For almost 100 years, the Junior League of Saint Paul has retained a rich tradition of serving the greater Saint Paul community. Established in 1917 by Saint Paul native Elizabeth Ames Jackson, the Junior League of Saint Paul (JLSP) was the 19th Junior League created following the inception of the first Junior League in New York City in 1901.
Throughout our history, we have engaged in many community service projects, independently and in collaboration with other organizations. The focus of these projects has changed with the evolving needs of the Saint Paul community.
The Beginning of Over 90 Years of Serivce
The Junior League of Saint Paul(JLSP) began with women who wanted to build a better Saint Paul - and it’s work has changed the way the city has grown for nine decades.
The Junior League of Saint Paul was founded in 1917 in the home of Elizabeth Ames Jackson, with her friends Elizabeth Crunden Skinner and Anne Turney White. It was the 19th League formed, out of some 300 Leagues in 4 countries today, and modeled on the American Junior League system, JLSP
In its earliest phase, the Junior League of Saint Paul provided volunteers for the World War I Red Cross Relief Campaign, and the Community Chest - now the United Way.
Then, in the 1920s, JLSP decided it needed a project of its own. Realizing a need of women recovering from surgery, the Junior League of Saint Paul started a Convalescent Home for Women and Girls, to give them a chance to recover from hospitalizations.
In 1933, at the request of the Children’s Hospital, the Junior League of Saint Paul created the Children’s Hospital Association, to support a free bed fund for needy children whose families couldn’t afford hospital care. JLSP was the first community organization to step in and fill that need.
JLSP mounted a city-wide membership drive and sponsored ice shows, hockey games, and other fundraisers to support the hospital.
In later years, the Children’s Hospital Association grew to provide the funding for hospital initiatives and start-up programs. The Junior League of Saint Paul is very proud to have started the Children’s Hospital Association, which went on to be a leader in meeting the healthcare needs of all children in our area.
JLSP expands its focus
In the late 1930s, the League saw a need for recreation in growing communities and services for youth.
So the Junior League worked with Ms. Constance Curry, the founder & Director of Neighborhood House, and Mr. John Atwater of Community Chest (which later became the United Way) and a local neighborhood group.
With $12,000 from JLSP, Saint Paul Community Services was founded. It was later renamed Merriam Park Community Services, and is now known as Keystone Community Services. That seed money from the Junior League of Saint Paul has grown into a vital community service organization.
Arts, Education and Children
In the 1940s and 1950s, the Junior League of Saint Paul turned its attention from Social Welfare to Arts, Education, and Children. The members put on theater and puppet shows and produced culturally rich radio and television programs for children.
But perhaps the League’s greatest arts contribution to Saint Paul was its undertaking of a community arts survey in 1949, at the suggestion of a national Junior League liaison.
As Gerry Seldon, who was President during this time says, “We knew the arts in Saint Paul were floundering for funds. So we hired a survey team, got funding from the Hill Foundation, and they suggested we put the arts under one roof.”
Through the intervening decade and a half, the JLSP donated more than $40,000 and countless hours of service on committees connected with the creation of the first Arts & Science Center at 10th & Exchange. It opened in 1965.
Molly McMillan (Past President 1957-1959) remembers the shift in thinking: “It was an experiment, very much an experiment – Saint Paul had always been a human services town. This was really the first time that arts were coming into Saint Paul.”
Another outgrowth of the Arts Survey was the creation of the Saint Paul Art Council itself, now United Arts, whose work has made Saint Paul one of the top cities in the nation for the arts.
Health and Welfare
In 1948, the League helped create another Saint Paul institution: the Saint Paul Rehabilitation Center. The League provided funds, volunteers, and publicity for the Rehab Center until 1954. This organization is now called Lifetrack Resources - a vital Saint Paul organization serving over ten thousand people a year, in rehabilitation, family and employment services
In 1961, JLSP developed another project addressing health and welfare needs. The Junior League spear-headed preschool vision and hearing testing of 4-year olds in the Eye & Ear alert program, the precursor to our current health and wellness checks for incoming Kindergartners. This pre-kindergarten screening is now a statewide standard.
In the early 1990s JLSP collaborated with Lifetrack Resources, creating a mentoring program to help women move from welfare to work. It was titled STEPS – Steps to Employment, Partnering and Success.
The Junior League of Saint Paul has also had a hand in the growth of education in Saint Paul. One of many projects was the 1970s “the Bucket Brigade,” a program which sent Junior League members into elementary schools to give one-on-one attention and tutoring to children who needed academic help.
It was one of member Barbara Boerbon’s favorite projects and she described the Bucket Brigade in this way, “It was just that – a bucket with tools. You always worked with the teacher, and whatever this child was lagging behind in, that’s what you worked on. Essentially what you did was bring them on task. It was amazing. Twice a week, 15 minutes. The amount you put in was so little, and the reward was so huge.”
The Junior League also developed and distributed the Omnibus Curriculum, a program for gifted and talented youth, to schools across the area. In addition, it started the Volunteer Network, to help find volunteers for schools.
The Hmong Art Project
In the early 1980’s JLSP recognized a new set of community needs, as Saint Paul welcomed a large influx of Hmong immigrants.
With a culture that lacked a written language yet was so rich in story telling, the Junior League of Saint Paul thought the beautiful and traditional, hand-made story cloths that Hmong women created could be an avenue for economic development.
Jane Clements was President (1981-1982) at the time the project took off and she says The Hmong Art Project had these goals for Hmong women: “To use their artwork, and be able to train them and work with them so they might begin to sell some of it, and earn some money. Another benefit was that they might learn some better English, in order to sell things. And it indeed did that.”
This Hmong Art Project won a national award that led to a community forum to discuss and address the broader needs of the Hmong population in Saint Paul and beyond. Across Minnesota, Hmong women and families still sell their beautiful creations.
Addressing Domestic Violence
As its 80th anniversary project, JLSP established the Minnesota chapter of Silent Witness. This effort brought blazing red, life-sized silhouettes created in memory of women killed in domestic violence to the Silent Witness National Initiative's March on Washington in October 1997. All fifty U.S. states and three other countries were represented.
Early in the new century JLSP focused its outreach efforts at Women’s Advocates in Saint Paul, the nation’s first battered women’s shelter. Junior League members worked on physical improvements - taking the shelter from a sterile environment to one whose physical space is welcoming and warm. In addition, the League created a volunteer program where none had existed previously. JLSP’s efforts at Women’s Advocates were truly pioneering for the facility and its clients.
Kathleen Corley was Interim Director in 2002, when JLSP started working there. “Part of the outcome is the impact on the building and the work you did on the rooms. But, I wish I had a picture for every time I walked down and saw somebody from the Junior League sitting with three or four kids sitting with them reading a book. And the work you did with the women - the role modeling, it sort of break down all sorts of barriers between race and class and haves and have nots in whatever way you describe it. It was a win win, all the way down the road as far as I could see. It was fabulous.”
Building Bonds Through Reading and Play
Today, the Junior League of Saint Paul is embarking on a new project area called Building Bonds through Reading and Play. Its aim is to help strengthen the bonds between children and a parent or other meaningful adult. Research shows that a lack of bonding between parents and children can lead to an increased risk for child abuse.
Like so many of the projects the Junior League of Saint Paul has undertaken over the past ninety years, we are confident that this project will have a positive community impact and leave its own positive legacy on children and families in Saint Paul.
Read about JLSP's first 75 years in this article published in 1992 in Ramsey County History, a publication of the Ramsey County Historical Society: