A look back, inside, and around at an organization mobilizing women for the greater good

Story by Brooklyn Lindsey • Photography by Tina Sargeant

When considering a story to tell, writers often peer through investigative lenses, searching for what others might overlook, probing for information, insights, or surprising revelations. They wish for a detail to grab their curiosity, a place in the story where everyone reading, regardless of their background, would be drawn to enter in and compelled to respond.
There are also rare moments when the writer becomes the reader and the lines are blurred, and it’s difficult to distinguish which way is up because what has been uncovered is so
important and connective and revelatory that it begs to be wrestled with even before it’s given as a gift to the reader.
untitled124356Retrospective turned introspective as I learned about a lively and deeply philanthropic guild of women that includes and impacts everyone in our community, the Junior League of Greater Lakeland. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if covering a story on the Junior League would be helpful. I’d heard that it was an elite club of sorts. It required an invitation, a sponsor, a name, extra monetary resources, and a Lakeland heritage.
Measuring up to the rumored standard was never a possibility in my mind, having lived here only six years, working full-time with two small children, and living on a youth minister’s
budget. I’d never thought twice about the Junior League. Therefore, writing a story about the League caused me to hesitate and pause with some quizzical doubt. My initial thoughts were that where few are included, few are affected. They do good things, but they’re just not “me,” so they’re probably not really “us.” Maybe the story wouldn’t be the best fit for our much larger and more diverse community. Maybe I shouldn’t learn more. I didn’t want to meddle or judge but to just leave it alone and move on.
However, there was a shift that started when I, the curious reporter, began to see and hear evidence from friends in the community that conflicted with my perceptions as an outsider.
I decided to go ahead and dive into the world of the Junior League of Greater Lakeland, speak with those at the heart of the organization, and learn what it’s really all about. Mid-interview, I become grateful. Engaged. Thankful. Wondering why it took so long for me to learn about the League and how it has evolved over the years.
I hadn’t realized the countless benefits both small and large that our families have received and experienced due to the dedication and commitment of the League. As I spoke with President-Elect Tiffany Osler, I quickly realized that I was a part of the story I was about to tell. And that’s a very exciting place to be. One of the most beautiful and historic buildings in Lakeland overlooks Lake Morton. You may have wondered what this building is and what it is used for. Known as the Sorosis Building, it’s the place where community gathers on the weekends. It’s rented to brides and grooms, companies, and families for parties.
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While it sits waiting to be photographed, shared, and communed in, its walls swell with history and purpose. Its doors invite others into a philanthropic life and into a community of
women who have learned the secret of living for more than everyday needs and desires. I had no idea how far this building reached — all the way back into the hearts of a few women, bent on education, community development, and women’s issues.
In 1901, Mary Harriman, a nineteen-year-old New York City debutante with a social conscience, formed the Junior League for the promotion of settlement movements (the Association of Junior Leagues International Inc.). The story is striking. Harriman mobilized a group of eighty other young women, hence the name “Junior” League, to work to improve child health, nutrition, and literacy among immigrants living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Inspired by the work, Eleanor Roosevelt, niece of President Theodore Roosevelt, inherited a sense of making a difference from watching her family reach out to paperboys living on the street. In 1903, she joined the Junior League of the City of New York.
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It was moving to learn why these fine women were getting involved. They were concerned about the plight of the poor, many of whom were immigrants who didn’t speak English and living in settlement houses in a wretched state of poverty. These early League members did what they could to help alleviate problems, particularly where children were concerned.
That concern eventually moved south and can be seen today in Lakeland. Beyond the steps of the Sorosis Building, we can peer into the windows and into the lives of those who began a great movement in our city.
Nineteen thirty-three was a pivotal year; it’s when the Junior Welfare League of Lakeland was organized. Twenty-five charter members adopted to make charitable volunteer service within the community their purpose. This group began gathering together to focus on the same purposes that were born in New York City and were necessary in Lakeland, Florida.
The Association of Junior Leagues International Inc. (AJLI) currently has a membership of over 160,000 women in 293 Leagues in four countries — Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The twenty-five charter members and those who followed are a part of this respected international movement.
Today, the Junior Welfare League has evolved into the Junior League of Greater Lakeland, an organization that funded and / or founded and contributed to some things our readers may be familiar with:
• The Learning Resource Center
• Polk Museum of Art
• Lakeland Christmas Parade
• The Salvation Army’s Halo Child Enrichment Center
• Explorations V Children’s Museum
• The Bethany Center
• Lakeland’s Annual PigFest
• Reading Is Fundamental Program
This is an attention-grabbing list. So how can an “elite,” “closed,” “social” group do so much for Lakeland? Perhaps those words that may have once described the Junior League are no longer applicable. Maybe these words need replacing, and an honoring of the past and a reimagining of the present and future needs to take place.
