In 1925, Los Angeles was an entirely different place: The Hollywood sign was just two years old. There were no freeways, talking pictures, or City Hall. However, 1925 was also the year group of women banded together to create an organization with some serious staying power. Originally known as the Convalescent Children’s League, the group emphasized volunteerism and developing the potential of its members. They joined the national Association of Junior Leagues in 1926 and today boast an active membership of more than 650 women. We asked president Denise Snider Perlstein to share her thoughts on how the organization works, the new membership process, and the League’s goals for the next 90 years.
How did you first get involved with the Junior League?
Eight years ago a friend of mine who I was babysitting for recommended it to me. My mom and sister were involved in the Junior League in Texas. I didn’t know for sure that I wanted to join, but my friend really encouraged me to go to one of the new member orientations. There were just so many like-minded women there that I thought, “This is where I need to be,” because I wanted to be more involved with the community.
Has the mission of the League changed in the past 90 years?
The mission of the League has stayed the same. It’s an organization of women committed to promoting volunteerism, developing the potential of women, and improving the community through our trained volunteers. What has changed are the members themselves. When the L.A. chapter of the League formed in 1925, there weren’t a lot of jobs for women outside the home. Starting around the ’80s, most of our members had full-time jobs, so that’s the biggest change that we’ve seen. We’ve adapted for our members. A lot of our projects and programs back in the ’60s and ’70s were during the school day. Now a lot of our programs are after school.
The chapter works with children to improve literacy and works with foster kids on their self-esteem. How were those causes selected?
About three years ago we took a full year to survey our membership. We had one general meeting where all of our members came and everyone had a sticky note—as many sticky notes as we wanted—to write down areas where they wanted to work. And then from there, each month we would kind of drill down and vote until we got down to these two issue areas. We used to be kind of broad and work with women and children, but we felt like we needed to find more focused areas where we can make an impact and track our impact.
How do you join the Junior League?
We have open enrollment, so you can fill out an application. We accept members in September. Your first year as a new member is training and getting to know the organization. You’re definitely doing volunteer work your first year, but you don’t have a specific placement. After your first year, you can decide what you want to be involved with. We encourage people to think outside the box. In my work life, I do property accounting, so I didn’t really want to be the treasurer. I wanted to think outside the box. It’s one of those places where you’re not going to get fired; you’re not going to be forced to give over your position. So we encourage you to do something that you might not do in your regular job.
How does a new member become an active member?
In May we have our annual meeting, and at that point you’re announced as an active member. You have to have met your requirements as a member. We require that you volunteer community hours within our organization six hours a year, and spend six hours helping with events, and go to trainings.
Has that process changed at all over time?
No. Twenty-five to 30 years ago in order to join the League you had to have a sponsorship, meaning you had to have someone in the League recommend you. We don’t have that process anymore, although some Leagues still do.
Any big goals you’d like to accomplish down the road?
To be the go-to people for programs within literacy and self-esteem and empowerment of foster youth so that when someone is thinking, “We need a program for foster youth who are aging out of the system. Who knows about foster youth? ” they think, “Oh, those ladies of Junior League. They have so much training. We’ll be able to learn a lot from them.”
What would you say that you have personally gotten from being a member of the League?
Oh my gosh, there are so many things. You get out what you put in, but I feel like I’ve gotten a lot more out of it, especially working with our community partners. There are just so many different times when a kid’s face lights up and your day is made. I pride myself on being involved in these kid’s lives. But one thing, selfishly, is I do feel I’m a much more trained woman. My day job is accounting, so I sit behind a desk, but within the League I’ve been able to learn more about public speaking and been able to network and engage. My hope is that I can go on to help other organizations by being on their board or volunteering.
Do you have an example of an experience working for the League you’ll always remember?
I was involved with the Healthy Habits project and we were teaching kids to cook and try foods that they may not experience at home. Some of us take for granted all of the different food options that we have. We made muffins with all different kinds of fruit. The kids were grossed out at first but once they tasted them, they were like, “Oh my gosh! Why didn’t we make these before?” Those little things make me smile.