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From art tours to crisis nursery: Junior League’s 85 years of innovative volunteering

I am no fan of news releases announcing that some organization is celebrating an anniversary. So when my editor forwarded one saying the Junior League of Minneapolis turned 85, my finger was a half-twitch away from the delete key.

I am no fan of news releases announcing that some organization is celebrating an anniversary. So when my editor forwarded one saying the Junior League of Minneapolis turned 85, my finger was a half-twitch away from the delete key. Heck, as far as anniversaries go, 85 is boring.

I scanned the list of its historical accomplishments and my finger paused when I read the Junior League took credit for starting the Minneapolis Institute of Arts‘ docent program. (I’m a fan of both the MIA and docents; I know squat about art so I appreciate the insights.)

The Junior League, an organization of women, started giving schoolchildren guided tours of the MIA in 1947-48. Members served 3,300 kids that first year, the release said. So I called the MIA, one of several calls that persuaded me to write this post.

Sheila McGuire, director of the MIA’s Museum Guide Program, said the Junior League absolutely deserves credit for starting the docent program. The Friends of the Museum took over the program and now the MIA has an entire education division with 380 guides. “It has grown immensely, into a huge program where we tour 140,000 people a year,” she said.

I picked out a few others to call, including the Greater Minneapolis Crisis Nursery. Joel Bergstrom, development and communications director, said the Junior League was instrumental in opening the nursery in 1983. Starting in the 1970s, the League spent years researching how to reduce child abuse and neglect and concluded the area needed a place where families in crisis could bring children for a brief period while the parents worked out their problems.

Other organizations helped open the nursery’s doors, but the Junior League truly is the founding agency, Bergstrom said.  “We have had over 100 Junior League members serve in our leadership. It is an ongoing commitment.”

The Junior League also started Free Arts Minnesota, an organization that mentors abused, neglected and at-risk children through dance, drama and other art opportunities. Erin Lauderman, Free Arts director of programs and operations, shot me an email saying the Junior League started the organization in 1997 and backed it financially for five years. It’s now a freestanding nonprofit serving 2,000 children a year. Junior League members continue to serve on the board and volunteer.

OK, enough for me. A tip of the cap and happy 85th.

So now what?
The Junior League of Minneapolis serves the west metro area and is “committed to promoting voluntarism, developing the potential of women and improving the community through the effective action and leadership of trained volunteers.”

The organization also is in transition. Compared to the League’s earlier years, more women work. And now there are more nonprofit organizations competing for women’s time and energy.

The League used to own its own building, but it was sitting empty most of the time, said Emily Backstrom, the League’s president. The League sold the building about a year ago; in September it moved into leased space at The Woman’s Club of Minneapolis in Loring Park, a promising fit, said Backstrom, a senior finance manager for General Mills. “It is an example of how times have changed,” she said.

League enrollment has declined since 2000, though it had a good recruiting year last year. It now has 753 members, 235 active and 465 sustainers (alumni). Dues are $160 a year and active members are expected to volunteer five to 10 hours a month.

The League has several ongoing programs, including Books 4 Kids, which has given away 200,000 books to children through schools and nonprofit agencies, and LeagueAires, a music therapy group.

It also is developing new programs. For instance, the League is talking to Second Harvest Heartland about how children who qualify for free- or reduced-priced lunches during the school week could continue to get nutritious food during the weekend. Other communities have launched successful backpack programs, Backstrom said. Volunteers get backpacks, fill them with food and children take them home on Fridays. It’s the kind of project the League would do start to finish, from planning to packing.

The Junior League will vote on that and other new projects in March. “We are going to have to continue to remain relevant to women of today and remain relevant to the community that we serve,” Backstrom said.

Volunteer help available
The Junior League also has a Helping Hands program, where it offers volunteer help to other nonprofits. For instance, its members cook meals for children at the Crisis Nursery. It also provides trained volunteers to organizations trying to launch a new fundraiser or plan a large-scale public event.

Given the tough economy, it seems like a good offer. Organizations wanting to make a pitch for help on a project, call 612-238-8460. (Hint: The League focuses its work on programs that improve the health and well-being of women and children.)

“We are always looking for new connections,” Backstrom said.