 600 women are members of the Junior League of Detroit, and as members, are part of a network of women in 300 cities in the United States, Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom with a world-wide membership of 171,000 women.

Information on the Junior League of Detroit can be found on its website, jlddetroit.org or by calling the League office, (313) 881-0040.

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