We started with coffee. Although Tiffany is the incoming president of the Junior League of Greater Lakeland, it was surprising to hear that she has been a member for nearly ten years. She’s a young wife and mom, but also a volunteer in active community service and a leader developing other leaders.
With her notes jotted on a piece of paper, I found Tiffany to be familial and disarming. She told me in advance that she would normally dress professionally for our interview, but we had made a quick decision to meet up and were both caught in our workout clothes, which didn’t seem to be a problem for either of us.
Amid the noise of South Florida Avenue and the Starbucks at Beacon Road, I began to learn about the Junior League. Tiffany’s first sentence about the Junior League was impressive. “We are currently in our eightieth year.” There was a nostalgic pride coupled with hopeful optimism that they have come a long way and are excited about the future.
In the 1940’s wartime effort, the Junior League shifted from community service in the traditional sense to making care packages for soldiers and even taking shifts sighting enemy planes from the roof of the old Regency hotel. In the years following, the women focused on impacting literacy development, early childhood readiness, and developing women professionally. Because of these efforts, Lakeland is the home of the longest-running Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) program in the state. It was founded by Past President Anne McLaughlin.
It sounded like the League was and is a solid group of women with a common purpose. But curiosity was killing me. I had heard that the Junior League was a socialite club hosting tea parties and limited to those who could meet during the day. I couldn’t help but think of the now infamous book, The Help.
We live in a different world, where many women work full- and part-time jobs and aren’t able to meet in the mornings or afternoon for extra meetings. How does the League function
when many don’t have the luxury of free time and even those who do stay at home with children are very busy, managing multiple schedules and diverse responsibilities? How does this actually work for women today? I offered my honest questions and concerns.
Tiffany, more than graceful in her responses, explained how things have evolved and where they are heading. Leaning in, I learned some vital facts. It used to be true that a woman had to know certain people to be included in the Junior League. It was difficult to join. But so much has changed. Currently the League seeks diversity, and a woman can join at any age beyond twenty-two. This year the League has ladies joining ranging from twenty-two years old to fifty-one years old. They are cancer surgeons, teachers, stay-at-home moms, volunteers, and business owners, coming from various backgrounds, religions, ethnicities, and nationalities. A woman interested in joining doesn’t have to know someone or have a connection. As it states in the bylaws, “She shall have an interest in volunteerism, a commitment to community service, and an interest in developing her potential for voluntary community participation.” The League has been intentional about inclusive community, and its membership reflects this purposefulness.Tiffany was debunking my myths.
untitled180917The League is in essence reaching out, opening its arms for any woman who wants to better her community. It’s safe to say that over eighty percent are now actively working outside
of their homes either part-time or full-time.Tiffany continued to share what it’s like to join the League. Again, I waited for that stipulation that excluded half of our population. But there wasn’t one. I wanted to know exactly what it takes to join. Here’s how it shapes up.
Any woman living in Lakeland can make an application to join. Applications are accepted once a year. Once she has applied, she will be assigned to a sponsor if she doesn’t have one already. I was curious about the dues, so I asked about them as well. Surprisingly, the provisional year is only $208 to join ($158 for dues, $25 for yearbook photo, and $25 for Junior League apron). Tiffany says members can make payments over time, and they encourage any women interested to apply. They do not discriminate.
Members become involved by planning or volunteering at one or more of the events held by the League. There are seven meetings a year, held the first Tuesday of every month except December, and one banquet (the Spring Banquet is optional).
Currently there are 506 members in the Junior League of Greater Lakeland. Of this number, there are 140 active members, 330 sustaining members, and 36 provisionals (those seeking
membership). During this year as a provisional, one would learn about the history of the League. The provisional group functions together and participates in a signature group project. The Lakeland Christmas Parade (founded by past president Anne Furr) — is such a project, and all of the provisional members are asked to volunteer.
I ask Tiffany what happens if a member misses a meeting or has to bring their children to a meeting. She explained about the professionalism of the League and that minutes
are always available for those who can’t attend a meeting. Mentors are also provided to make sure each member has access to information if she isn’t able to attend. She says there are moms with their babies at just about every meeting. The League is a family in many ways and encourages family values.
We move on to other aspects of the League and to something that keeps surfacing in our conversation — the literacy program.
Every year, the Junior League goes to the schools with the highest percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunches. Using funds raised through events, the League offers a mini book fair (Reading Is Fundamental program). Today they provide this program to eight schools twice a year, with the opportunity to distribute books to children from kindergarten through fifth grade, working alongside the school resource personnel. Care is taken to provide books at appropriate reading levels.
Tiffany switches from sharing details to speaking from the heart.
