New Faces

The Junior League of Fort Worth is drawing increasing numbers of young women who share the 85-year-old organization’s commitment to its mission.

The Junior League is involved in several projects in the Como neighborhood, including efforts to landscape and beautify sites in the area. Photo courtesy Junior League of Fort Worth

The strength of the Junior League of Fort Worth is its dedication to training women in leadership and in the thousands of women who have been members in the 85 years the organization has been around. But its future is in new members who are joining in increasing numbers.

The Provisional Classes — that’s how the Junior League labels new member classes — have grown steadily in recent years, said President Paige Pate. Last year’s class had more than 130 women in it. This year’s has more than 120. “The younger, Millennial generation seems to be seeking out the Junior League,” she said.

The mark the Junior League has had on Fort Worth is everywhere in programs that support and protect women and children and in efforts to train and educate women in volunteer work and prepare them to assume their roles as leaders of the community. The League has maintained a consistent interest and involvement in mental health and other social issues, helped fund the Child Study Center, started Mayfest, and was a founding member of Leadership Fort Worth. And that’s just a partial list.

The Junior League of Fort Worth funded construction of a much-needed house in the Como neighborhood for Opening Doors for Women In Need, a program for women who have been recently released from prison. Photo courtesy Junior League of Fort Worth

Once considered by outsiders to be a social organization for women of privilege, the Junior League is focused on identifying areas of the community where it can make a difference. “I initially joined the League to plug in socially,” said Caroline Tackett, a Birdville ISD special education teacher. “But I found that the League is so much more than a social organization. I think the allure is the opportunity to connect with other women, but we stay for the genuine friendships and the impact we can make on our community.”

With changing membership come other changes. More than 80 percent of active Junior League members work outside the home, says Pate. “The League seeks out volunteer opportunities during nights and weekends to accommodate our growing numbers of career-oriented members,” she said. “This is a shift from the Junior League schedule of the past, when the majority of meetings took place during the day.”
From time to time, the League picks a signature project. In this 85th year, it selected The WARM Place, which provides grief support services to children who have experienced the death of a loved one. “We applied for their signature grant for $75,000. When they came by to let us know we are the recipient, they surprised us with $85,000 to commemorate their 85th anniversary,” said Shirley Bowen, the executive director. “A grant of this magnitude does not come through very often so, needless to say, we were pleasantly surprised and grateful for their generosity.”

But the Junior League does not provide just money. It also provides assigned volunteers — they call them Placements — to organizations it supports. “Active members are required to complete 50 hours of volunteer service every year, so you join knowing that that is your commitment,” Pate said. “Their presence is very significant,” said Bowen. “They have been involved as volunteers since the early years of our agency, and we just celebrated our 25th anniversary in August.”

“Each month, 300 to 400 Active Junior League members — ages 40 and younger — gather to discuss issues and needs in our community,” Pate said. “We are focused on big issues. Educating children. Supporting the arts. Helping to provide access to social services. Promoting health and nutrition for Fort Worth children and families. We are tracking our community impact within these broad, issue-based community impact areas — and selecting non-profit partners to support with both funding and volunteers that are working in those areas, too. This year alone, we have more than 50 non-profit partners and will volunteer more than 45,000 hours in the community. We will grant over $250,000 in project support to selected agencies.” That’s a far cry from socials and parties.

“When I joined the Junior League, I wasn’t sure it was the right organization for me,” said Mireya Gideon, who is an investigative reporter for CBS 11. You know her as Mireya Villarreal, the name she uses on air. “But within the first few years, I got to see the impact hundreds of women can make in the community,” she said. “But the thing I love most about the League is our mission to develop the potential of women. It is incredible to see new members come in, quiet and unsure of themselves sometimes, and watch their evolution. Active members in leadership roles mentor these younger women and guide them through their first years of volunteering.”

“Our mission talks about providing a legacy of highly trained volunteer leaders in our community, and we are highly trained,” Pate said. “You can tell a Junior League volunteer when you are elsewhere volunteering in the community. They’ll have an agenda, they’ll take minutes, they are prepared for meetings, they run on time. All of that sort of volunteer training is a huge part of our mission here.”

For more than 60 years, the Junior League maintained a resale shop before closing it in 2013. Provisional members traditionally worked their mandatory hours to run it. The closure left the League with a good problem to have: “So we have over a hundred women, 130 women, who need to work 50 volunteer hours. Where do we put them?” Pate said. “That’s when we decided we really are trying to impact public education in our city.” President Michelle Marlow challenged the provisional group to come up with a plan, and that was the birth of the League’s Fort Worth ISD project called Junior M.I.N.T.S. — Mentoring, Inspiring, Nurturing, Tutoring and Supporting. “This year, we are sending more than 100 volunteers — the majority of whom are new, Millennial-aged members — into Fort Worth schools,” Pate said.

Tackett — the 2014 Provisional of the Year — was instrumental in creating that program, Pate said. “We are not throwing money on the problem,” Tackett said. “We are getting in classrooms, mentoring, encouraging and building relationships. These are the relationships that will ultimately lead to change in our community.”

Rachel Anne Hopper, Associate Director of Housing and Residence Life at TCU, notes that the average age of the Provisional Class has dropped over the years, meaning that the League is accepting more women who are still establishing themselves in their careers, their community and their homes. “Millennials are looking for connections to a community of people and a cause to support, and we are thrilled they are flocking to ours,” she said.

Pate says it is the mission of the Junior League that holds it all together. “This anniversary has been a great way to talk about that and to stop and remember where we came from, but also to look toward the future and the needs in our community and how our younger volunteers can continue to identify those and step up and make a difference and create new programming for the next 85 years,” she said.