In 1914, while the world’s attention was focused on the Great War, here in the U.S., the women’s suffrage movement was gathering steam. Inspired to help women develop their potential and contribute to society, St. Louis suffragists Margaret McKittrick and Ann Drew founded the Junior League of St. Louis.
This year, the local affiliate of the Junior League is observing its 100th anniversary, with much to celebrate. Throughout the years, the organization has started a number of efforts to help the St. Louis community, many of which have become independent nonprofits that are active to this day. “The first members’ project was the Occupational Therapy Project, which is still going on through the Washington University School of Occupational Therapy,” says current president Maureen Strasheim. “Our philosophy is always to get them started and then turn them over to the community. We’ve had several different vocations, but our focus is always on training members to be effective volunteers and improving the community.”
Among some of the local chapter’s major accomplishments were a junior kindergarten program started in 1964, which was the forerunner of the nationwide Head Start program; and the Forest Park Children’s Center, which began in 1945 and later merged with Edgewood, Strasheim notes. “This League has really been recognized for our innovation throughout the years. There are certain Leagues you look too, like New York and Dallas, and St. Louis has played that role, as well.”
To kick off the celebration, the Junior League will host an anniversary luncheon on Feb. 6 at the Hilton St. Louis Frontenac. “It’s a celebration of our members, past and present, who have made a difference in the community. We’re also inviting people from projects we’ve worked with over the years,” Strasheim says. Continuing the celebration, the local chapter will have the distinction of hosting the Association of Junior Leagues International for its annual conference. About 800 representatives are expected from the 292 Junior League affiliates, which span four countries, she adds. From January through May, an educational traveling exhibit on the history of Junior League’s contributions to the community will visit four library branches. Finally, on Oct. 25, a gala will conclude the anniversary celebrations.
“We’ll continue with our community projects throughout the year,” Strasheim says. “The biggest one is our Strong Women & Families Health & Resource Fair, in cooperation with Grace Hill, which takes place in April.” The event, which hosted 300 participants last year, brings together service providers in fields from health services to banking and legal consultants, to help economically challenged women with many different needs. “We have dental exams, eye exams, you can talk to a banker about setting up a bank account or a lawyer about any legal issues you might have. It’s more than just education; it’s a one-stop resource fair.”
Other long-term League projects include the St. Louis Family Theatre Series, now in its 26th year of providing children’s theater to inspire a love of reading; as well as the League Larks and Nightingales, who provide music therapy at venues such as senior living centers. Members also are enthusiastic about the League’s recent involvement with City Greens/Food Desert Project, a co-operative grocery store run in collaboration with City Greens Produce to provide fresh produce to underserved residents in the Midtown area, Strasheim says.
With an ever-growing volunteer base, Strasheim has high hopes that the Junior League will continue to impact the St. Louis community for many years to come. “We are just really focusing on our mission to promote volunteerism, develop the potential of women and improve the community through trained volunteers. The mission drives everything that we do.”