“For many of these children,” she says, “the books they receive are the first ones they have ever owned. We get to read to and share with children who have bright futures but limited resources. Literacy is important for every child.”I reflect, becoming a participant in the story once again. I was that child. My mother, the sole provider in a single-parent home of four children, wasn’t able to purchase book-fair books very often. I remember other children getting them and wishing I could have brand-new books, too. Later in life, when she was able, she ordered books for me as her budget allowed. And I remember every new book I ever received in elementary school.
Tiffany has no idea what’s going on in my mind. But this is certain: the League isn’t what I thought it was at all. It’s something beautiful and collective. It’s hard work and dedication.
It’s changing and evolving. It’s including and reaching out.
And it does all of this by hosting fundraisers that thousands of Lakelanders participate in every year. In addition to renting the Sorosis Building for weddings and events, the Junior
League also supports Lakeland’s annual PigFest. (Did you know that the PigFest is an official and highly regarded stop on the Kansas City BBQ circuit? Ask my husband, BBQ is a big deal in our family. And now that I know why we have this event in Lakeland — to support literacy programs here — I’m doubly obligated to eat the best burnt ends money can buy!)
The volunteer recruiting and event planning of the PigFest is powered and supplied by Junior League efforts. Girls Inc. partners by selling the drinks, and their program benefits the community as well. This year, the Junior League raised over $111,000 at PigFest.
The Junior League also adopted the Lakeland Pro-Am Tennis Tournament. The 2013 Pro-AM raised $21,000, benefiting the Achievement Academy which assists children with special needs in reaching their full potential by providing quality education, therapy, and family support. The Pro-Am benefits three community programs: Reading Is Fundamental, Ready to Read, and the World of Reading program, providing both literacy education and resources for Lakeland children.
Publix Charities and grants from Florida’s Natural, the Community Foundation of Greater Lakeland, Rooms 2 Go Children’s Fund, Target Grants, are all sources that fund the community programs the Junior League seeks to provide. Members of the community may also donate to the annual fund that helps the League develop women professionally and fund programs.
The shape and function of the Junior League becomes more fascinating as the layers unfold. I feel myself wanting to know more, not for the sake of writing an article, but because I feel drawn to the core values and the possibilities of women working together to be the change they want to see in the world.It turns out the Junior League is committed to developing the potential of women as well. During the year, the League sends six women to attend the Organizational Development Institutes conference.
The Junior League has given Tiffany and hundreds of others opportunities to be stretched professionally. The League will give a member the opportunity to be the treasurer and run a quarter-million-dollar budget. They give a woman that space to learn. She can write, do event planning, volunteer coordinating, party planning, training, you name it, there are opportunities for her and room to make mistakes.Tiffany’s words are echoed in an email I received from a Junior League sustaining member, Sheila Lotterhos (Sustainer Historian, Past President). She writes, “The League heightened my sense of responsibility and accountability to my fellow members, the organization as a whole, and the community at large. The leadership training we received was excellent and has been applicable not only to volunteer work, but also professionally. I’ve enjoyed my affiliation with the League for over 30 years.”
Having donated more than one million dollars to the community, the League’s presence has left a lasting impression. More than ten thousand families have been reached through the literacy programs, and the League continues to offer the same camaraderie and support to women as they did in the 1930s.
Many things have changed over the years, but one thing has not — women continue spurring women on in community growth and personal development through the efforts of the Junior League. There are families everywhere supporting their wives, sisters, mothers, and friends to be legacy leaders right here in Lakeland.
As I finish my meeting with Tiffany, I find myself daydreaming about everything I just heard. I envision the classrooms where books are passed out and shared, and I ask myself, because we enjoy the PigFest, all of this is possible? Because we enter a float in the Christmas Parade, children are given extra time reading with adult mentors and role models? When I participate in the tennis Pro-Am, hundreds of little ones are getting their very first books?
My mind shifts and once again I am a child, the one whose mom did her absolute very best to provide for four growing children. She couldn’t always afford to order books from the Scholastic flyer that came home with me. When the book fair came to our school, I remember the teacher who bought one for each of us. I hold in the emotion and exhale.Thank you, Tiffany, for sharing your story with me. I didn’t realize how much the work you do, together with the Junior League of Greater Lakeland, means to all of us.
For additional information, or questions on how to get involved, please contact:
P.O. Box 8797 | Lakeland, FL 33806 | Office: (863) 682-2112 | jlgl@tampabay.rr.com | www.jlgl.com
Tiffany Osler (President-Elect)
(352) 256-5035
Laurie Melton (Provisional Chair)
(863) 660-3705
Special thanks to Sheila Lotterhos, sustaining member, who researched and compiled important historical details for our readers.