This article was originally published on timesfreepress.com.
"The Help" didn't give a bit of it.
The Oscar-nominated movie from 2011, taken from the 2009 bestseller, focused on two black maids facing racism and condescension while working for upper-crust white families in Jackson, Miss. The white women were members of the Junior League.
"There's a stigma in the community — and nationwide — about Junior League, and 'The Help' didn't help our cause. I think that played into the stereotype," says Caroline Walker, 31, and current president of the Junior League of Chattanooga.
Andrea Crouch, who joined the League's Atlanta chapter back in the early 1980s then transferred her membership to Chattanooga when she moved here in 1985, acknowledges that "in the way past, the social aspect was perhaps a little more important."
"Now the social is still there, but the philanthropic efforts are first and foremost and the social is more of a value-added part of the equation," the 58-year-old Crouch says.
These days, the League is determined to change the narrative that it's merely a bunch of pearl-wearing women drinking tea — pinkies extended, of course — while tut-tutting the absolutely shameful way the salads at Chez FrouFrou have gone downhill. Local members say that stereotype hasn't been true for decades.
"We're replacing our white gloves with working gloves," says Walker, sitting with Crouch at the Junior League's headquarters, located in an elegant Victorian near McKenzie Arena.
The getting-hands-dirty attitude is especially significant this year with the local chapter of the League celebrating its 100th birthday. Although the exact date of its formation is nebulous, the local organization is certifiably the oldest women's civic group in Chattanooga. With between 120 to 130 active members — about 400 total if you include "sustainers," those who still pay dues but aren't actively involved in the organization at this point — it's also the second-largest Junior League chapter in the South behind Atlanta and the 19th largest in the U.S.
"What's incredible about going through the centennial is looking at the hundreds of women that have come out of this organization and the incredible things they've done in the community and that they've done career-wise. We have about 97 percent, if not more, of our women that are fulltime working now," says Walker, a commercial banking officer at Atlantic Capital.
"It used to be about half and half," adds Crouch, who retired from Chattem after 30 years.
Over the course of its 100 years, the League has helped raise and donate more than $2 million across the Chattanooga area. A quick scratch of the surface reveals that recipients of its largesse — both financial and hands-on — can be found all over the city: The Chambliss Center for Children, Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center, Little Miss Mag Early Learning Center, Erlanger, the Ronald McDonald House, the Chattanooga Area Food Bank, among many others.
Members have worked on projects to fight drug abuse, domestic violence and sex trafficking, to give grant money to Hamilton County teachers and to help working mothers and underprivileged families, Walker notes. Over the past three years, the League has teamed up with the Food Bank to address "food deserts" in the area, she says.
"The Food Bank has certainly experienced the group's generosity, not only from hands-on volunteering but also from the monetary and food drive donations from their events," says Mark Schock, volunteer coordinator for the Food Bank.
On the first Thursday of each month, Junior Leaguers help pack 50-pound boxes of food for local needy families, and some members bring their spouses and children, Schock says. The League has put together lunch bags that are sent out to elementary schools students as part of the bank's Sack Pack Program, he says, and members have served food at its annual fundraiser, HullaBOWLoo.
"I have found that the (League) members consist of a variety of backgrounds, many coming straight from work to volunteer," Schock says. "They are always ready to help us out in whatever need we have at the moment, whatever job needs to get done."
As part of the League's centennial this year, the group is lining up one-day volunteer projects with its former "community partners," as they're called, "just to kind of re-engage and thank them for partnering with us," Walker says. "We're kind of opening the memory box."
Coming out of that box, in the late '70s, the Junior League spearheaded the money-raising effort that brought in $500,000 — including an initial contribution of $31,000 from the League — to create the Nature Center and its education program at the foot of Lookout Mountain. Without that money, the Nature Center, which merged in 2011 with Reflection Riding, probably would not have been possible, says Larry Zehnder, executive director at the now-named Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center.
"They actually established the education program here," he says, noting that 16,000 kids came through the center in 2016.
Another of those former partners is Little Miss Mag Early Learning Center, a nonprofit that partners with the United Way to offer preschool for children of working parents and which, coincidentally, is also celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2017. The League and the preschool have worked together since both of their beginnings, says Little Miss Mag Executive Director Tracy Bryant.
Among other things, in 1959, the League printed booklets known as "Busy Books," filled with educational ideas for teachers and parents. From the late '90s until 2005, the League also brought apples to children at Little Miss Mag as part of "ABC Day — Apples for a Better Chattanooga."
"Little Miss Mag would never have made it to our 100-year milestone without the help of the community at large the Junior League was instrumental in our achievements, particularly during our earliest years of caring for children," says Bryant. "Today, several of the members that serve on our board have been active members of the Junior League."
While volunteering and fundraising are major parts of the League's work, the organization has an overarching philosophy, one that casts a much-wider net and larger responsibility for its members and the organization itself. A true believer who's unabashedly committed to the organization, Walker explains:
"It's an organization of women committed to volunteerism, developing the potential of women and helping the community with effective action with leadership and trained community volunteers. Through that, you are really training women to be servant leaders for life."
The statement is very similar to the "Mission & Vision" statement on the website of the Association of Junior Leagues International. But a few minutes later, Walker drops out of president mode and gets more personal.
"I did not know that this organization would have such a profound impact on my life," she says. "I can say that from a career standpoint; I can say that from a personal standpoint, emotional, physical. It has made me a better person, a better daughter, a better friend, a better leader and a better community partner."
Despite the League's attempts to get the word out, many women still don't quite understand what it does or, even closer to home, what it can do for them, both Walker and Crouch say.
"They know it's a women's organization, but I still don't think they understand — and that's something we're working hard to correct — the power of strong, like-minded women getting together in the community and rolling up their sleeves to help causes," Walker says.
After years of active membership, Crouch drifted away from the organization — "demands of life: work, family and all the crazy things that go along with that," she explains. But now that she has returned to the fold, she's discovering that things have changed.
"It's interesting to be introduced back into the Junior League after being distant for a while. A lot has stayed the same; there's still the same strong philanthropic underpinning; it's why everybody's here," she says.
But the philanthropic work has grown a bit more robust in terms of who and what it chooses to help, moving away from "other things that, perhaps, were not as serious or had as many consequences, like say, manning the Christmas booth," she says with a laugh.
And beyond the satisfaction you can get by volunteering with causes that make a difference in the community, Walker also insists that League members can help themselves.
Pointing to her current job at Atlantic Capital, she says it would never have been possible if not for her participation in the Junior League.
She was pursuing a career in musical theater in New York City when her mother — also a Junior League member — suggested she join the organization, saying, "It would be a great opportunity to make a big city smaller," Walker recalls.
Once in the League, she plunged into its fundraising efforts and says "that singlehandedly changed where I went with my career."
"I had no idea what fundraising was; I didn't have a clue what sponsorships were, but I loved the thankless job of raising money," she says. "I loved those crazy people, and I loved the relationship building of it and the strategy of it."
In 2012, she moved to Chattanooga, transferred her League membership here and took a job as a fundraiser for Girls Preparatory School and McCallie School; later she was hired by Atlantic Capital. The knowledge she gained from the League has been critical in both jobs, she says.
"No one will pay you in a job what you're learning for free (in the League)," she says. "The amount of information and knowledge that I have gotten from this organization I will never learn in the workforce in this condensed of a time period."
"It's like out of a fire hose," Crouch adds.