Junior League of Detroit celebrates century of community service

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published July 30, 2014

 Marking its 100th anniversary this year, the nonprofit Junior League of Detroit is the subject of an exhibition now on display inside the Detroit Historical Museum’s Community Gallery.

Marking its 100th anniversary this year, the nonprofit Junior League of Detroit is the subject of an exhibition now on display inside the Detroit Historical Museum’s Community Gallery.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

DETROIT — The creation of a senior center on East Grand Boulevard and a poison control project. The establishment of a group therapy home for emotionally disturbed children. Support and promotion of the first season of “Sesame Street.” Restoration of Detroit’s Kern Clock, Orchestra Hall and Belle Isle.

These are but a handful of the projects the Junior League of Detroit has tackled during the last 100 years and that reflect the diverse nature of the nonprofit’s endeavors. The JLD’s long history of work in the community is the focus of a new exhibition at the Detroit Historical Museum’s Community Gallery that’s on display through Sept. 28.

Robin Heller, of Grosse Pointe Farms, a past president of the JLD and co-chair of the centennial exhibition, said she was struck by “the number and extent of the projects we’ve done. To see them laid out and listed really gives you a (sense of) the impact that we’ve had.”

New JLD President Michelle Tiderington, of Grosse Pointe Park, said they hope to increase awareness of the nonprofit with the exhibition.

“I don’t think a lot of people know about the Junior League of Detroit, and if they do, I don’t think they know what we’ve (accomplished),” she said. “We’ve done some pretty extraordinary things (and made) some pretty major contributions to the city of Detroit and statewide.”

And the JLD today isn’t the same as it was decades ago.

“The old stereotype was pearls and gloves and ladies lunching,” Tiderington said. “That’s not who we are (anymore).”

Past JLD President Therese Bellaimey, of Detroit, co-chair of the centennial exhibition, echoed that sentiment.

“Obviously, a lot has changed (in the last 100 years) in terms of our membership,” she said. “Then, they were ladies of leisure doing good work. We’re still doing good, but we’re not ladies of leisure anymore. Most of us work.”

The JLD is one of nearly 300 Junior League organizations around the world, and it’s one of the oldest. Early JLD fundraisers — as shown in the exhibition — included the sale of handmade linens and elaborate follies productions featuring JLD members. In more recent decades, the major JLD fundraiser has been the biennial Designers’ Show House.

The JLD has often been at the forefront of major issues. The nonprofit launched a hospice education program in 1982 and produced an award-winning hospice education video, “Hospice, A Shared Experience,” circa 1987, that’s still in use nationwide. The JLD trained more than 100 volunteers who were placed at various sites, including Henry Ford Hospital and Simon House, for the AIDS Volunteer Network Committee circa 1990-91. The Trauma and Loss in Children project, from 1996-97, found trained JLD members and other community volunteers working with children ages 4-18 who had experienced a devastating event, and the project resulted in the development of a trauma response kit for national use by professionals working with children. In September 1930, Helen Keller was on hand for the opening of the Junior League Training Cottage for Blind Children, a center where youths could learn life skills.

“Our members had to learn how to use a Braille writer and spend (a certain) amount of hours transcribing (other texts into) Braille,” Bellaimey said.

In more recent years, the JLD has been focused on children and families through literacy programs to the current Project EAT — Education, Access and Tools — which Bellaimey said promotes healthy eating and provides families transitioning out of shelters with a box of new basic kitchen tools to help them prepare meals.

“Society has changed, and we have changed our focus with it,” Bellaimey said. “Wherever the serious issues of the day are, that’s where you will find us.”

Some JLD initiatives last for years, although other organizations often take over the reins from the JLD. As an example, Heller cited the Pediatric Mobile Team, which brings doctors and other medical professionals into neighborhoods for children who can’t otherwise get to a doctor’s office or afford medical care. It was launched in the mid-1990s and is still serving Detroit youths through a local hospital.

Birmingham has its own branch, but Bellaimey said the JLD still counts many Oakland County residents among its members, including residents of Southfield, Pleasant Ridge and Huntington Woods. At press time, she said the JLD had about 500 members, many from the Grosse Pointes and Detroit, as well as Macomb County and elsewhere. Bellaimey said membership is open to women over age 21 who live within 50 miles of Detroit.

Just as many of the projects initiated by the JLD have since been turned over to other nonprofits to keep them going, the JLD likewise aims to train people how to become effective volunteers for other organizations, Heller said. She’s an example of that: After working for General Motors for more than 20 years, Heller launched LocalMotion — later LocalMotionGreen — a nonprofit dedicated to helping people live healthier lives by reducing toxins and other environmentally unfriendly substances. Last year, LocalMotionGreen merged with the Ann Arbor and Detroit-based Ecology Center, a nonprofit with a similar mission. Heller said JLD members can learn budgeting, bookkeeping, payroll, the structure and operations of different types of nonprofit boards, and much more from fellow JLD members, and the skills they emerge with are ones that can lead not only to other volunteering opportunities, but also to finding employment in the nonprofit sector.

“It’s really excellent training for someone fresh out of school, for someone in mid-career looking to make a transition, and also for someone leaving the workforce who (wants to volunteer),” Bellaimey said.

The fact that the JLD has managed to survive and thrive for so long is a point of pride among current and former members.

“In this day and age, for an organization to be around for 100 years is a feat, in itself,” Tiderington said.

The Detroit Historical Museum is located at 5401 Woodward, at Kirby, in the Cultural Center. Admission is free. Hours are 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information, call (313) 833-1805 or visit www.detroithistorical.org.

For more about the Junior League of Detroit, call (313) 881-0040 or visit www.jldetroit.org. To see an interactive map that outlines different JLD projects, visit http://bit.ly/1k3HRP5.