That’s a question many people who volunteer their time and talent have asked, at one time for another.

In answering that question, at least at The Junior League, you need to look at a longer perspective than just what we did today, last month or last year. Take just one important focus issue for Leagues throughout our 110-history: literacy, particularly for children.

More than half of our 292 Leagues focus on literacy and related educational and knowledge-sharing programs that provide crucial resources to children and others in need. While the programs vary in focus – from the development and facilitation of educational and family literacy programs to book donations, book drives and story-telling sessions – they all share a common objective: to enable an individual to achieve his or her goals, to develop his or her knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in society.

But that focus – and that commitment – really goes back to the beginning of The Junior League.

1900s: The Junior League of the City of New York recognizes the need to address the lack of education among New York’s rapidly growing immigrant population by providing funds and volunteers to Lower East Side settlement houses that offered community services to those in need. The League later founded a “Visiting Teachers Program” to work with families to tutor children having difficulty in school. This initiative became the first Junior League pilot project.

1910s: Junior League members are placed throughout their communities as trained volunteers in Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore and Boston.

1920s: A $22,000 investment from the Junior League of Chicago to fund programs stressing children’s art, education and leadership lead to the Children’s Theatre of Chicago, demonstrating the power and potential of children’s theater to support literacy and academic performance. Nearly 90 other Leagues established theatre programs in their communities.

1930s: With the onset of the Great Depression, The Junior League turned its attention to social and children’s welfare issues to help alleviate the stress on families resulting from the unprecedented economic and social conditions of the time.

1950s: The Junior League’s focus on literacy and education returned in force after World War II, when Junior League volunteers entered the classroom to alleviate crowding from the Baby Boom and created special programs that might not have been possible without their support. Nearly 150 Leagues provided remedial reading centers, diagnostic teaching programs and programs for gifted and challenged children.

1960s,1970s: The Junior League of New Orleans established a school for the deaf for preschoolers. The Junior League of Seattle created a series of training tapes for the learning disabled, and several Junior Leagues, including Tallahassee, Eugene and The Palm Beaches, became actively involved in the school system as tutors. The Junior League of Detroit sponsored a school volunteer pilot project that battled the city’s school dropout problem.

1980s, 1990s: As First Lady, Barbara Bush (Junior League of Houston) became an eloquent and forceful supporter of reading and literacy for children, as did daughter-in-law Laura Bush (Junior Leagues of Midland and Austin) a decade later. The Junior League of Austin developed a model program called Con Mi Madre to encourage Hispanic girls to stay in school and seek higher education. The Junior League of Winston-Salem educated caregivers on the value of reading to children through a program called Read to Me.

2000s: A blossoming of reading and literacy initiatives took place across the Leagues. Just a few examples:

  • The Junior League of Portland’s Between the Lines program promotes literacy and strengthens family bonds between incarcerated parents and their children. Parents choose a book for their child and a Junior League volunteer makes a recording of the parent reading the book aloud. The recorded reading is then sent to their children in CD-format along with a new, gift-wrapped book. JLP has expanded Between the Lines to support a continued connection between children and their parents who are deployed on active duty by the National Guard. JLP continued its innovative work in literacy with its highly acclaimed Bring Me A Book curriculum, which provides parents and caregivers training on read-aloud strategies as well as access to high-quality children’s literature.
  • The Junior League of Spartanburg’s Family Connections program works to improve parents’ basic literacy and academic skills, support their children’s development and emergent literacy skills so they are prepared to be successful in school, and increase parents’ skills and knowledge about the rights and responsibilities as their children’s first teachers.
  • Volunteers in the Junior League of Palo Alto • Mid-Peninsula Project READ Redwood City tutor children four times a month, including creating an individualized learning plan, helping complete their homework, reading aloud together, and playing games or other fun activities that further strengthen literacy skills.
  • And the 12 Junior Leagues of Georgia reached their goal of donating 1 million minutes of volunteer reading time to Georgia’s schoolchildren through the Million Minute Read program.

And there’s more…but you get the idea. At The Junior League, what we do as volunteers doesn’t happen in isolation. It builds on our collective achievements in the past. It borrows ideas from other Leagues. And it evolves to meet the changing needs of our people and our society.

And the key to success is often partnering with the right community partners that can help provide the critical mass to get the initiative off the ground, expand the focus of the program over time and, often, end up taking the hand-off as your League moves on to new projects!

Keep up the good work!