Harnessing the power of women

By Michael Easterbrook

Sandi Kemmish admits the Association of Junior Leagues International is unknown to many people.

As its new president, she wants to change that.

“Sometimes there is confusion about what our organization does,” says Kemmish, 58, who began her two-year term in June. “We want to be known as the women’s volunteer organization of choice.”

The Junior Leagues were born in 1901, the creation of Mary Harriman, a 19-year-old New York City debutante and daughter of the prominent railroad magnate.

Today, there are 294 leagues in Canada, Mexico, United Kingdom and the United States.

The goal of the leagues is to improve communities, promote volunteerism among women and help them develop leadership skills.

Junior League members have launched literacy programs, funded shelters for women and children, and created after-school programs for children, among other things.

“It’s amazing the range of projects,” says Kemmish, who lives in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Kemmish’s own inspiration for service came from her mother, who volunteered for many causes when Kemmish was growing up in Sioux Falls, S. D.

As a teenager, Kemmish worked as a candy striper at a local hospital in Sioux Falls, delivering mail and flowers and playing with children in the pediatrics ward.

“I love volunteering and I’ve been committed to it since I was a child,” she says.

Kemmish was drawn to the Junior Leagues later in life, after marrying and having a child.

Because of her husband’s job, the family moved frequently, and the Junior Leagues enabled Kemmish to help out in the community and meet new people.

Sandra Kemmish

Job: Program Officer, Lincoln Financial Group Foundation, Fort Wayne, Ind.

Born: 1948, Sioux Falls, S.D.

Education: B.S., English and French, East Tennessee State University; M.S., English education, Virginia Tech

Family: Husband, Kirk; son, Chad; daughter-in-law, Samantha; granddaughters Ainsley, 8, and Haley-Kate, 5

Career: English and French teacher, Washington County Schools, and program director, William King Regional Art Center, Abingdon, VA; director, Summit Resources, Fort Wayne, Ind.

Inspiration: Johnnetta Cole, president of Bennett College, Greensboro, N.C.

Favorite books: “Angela’s Ashes,” by Frank McCourt; “The Tipping Point,” by Malcolm Gladwell

Most interesting place she’s lived: Limerick, Ireland

She says many members are attracted to the Junior Leagues for the same reason.“One of the greatest benefits is the amazing friends they make,” Kemmish says. After joining the Junior League of Chicago in 1983, Kemmish became a member of Junior Leagues in Bristol, Va., and Fort Wayne, and served as president-elect of the national association for a year before starting her term as president.She also etched out time for a career, teaching English and French to middle and high school students in Virginia for 11 years until 1991. Since 2002, she has worked as the program officer for the Lincoln Financial Group Foundation in Fort Wayne, a group that supports arts, cultural and educational programs in communities throughout the country.

As president of the Association of Junior Leagues International, Kemmish wants to expand membership and increase the number of Junior Leagues.

Another goal is to make more people aware of what Junior Leagues are and what they do, a project Kemmish describes as “clarifying the brand identity.”

The association began ramping up efforts to that end last year, launching Kids in the Kitchen, a nationwide program aimed at raising awareness about childhood obesity.

The media campaign that accompanied the program also helped draw attention to the association and to the work of the Junior Leagues. Kemmish hopes to organize an encore to the program sometime soon.

“It was our first effort at raising awareness about who are,” Kemmish says.

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