Nonprofit organizations have long been essential threads in the tapestry that is the Crescent City. In its 90-year history, the Junior League of New Orleans has played a vibrant role in that story, helping rebuild a city devastated by natural disasters, promoting healthy families, developing the potential of women, as well as educating and protecting the city’s youngest residents.
In 1923, ten New Orleans women decided they could do more with their lives and spur on positive growth and change in their beloved city. They recruited like-minded women and joined the Association of Junior Leagues International, an organization that came into being in 1921, one year after the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. The Junior League of New Orleans officially launched on March 31, 1924 with 40 women dedicated to making a difference. Although the faces have changed through the years, the commitment to building a better Metropolitan New Orleans has thrived as it has passed down from generation to generation of members.
Now, JLNO is home to more than 2,300 Provisional, Active, and Sustaining members, making it the 12th largest League out of 292 in the world. Recent Provisional classes infuse JLNO with between 150 to 200 passionate volunteers. Love or the power of a helping hand is difficult to quantify with numbers. During the past five years, JLNO has invested more than $3 million and approximately 225,000 volunteer hours in the Metropolitan New Orleans area. JLNO’s history laid the foundation and built the infrastructure for that type of impact. Many of JLNO’s initial programs still exist, while others have been so successful they now stand on their own, allowing the organization to respond to the changing needs to today’s New Orleans with innovative initiatives.
Within years of its founding, the fledgling JLNO launched some of its most crucial and enduring programs, including one that would go on to foster future programs. The Nutrition Center ensured underprivileged children had access to proper nutrition. JLNO volunteers assisted a full-time nutritionist in serving some of the youngest and most vulnerable New Orleanians. 1927 marked the beginning of JLNO’s commitment to exposing children to the arts and using that medium to help further their education. The Puppet Program provided free educational puppet shows in libraries, hospitals, and other public venues.
Also in 1927, JLNO established a signature in the community – the Bloomin’ Deals Thrift Shop. It first opened on Royal Street in the French Quarter, later relocated to Bourbon Street and eventually settled into its current location Uptown on Freret Street in 1960.
Perhaps in anticipation of the debilitating long-term repercussions of the Stock Market Crash of 1929, the Great Depression, and World War II, JLNO established a Nursery School in 1931 to supplement the Nutrition Center. It proved increasingly valuable as the Depression deepened and more women headed into the workplace. Married women made up one-third of the Depression-era female work force, which was a drastic 50% increase from the 1920s, according to the National Women’s History Museum. JLNO’s Nursery School provided mother’s groups, craft classes, art lessons, and child care. In 1938, the operation became known as the Orleans Neighborhood Center.
In 1937, JLNO also established the Children’s Theater Program. It existed until 1995 when it helped inspire the creation of the city’s Children’s Arts Council.
As the country began to mend from World War II in the last half of this decade, JLNO committed itself to documenting and preserving the history of New Orleans by establishing various museum projects across the city. It started that effort in 1947 with a commitment to the Delgado Museum, which is now the New Orleans Museum of Art. JLNO members served as docents and even exhibit organizers, spearheading two exhibits every year specifically geared for school children. This dedication continued for 26 years, within which JLNO members voted to support the purchase of Portrait of Estelle Musson Degas by Edgar Degas in 1964.
Beginning in 1946 and continuing for 38 years, JLNO distributed Fun Book magazine to patients at Children’s Hospital and later to 34 community agencies and schools. JLNO added another dimension to the Fun Book project in 1969 when it began training high school volunteers in its production.
As conditions in the US brightened, JLNO focused more time on promoting the arts and increasing access to activities such as singing and acting. JLNO founded Creative Dramatics in 1951 and the Choral Group in 1958, both of which are credited with laying the foundation for modern day programs, such as the city’s Children’s Arts Council.
JLNO furthered its commitment to establishing museum programs documenting and sharing local history. Beginning in 1956 and continuing for fifteen years, JLNO supported the Louisiana State Museum at the Cabildo. The organization assisted in inventory and documentary services, established a “guide” program at the museum in cooperation with Friends of the Cabildo and the Louisiana State Museum, and created a guided tour program for school children.
