One thing that both my mother and grandmother have instilled in my sisters and me our entire lives is that it is always so important to put giving before receiving. Whether it was volunteering through school, church, or an organization, we needed to give back to the community that has already given so much to us. I know their hope is that that advice will not only be passed to others in my own generation, but to the ones after me as well.
I am proud to know that I am on my way to fulfilling that dream.
Currently, I am in my fourth year of service within the Junior League of Portland. The JLP, as it’s known, is the fourth oldest chapter of the Association of Junior Leagues International, or AJLI, and the first to be formed on the West coast. The first chapter of the Junior League was established on March 15, 1901 by Mary Harriman, who, according to the AJLI website, was a New York debutante ahead of her time.
At the young age of 19, Mary had more than social teas and dances on her mind. The daughter of Union Pacific Railroad titan and financier E. H. Harriman, she used her life of privilege as a platform for social reform. She wanted to give back and make change, especially for the women and children in her community who were not as fortunate as she was. This influenced other women of higher society to consider the needs of their own communities at the turn of the twentieth century. One of those women was Gretchen Corbett, who founded the Junior League of Portland in 1910. From then on, the AJLI has grown to serve chapters across the US, Canada, Mexico, and the United Kingdom. Over 150,000 women serve in 291 chapters around the globe, and those numbers continue to grow each year.
My grandmother, Delight Stacy Kolar Leonard, became a member of the Portland chapter fairly soon after having married my grandfather and moving from an Army base in California back to her hometown in the mid 1950s. Prior to joining, she had been a Camp Fire Girl as well as a member of a sorority at Stanford University. Since friends from Camp Fire and her college days were also joining the League in different chapters, it seemed like a natural choice in progression. As the rules of the JLP stipulated at the time, she would graduate from Active to Sustaining membership after she turned 40, so in her last year of Active Status, she seized the golden opportunity to become President of the Junior League of Portland in the 1970-1971 League year.
My mother, Kirsten Harrington Leonard, joined the League in Portland herself in 1984. She had also graduated from Stanford and just married my dad a year prior, and having not gone on the sorority route herself, she still wanted to find an outlet for social service alongside other likeminded women. She had to be recommended for membership through friends of her mother-in-law, whom she barely knew at the time, but I know she’ll be eternally grateful for their efforts. Many of the women who have come into her life (and eventually mine) she met through joining and pursuing opportunities within the League, and they have all gone on to do great things. I’m positive that all of them look back every once in a while to think on their experiences within this great group and how it trained them to be successful, organized, dedicated leaders of their community.
I have many fond memories of growing up within the League. Modeling clothes with my mom and sisters and running around in circles on conference tables in empty rooms sit high on that list. I must say, though, my favorite was singing the Rolling Stones’ 1969 hit “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” dressed in matching plaid jumpers and silver paper crowns with my sisters on my mom’s Presidential inauguration. There were probably around 500 people there on that day in April 1996. Of course, neither of the three of us knew exactly what the League was about back then, as we were all under the age of 10, but my mother knew in her bones that showing her young daughters that playing an active role in such an organization was something to strive for, as it would dually help ourselves while helping others.
I gained a new perspective when I first opted to join the JLP in the spring of 2014. I could tell that, albeit surprised, my mother was thrilled that I’d be the first to carry this torch in our family’s legacy. Since I am the middle of three daughters within a five-year age span, being the first to do anything of my siblings has always given me a great sense of pride and confidence, so I look back on that phone call to my mom with a smile.
In my first (a.k.a Provisional) year, my “class” and I got a comprehensive first look at what the League does, where we’ve been, and where we’re intending to go. I learned how the JLP works to combat issues like sex trafficking, domestic violence, childhood malnourishment, and literacy. From June 1 through May 31st of each next coming year, volunteers in the Junior League of Portland put in countless hours to train, to educate others, to provide direct service, and to make each year even better than the last. But with all of that comes a sincere sense of sisterhood.
Through my Active years, I have pushed myself in ways that I never expected alongside women who I would not meet otherwise. There have always been helpful hands to guide my journey and to give me the confidence I needed to be successful. Although I did not initially join just to make friends and socialize, similar to my mom, I know a lot of these women will be a part of my life and my own eventual family’s life for years to come.
This year, I have stepped into the role of Assistant Chair for the Rose Summit, a brand-new event for the JLP that will happen this coming spring. The Summit will seek to inspire other women from the Metro area, and celebrate the paths that have already begun to gain momentum. Also, twenty years and twenty-four boards after she stepped down from her first position as a President of the Junior League of Portland, my mom is back serving as Sustainer Rep Advisor to the JLP Board. As I embark on my first leadership role within a non-profit, there is no better person to stand beside. I’m so proud of both of us, and I look forward to working with her in the organization and the sisterhood that we both love.
What inspires you to do things for your own community? Tell me about it in the comments below!