News Column

100 years of serving Detroit: Junior League exhibit pays tribute

August 3, 2014

By Cassandra Spratling, Detroit Free Press

Aug. 03--Therese Bellaimey realized when she was talking to a friend that it was time to rethink the Junior League.

Not only had her friend produced an award-winning documentary -- she was able to do it because the Junior League of Detroit had given her the skills and the money to execute and produce the project.

"I was curious about an organization that would teach hands-on skills and give you a network of friends at the same time," says Bellaimey, 57, of Detroit.

"I had this image of the Junior League as white gloves and pearls," she says. "Not only were they white women, but they were white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant."

Bellaimey, who unlike many past members is Catholic, took another look at the organization and liked what she saw.

Yes, they once had a reputation as a hoity-toity bunch, but they've always been focused on making life better for women and children.

This year the Junior League of Detroit is celebrating 100 years of service with an exhibit at the Detroit Historical Museum through Sept. 28. It documents a century of service and highlights projects ranging from creating a place where female workers could lunch in 1915 -- yes, bars and eating establishments were once for men only -- to its most popular ongoing fund-raiser, the Designers' Show House, which started in 1976 and brings in nearly $200,000 a year.

The Junior League of Detroit's story also tells of the progress of women who have long understood that service is the price of privilege.

Once tailored to women 20 to 40 years old -- thus the name, junior -- it now welcomes all adult women to apply for membership. In the late 1980s, the Detroit League dropped its clause requiring prospective members to be recommended by current members. It also offers a mandatory training component and champions legislation that positively impacts women and children.

The first Junior League was founded in 1901 in New York City and has since grown into an international organization. The Association of Junior Leagues International has 292 leagues in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Britain. Besides Detroit, the other Michigan leagues are in Ann Arbor, Battle Creek, Birmingham, Flint, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Lansing and Saginaw Valley.

Doris Brucker, 84, of Grosse Pointe Farms has been a member for 58 years and was president in 1964 when the Junior League of Detroit celebrated 50 years.

At that time, she was a stay-at-home mother. She recalls advocating for opening the league to women older than 40, a suggestion met with resistance from other league leaders.

"My argument was that Junior League is not a Little League. It's the big leagues," Brucker says. "It didn't matter the age. Women who want to volunteer and make a contribution are at all ages."

Though still predominantly white, the Detroit League is more diverse. "You get to know people you'd never probably meet. Now, you're working together," Brucker says.

Ursula Henry, 40-something, of Grosse Pointe Park, joined the Detroit League in 2011 after attending several of its home shows for several years.

"When I looked into membership several years ago, I saw you had to be recommended by a member I didn't know anybody in the league," says Henry, who is African American. She later attended a recruitment fair where she learned of the open application process.

Diversity not only leads to a broader base of ideas and points of view, it enhances the organization's image and impact, Henry says.

"When we go out to tutor or do a service project and the children see someone who looks like them who is doing things for the community, it perhaps encourages them to do better in their communities and to give back," says Henry, an attorney in the Wayne County Sheriff's Office.

Progress for women also cut into membership. Its numbers dropped from about 1,000 in the 1980s to about 500 today as more jobs and other opportunities opened to women, and women had other demands on their time.

"Times have changed. People had a hard time trying to find that balance between work, family and the volunteer commitment demanded by the league," says current president, Michelle Tiderington. "When you look back, probably 10% of our members worked outside the home. Now probably 10% stay at home and don't have to work for pay."

Tiderington, 38, of Grosse Pointe Farms, a stay-at-home mom herself, joined the league 10 years ago because she was new to the area, and wanted a social circle that expanded beyond play groups focused on children's activities.

"I wanted to do grown-up things. I wanted something of my own," says Tiderington, who was introduced to the league by a tennis buddy.

She now finds herself frequently taking her four children along whether reading aloud at a Detroit public library, packing kitchen baskets for women transitioning from homeless shelters, or cleaning the league's offices, headquartered in Grosse Pointe Farms.

It's a way she combats the me-me-me mind-set she has seen in too many children.

"A lot of kids feel everyone lives the way they live or better," says Tiderington, whose children are ages 7 to 13. "Its important that they know when you are fortunate, you help out those in need. If I want them to grow up with that mind-set, I have to emulate it."

The league's commitment to training women -- from organizational leadership to basics like film production -- is a big part of its appeal for Robin Heller, 59, of Grosse Pointe Farms. A retired GM executive, she founded a small nonprofit focused on alerting people to environmentally safe personal care, cleaning and gardening products.

"The Junior League is a great way to learn how to be an effective volunteer, not just to pack boxes, but how to effectively run an organization," Heller says. "I credit the skills I learned through the Junior League with being able to head a nonprofit."

She also appreciates that the organization finds a need, creates projects to meet those needs and helps launch them as independent entities.

Examples are displayed throughout the exhibit at the Detroit Historical Museum. For example, the Detroit league's senior center, established in 1953, became Adult Well-Being Services.

Bellaimey is especially proud of the renovation of the second floor of the Monteith Public Library on Detroit's east side, a branch the league adopted in 2001. The league's $165,000 donation came with numerous volunteer hours.

"We were able to turn an upstairs space that was essentially condemned into a very lovely, pretty place," says Bellaimey, CEO of Detroit Tube Products, a 103-year-old family-owned business in southwest Detroit. "As a result, children in that community are able to have educational and enrichment opportunities that a lot of affluent families take for granted."

Bellaimey, who served on the Detroit Historical Museum exhibit committee, says despite her initial "white gloves and pearls" image, she gained a deeper appreciation for the organization as she did research for the exhibit.

"It's hard to fathom how an organization made lots of money putting on a talent show, but they did," she says, noting that the league's annual talent show called the Follies, held in places such as Music Hall, was the major fund-raiser for many years.

The league also hosted teas and linen sales, offering dainty handkerchiefs and homemade aprons, as fund-raisers.

"As I was doing the research I was really struck, so often, by how much our lives have changed, and how formal women used to be," she says. "Yet these very dressed-up women were not just ordering other people to do stuff, but they were giving money and rolling up their sleeves and doing the work. There's a history of that in this organization.

"I think people will walk away from that exhibit and be surprised by ... the big impact the Junior League has had on Detroit over the past 100 years," Bellaimey says. "And I hope some community-minded women will decide to join us to continue this tradition."

Source: Exhibit and website of Junior League of Detroit: www.jldetroit.org/

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(c)2014 the Detroit Free Press

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