No More Pearl Girls
The Junior League of Wilmington has shed its old reputation. Now it’s for anyone and everyone who wants to help add to its impressive record of service.
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Michelle Pena, league vice-president for administration and communications, remembers the impact her first Whale sale had on her. She noticed parents with young children counting their money as the day was drawing to a close, hoping that it would cover all the necessities in their shopping basket. Then they were told merchandise had been reduced 50 percent. Says Pena, the mother of two young children, “If you could have seen the tears in [the mother’s] eyes.”
The event is typical of the league’s super teamwork and organization. Says Agne, “They put together this place like nothing you’ve ever seen, thousands and thousands of items. And when it’s over, it’s packed up and taken out to the trucks to be delivered to Goodwill, or wherever, and the place is vacuumed and put away inside of an hour. It’s the most amazing breakdown I’ve ever seen.”
“Only women could do it,” Mary Fenimore says with a laugh. A former television broadcaster, she joined the league two years ago because, “I was looking for something to change my scope and introduce me to different people.” Like most members, she already had a busy life outside the home as a school volunteer and a part-time waitress. She has gained new skills and friends and discovered a surprising amount of diversity within the group. “It was inspirational to see how we come from such different backgrounds. It wasn’t what I had envisioned, which was ladies with pearls and idle time to spend,” she says.
For years, that was the image the Junior League projected. And for good reason. The movement was founded in New York City by debutante Mary Harriman, friend of such notables as future First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
In 1901 Harriman organized 80 of her well-connected friends to help immigrant families of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Members were all young—Harriman was only 19—and thus the “junior” in the name.
Women in other cities followed Harriman’s example and established their own leagues. In addition to local charity work, leaguers have a history of advocating for larger issues—women’s suffrage and war bonds, for example—and they were at the forefront of the nation’s children’s theater movement in the 1920s and ’30s.
In the century since its founding, the Junior League has grown into an international network of 292 leagues in the United States, Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom and more 160,000 members, according to the Association of Junior Leagues International.
Today, says Agne, a Junior League member can move from one part of the country to another and find a local group to join. “It’s an instant connection and a network that helps you re-acclimate to that environment.” Members become friends for life. “A lot of people develop their play groups or the group they go out to happy hour with [from among league members]. I know Junior League members whose fellow members have been godparents to their babies.”
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