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N.C. Junior Leagues evolve

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Rosie Molinary

Two of the largest Junior Leagues in North Carolina currently are led by African-American women, a testament to the evolution the groups have undergone in recent years.

That increasing diversity benefits not only the groups’ members, but the communities they serve, say the presidents of the Charlotte and Raleigh-area Junior Leagues.

“We are much more diverse then we were when I joined, but not as diverse as we want to be,” says Twan Ellison, president of the Junior League of Charlotte.  “We want to make sure that all women in Charlotte know that the Junior League in Charlotte is open to them.  We want divorced women, single women, women without children.  This is about broadening the group of women we have so that it looks more like the community.”

Founded in 1926, the Charlotte group aims to improve its community by promoting volunteerism among its membership, which is made up of more than 2,000 women.

A 2007 survey of high-school students in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System revealed that more than one in 10 whites and African-Americans and almost two in 10 Hispanics had attempted suicide in the previous year.

The Junior League of Charlotte is trying to change that count.

The group evaluates its focus area every five years to ensure its efforts are based on needs in the community.

“When we went to the community three years ago, children’s health, their mental, physical and dental health, was the major issue,” says Ellison.

Through that exercise, the Healthy Child Initiative was born.

To accomplish its goals, the group launched several efforts, including the documentary “Through My Eyes,” which provides education about teenagers and mental illness.

A straightforward portrait of the struggle some teens face, the documentary received two regional EMMY nominations.

“It is awesome what women can do when all you say is your job is to create awareness,” says Ellison.

They also have a campaign to raise $1 million by May 2008 for the Junior League’s Family Resource Center at the Levine Children’s Hospital.

With $813,000 raised as of late March, their vision is to provide $500,000 for the physical space and $500,000 for programming.

“If I found out tomorrow that my child had a hearing challenge, I could walk into the family resource center to get up-to-date research for free,” says Ellison.  “But there are parents who will never darken the door of the family resource center so we want to take those resources out into the community and provide not just health education but prevention and intervention.”

At the Junior League of Raleigh, the current President Linda Douglas takes very seriously her role in providing skilled and diverse leaders to her community.

“My goal, for some time, has been to bring attention to the outstanding women we have in the league who aren’t always noticed,” says Douglas, who is the first African-American president of the Raleigh group.  “Many of these leaders are women of color. I’ve worked hard to introduce black women to Junior League in general.”

In part, she considers the Junior League an opportunity to introduce a diverse group of women, and their many talents, to the community.

“I want the women I bring in to gain what Junior League has to offer, and I want the Junior League to gain what these women have to offer,” she says.  “What’s exciting about this is that people, not only in the league, but also in the community, are having a chance to see these women in action.”

With a current focus of “Promising Youth,” the group’s 1,740 members support local youth programs with volunteerism and grant money.

One such organization is SAFEchild, started 15 years ago by the Junior League of Raleigh to keep children in Wake County safe from physical abuse and emotional neglect.

Both the Raleigh and Charlotte Junior Leagues regularly provide leadership, communication, and fundraising training for their memberships.

“We want to help them become better volunteer leaders for our community,” says Linda Douglas of the Junior League in Raleigh. “And because so many of our members work in other nonprofits, it’s a way for them to strengthen their skills to help those organizations.”

To that end, the Junior League of Raleigh is creating a Center for Community Leadership.

The group has purchased a building and embarked on renovations that it hopes will make the center a benefit for the nonprofit community.

“We’re pretty excited about how the Center for Community Leadership will be able to expand our training and provide much-needed training and meeting space for other nonprofits locally,” says Douglas.

With the changing times, organizations who wish to impact their communities have to update themselves to be relevant.

North Carolina Junior Leagues are doing just that, providing their memberships and communities a valuable resource and opportunity.

“A lot of our women do not get the chance to work in the community in their professional roles,” says Ellison, “so this is in an organized fashion where you know when you get here, you will be able to have an impact.”

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