The Junior league of Miami is celebrating its 90th birthday. Since its founding in 1926, the league has supported hundreds of agencies in the Greater Miami area, focusing on families at risk.
BY SUE ARROWSMITH
Special to the Miami Herald
It’s a big year for the Junior League of Miami, an organization composed of hundreds of women volunteers who give their time and resources to support local community programs with a focus on families at risk.
Now celebrating its 90th anniversary, the League recently secured funding from Miami-Dade County to keep its shelters for victims of domestic violence, Inn Transition North and South, open through September 2017.
“Our most significant accomplishment has been staying relevant for 90 years,” said Mary Lynch, one of the League’s oldest members.
Lynch, a Miami native who served as president from 1987·88, was instrumental in raising the seed money for the original Miami Science Museum. She first joined the League in 1973, inspired by her mother’s philanthropic work.
“My mother had a history of giving back to the community,” Lynch said. “To me, it was the natural thing to do.”
Since its founding in 1926, the League has quietly supported hundreds of agencies in the Greater Miami area, including awarding more than $2.5 million to programs. Some of those programs have grown into major institutions, including the Children’s Home Society and the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science.
Recent projects include the Paws 2 Read, a program that uses therapy dogs to help children feel comfortable reading aloud; Done in a Day, assisting local organizations with short-term events; awarding annual scholarships to high school students; and collaborations with Breakthrough Miami and Coordinated Victims Assistance, among other non-profits in the community.
“If you look at any of the nonprofits here, the Junior League has made some contribution,” said League member Deidre Krause.
Inn Transition North and South is the League’s signature project conceived with Miami Dade County and has been in operation for more than 30 years. The facilities provide shelter, counseling and child care for up to 24 months for victims of domestic violence and their children. They also help the residents find work and permanent housing after they exit the program.
Junior League leaders were thrust into a countywide scramble in early 2016 when Miami-Dade’s homeless agency lost roughly $6 million in federal aid for shelters across the county. But Miami Dade officials tapped reserves to cover funding shortfalls through the fall of 2017 as they pursue a more long-term solution.
The League’s body of work is diverse. Each project is a historical notch in Miami’s timeline, reflecting the issues and challenges of the times. As part of the war effort in the 1940s, members made surgical dressings for victims of Nazi raids. In the 1930s, they opened a thrift shop, which thrived until the early 1990s, when demand dipped.
“Throughout the decades, we have been constantly changing and evolving to meet whatever the needs are,” said current League President Amanda Altman Kessler.
The League bas also adapted over time to women’s evolving roles in society. In the beginning, most members were stay-at-home wives and mothers. Today, many members balance work and family life.
Altman Kessler, an attorney, said women’s lives have changed dramatically and that one of their biggest challenges today is finding members who have the time to volunteer. She joined the League eight years ago when she moved to Miami from Cleveland and worked her way up to president.
“Joining the Junior League is the best thing I ever did,” she said.
Many members have gone on to serve in leadership roles, such as Dorothy Weaver, former chair of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce.
The Junior League of Miami is a branch of The Junior League, an international network that is one of the oldest and largest women’s volunteer organizations in the world, with more than 150,000 members in 291 chapters in four countries.
The Miami chapter obtains its funding through fundraising and annual member fees.
“As a League, we have to pay dues to the Association of Junior Leagues International, which is where a portion of the member dues go. Additionally, part of the member dues is allotted for the Junior League of Miami’s operating expenses and administrative costs, and other expenses, such as sending members to international leadership training conferences. We use dues for all of those purposes so that all the money we raise as an organization can be put toward our community programs and projects, such as Inn Transition North and South,” Altman Kessler said.
Upcoming events include a 90th anniversary cocktail party Nov. 10 and fundraising campaign on Give Miami Day, Nov. 17, with a goal of raising $90,000. In 1995, the League purchased its current headquarters, a historic two-story Venetian-style building built by George Merrick’s Coral Gables Construction and Supply Company in 1925. In its early years, the building housed several businesses, including a haberdashery, a liquor’ store, a restaurant and a hotel.
Next month, the League will make the final mortgage payment on the property. Not a bad way to commemorate nearly a century of service.