New York — The volunteer Association of Junior Leagues, 80 years old this year, has been undergoing such rejuvenating change that its dowager image is scarcely showing. "We redefined ourself 10 years ago, and we remain in a state of flux and re-evaluation," the national president, Alice Weber of Toledo, said in a recent interview in New York. "We recognized the dangers of remaining static and had the foresight to adopt a far more flexible and responsive structure."
Changes have included diversifying the membership to include women from varying backgrounds. Blacks and Hispanics are now among the 132,000 members in 239 chapters in the United States, Mexico, and Canada. (Although the association does not release figures on its minority members, it will soon have on its national board a black woman who is president of the Harrisburg, Pa., chapter.)
The association has also come to grips with the fact that from 35 to 40 percent of its members are working women whose volunteer commitments must be carried out during evenings, on Saturdays, or on the new "released time" hours that some companies are now giving to workers willing to do community volunteer work.
Mrs. Weber said that during the "reassessment period" the Junior Leagues have made voluntarism their major focus. "We reached out to find new ways to deal with complex contemporary problems," she said.
From that resolve have emerged new programs that deal with the some of the toughest problems, in today's society. During this past year, Junior Leaguers carried out more than 1,200 projects ranging from emergency shelters for battered wives and children to halfway houses for alcoholic women, tutorial programs for disabled children, and historic preservation. Members have manned well-baby clinics and south more humane ways to deal with sick people in their own homes.
Out of concern that children were being deprived of basic rights, the leagues have focused since 1975 on a child-advocacy program that included health, special education, day care, child welfare, and juvenile justice.
In 1973-75 the association developed a volunteer career-development program to help young women apply the skills received in volunteer programs directly to their career efforts. Many league members find that their volunteer work can look impressive on resumes when they apply for jobs, and some have gone from volunteer work into politics. (Mrs. Weber recalled that Shirley Temple Black once credited her Junior League experience for preparing her to be chief of protocol for the White House and US ambassador to Ghana.)
The association has recently completed in nine cities a four-year pilot program called Volunteers Intervening for Equity, which used the volunteer services of hundreds of retired persons in offering services to their communities.
Such new projects have attracted outside funding and "also protected us against organizational obsolescence," Mrs. Weber said.
The Junior Leagues had their beginning in 1901 when a group of wealthy and well-educated young New York women who organized to help the thousands of immigrants pouring in to the city and who later attached themselves to the woman suffrage movement.
In the years since, the image of a rather elitist organization for socially prominent young women who want to pursue good works has persisted. "It's a false image, and it gets in the way of our dealing in substance," said Alice Weber flatly. "If we had been depending on social elitism to keep this organization going, we would have been moribund by now."
So, while Junior League members once planned art classes and volunteer work in museums, many have turned to helping a family courts or in rape crisis centers.
"We simply had to find greater depth in our own educational and charitable purpose of giving something back to the communities in which we live," Mrs. Weber said.
While volunteer work and the volunteer have changed, the association president maintains that voluntarism is not on the wane. She pointed out that her association grows by 2 1/2 percent a year, explaining that new members are older than in the past and now average about 30, except in the Sunbelt, where women still join in their 20s.
Recently the association began lobbying operations in Washington, especially on legislation pertaining to children and to the volunteer movement.
"We think we are meeting the challenges that come with social change," Mrs. Weber said. "We have widened our membership ranks, recognized the needs of working women, changed meeting and volunteer service times to nights and weekends when necessary, and tackled a vast number of new problems. We have become far more visible. And we also think we have managed to alter our image, as we have become known as an organization that cares about people."