The 1960s was a decade of turmoil and change for American society. That didn’t mean, however, that JLNO lost focus in such dynamic times. As Marjorie McCullough Lunken (Hiatt), AJLI President, said in 1961, “It seems clear that the Junior Leagues do not have to change their basic ideas or ideals, but it may be that we shall have to change some our areas of emphasis to fit a changing world.” With more women in the workforce and a growing emphasis on sharing the responsibilities of the home and child care, JLNO continued in its commitment to helping families and improving access to the arts. JLNO’s first large-scale project, the 1927 Nutrition Center that had become the Orleans Neighborhood Center in 1938, took on its current persona as it merged in 1967 with the Family Service Society. It also continued supporting the Louisiana State Museum at the Cabildo, and the Choral Group kept performing at hospitals, children’s homes, homes for the aged and infirmed, and various other institutions.
JLNO also began raising awareness about the needs of the mentally and physically disabled. From 1960 to 1967, it contributed funds to the Dr. Russell L. Holman Vocational Center for mentally-disabled teenage girls, and JLNO volunteers assisted in training at the center. Primarily as a result of the success of this project, the National Rehabilitation Association awarded JLNO with a Citation of Merit in April 1963. In March 1965, JLNO received the first Community Volunteer Service Good Planning Award for its part in the initial planning of the Holman Center project. As an extension of its work with the Holman Center, JLNO members compiled, edited, and published A Guide to New Orleans for the Handicapped, with the Louisiana Chapter of the National Society for Crippled Children and Adults, Inc. The booklet was first published in 1965, then updated and revised in 1971and 1976.
To further cement its place as a dependable facilitator for lasting change in Metropolitan New Orleans, JLNO purchased Post Office Station B at 4319 Carondelet Street for its Headquarters. Administrative operations moved in during the 1968-1969 League year, and the organization completed a two-story addition (approximately 784 square feet) in 1980.
In the 1970s, JLNO established four substantial projects that would become sustainable, independent forces for improving Metropolitan New Orleans in the decades to come. With great determination, JLNO members diversified their efforts and recognized the need to preserve our culture, architecture, environment, and families.
Because it had long been active in Children’s Theatre, JLNO encouraged the formation of diverse and representative groups into an organization that would bring cultural experiences to more children. The Children’s Arts Council began its first year of operation with 37 groups as members and introduced a series of four varied productions for children. In May 1973, the Council became an official City agency as part of New Orleans Recreation Department.
When JLNO began its preservation efforts, it stepped into uncharted territory that would prove close to the hearts of many New Orleanians and crucial to the city’s architectural integrity post Hurricane Katrina. This started with the Building Watchers Tour in 1973 that used trained guides to lead monthly tours into historic inner-city neighborhoods. That triggered a passion amongst tour-goers to step in and preserve a treasure fast falling into disarray. In response, JLNO organized individuals involved in preservation and urban planning into a community group called the Preservation Alliance of New Orleans, which became what is known today as the Preservation Resource Center. The PRC now stands independent from JLNO, but JLNO is an ardent supporter, collaborating with the PRC through the revitalization project Rebuilding Together.
In addition to preserving the unique architecture of New Orleans, JLNO in the 1970’s was interested in preserving the environment. In May of 1973, JLNO committed volunteers and funding to organize a community group to study the feasibility of establishing an Environmental Study Center in or near New Orleans. This Environmental Study Center Steering Committee incorporated into the Louisiana Nature Center, Inc. in December of 1974, and the Center opened to the public in 1980. JLNO continued to support it financially and with volunteers for an additional two years.
Finally, the end of this decade brought preservation of the family to the forefront. In March 1978, JLNO voted to dedicate $90,000 over a four-year period toward the development of a parent resource and training center. Fourteen months later, JLNO and Children's Hospital joined forces to create The Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital. By 1981, the Director and Assistant Director had the support of 65 volunteers and a membership of 280 families. After seven years, over $160,000 in funding, and thousands of volunteer hours, JLNO proudly turned this project over as a lasting resource for the community.
Throughout the country, volunteer initiatives in the 1980s focused on substance abuse awareness. JLNO built upon national programs like the “Just Say No” campaign and Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) to inform the public about the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse. This included an eight-year partnership with the Committee on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse (CADA) for Substance Abuse Education in New Orleans (SAENO) and publication of the Handbook on Alcohol and Drugs (HAD), a comprehensive guide of programs, speakers, and agencies addressing substance abuse in Metropolitan New Orleans. JLNO also engaged in AJLI’s Woman to Woman program, gathering and reporting data about alcohol related services for local women.
A few projects JLNO started in the mid-to-late 1980s persist today. While they may have taken a brief hiatus or evolved, the concepts of these initiatives influence JLNO’s current activities. JLNO made its first foray into nonprofit board leadership training with the Volunteer Leadership Training Center, a joint project with United Way of the Greater New Orleans Area, from which the Get on Board concept would follow. Now in its 30th year, the Community Assistance Fund provides much needed funding to other nonprofits who submit grant applications through a rigorous and thoughtful process. Grants range from $1,000 to $4,000 and are currently awarded twice a year. Through a partnership with the Preservation Resource Center and Shell, JLNO’s Rebuilding Together project has been renovating houses for low-income, elderly, and/or disabled homeowners since 1989. The project started as Christmas in October and has gone from a two-day event to four days over two weekends. It was renamed in 2007, two years after Hurricane Katrina, and has expanded to four houses.
As it has done throughout its history, JLNO focused much of its efforts in the 1990s on children’s education, bringing three renowned national programs to the at-risk youth population of Metropolitan New Orleans. The Each One Save One mentoring program endeavored to positively impact the lives of youths and directly address several community needs, including education, healthy children and families, adolescent crime, and the quality of life in our community. JLNO helped to recruit, screen, train, support, and monitor mentors and provided role models for at-risk youth to avoid crime, drugs, and other self-defeating patterns of behavior.
To further address juvenile crime, JLNO partnered with the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court, Mayor Marc Morial, and the New Orleans City Council to develop and implement New Orleans Teen Court. This nationwide program sought to prevent juvenile first-time misdemeanor offenders from committing additional, more serious crimes. The community-based alternative or diversionary program stressed taking responsibility for one’s actions and making restitution to victims and to society as a whole. Two years after starting in Orleans Parish, JLNO helped expand the program into Jefferson Parish.
One youth program started in the 1990s remains a popular source of education for girls and boys. In collaboration with The Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital, JLNO’s Safe Sitter workshop provides adolescents with improved child care skills to reduce the number of accidental and preventable deaths among children and prepare young people for their future responsibilities as parents. This project continues to teach area children to be educated babysitters, with over 150 children going through the program each summer.
The first decade of the 21st century brought unprecedented challenges to Metropolitan New Orleans. When Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005, the people of southeast Louisiana and the Mississippi and Alabama coasts faced an uncertain future and needed assistance from nonprofit organizations more than ever before. JLNO remained committed to its mission, despite sustaining damage to its properties and having a dispersed membership. Drawing on the training and leadership that being a Junior League member provides, the organization opened Bloomin’ Deals on December 16, 2005 and held its first General Membership Meeting at Headquarters on January 24, 2006. It began to assist with rebuilding efforts. In the fall of 2006, over 600 volunteers from Junior Leagues across the world traveled to New Orleans to participate in a work week to rehabilitate, renovate, and rejuvenate New Orleans. The city-wide endeavor rebuilt homes, public parks, and cemeteries and assisted with new construction.
JLNO recognized that physical structures were not the only foundations that required rebuilding and extended its effort to help reconstitute the leadership for nonprofit organizations. Many board members had left the area or were unable to recommit to nonprofit organizations because of personal losses. The city was, however, seeing an influx of young, enthusiastic volunteers. They simply needed training and received it when JLNO started the Get on Board nonprofit board training program in 2008. Get on Board has remained relevant, and in 2012, AJLI awarded JLNO the Community Impact Award.
Rebuilding New Orleans was not the only focus area of JLNO in the 2000s. The organization continued working to improve children’s education and ensure healthy families. From 2007 to the present, JLNO offers volunteer and financial support to the Lafayette Academy Charter School and presents the Kids in the Kitchen program. An AJLI initiative to address the national epidemic of childhood obesity, Kids in the Kitchen uses hands-on activities that engage children in learning about making healthy food and lifestyle choices. For two years, JLNO partnered with the Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SoFAB) to deliver cutting-edge culinary camps on safe and healthy food preparation, while preserving Southern culinary techniques and connecting food to its origins.
The first half of this decade focused on healthy families, children’s education and wellbeing, and rebuilding New Orleans, and JLNO projects reflect the changing needs of the community and provide meaningful experiences for its members. In addition to Community Assistance Fund grants, Get on Board, Kids in the Kitchen, Lafayette Charter School Support, Rebuilding Together, and Safe Sitter, additional projects brought much needed assistance and education to all people, from the elderly to infants, in Metropolitan New Orleans.
Started in 2010, Senior Outreach addresses an important need in the community for programming and volunteers working with senior citizens. JLNO partners with adult day care centers and nursing homes to staff volunteer activities such as art projects, musical performances, and special events that enrich and nurture the emotional wellbeing of the residents. JLNO began committing funds and volunteers in 2012 for an educational center at the Bayou District Foundation’s Columbia Parc mixed-income housing development. JLNO’s involvement with Educare New Orleans provides teacher assistance and hands-on activities to support this early childhood learning experience for at-risk children, ages six-weeks to five-years old. Support for Educare now combines with volunteer efforts at Lafayette Academy as our Educational Support Services initiative. Reflecting JLNO’s pursuit of preparing children to thrive in the adult world that awaits, 2013 marked the inception of Lemonade Day University, an experience which exposes children to the initial principles of owning and running businesses.
As proof of the impact a JLNO member can have, AJLI awarded its 2012 Mary Harriman Community Leadership Award to JLNO Member, Anne McDonald Milling. This award appropriately named for the founder of the Junior League movement 100 years ago, celebrates a woman of outstanding leadership in the Junior League who uses her talents and resources to improve the social and economic conditions of others and also exemplifies the Junior League Mission and Vision. Through advocacy, collaboration, direct service, or community education, she embraces her community and makes a unique and significant difference as a leader. This Award, given every year by AJLI, provides a contemporary link to Mary Harriman’s sense of social responsibility, as well as her ability to encourage others to share their talents through effective volunteer service.
In 2013, JLNO embarked on a year-long extensive strategic planning process to assess the state of our League and plan for its future. The women spearheading this effort worked with past and present board members, ad hoc committees, representatives from the general membership, and the community at large, and enlisted the help of a professional strategy leader. Through this initiative, JLNO changed its focus to Advancing the Wellbeing of Women and began researching and developing programs that enhance women’s economic opportunities, improve women’s physical and mental health, and provide family support. One such project was the Diaper Bank. Leveraging the strength of our entire membership, the Diaper Bank raises our community’s awareness of “diaper need,” hosts diaper drives, buys diapers at a highly discounted rate, provides volunteer support for sorting, packing, and distributing diapers, and stores diapers for distribution throughout Metropolitan New Orleans. The strategic decision and quick implementation earned the organization the prestigious JL Award for Vision from AJLI in 2015. This award recognizes a Junior League that demonstrates an outstanding ability to engage in Mission-based strategic thinking and planning and is only awarded to one Junior League each year.
JLNO now invests more than $600,000 every year into community programs and member training. Those members in turn re-invest their time – 45,000 hours a year – into building a stronger, better Metropolitan New Orleans for the future.