By KATIE EUBANKS
More than Mistletoe:
How the Junior League is making a difference
If you’ve ever shopped at the Junior League of Jackson’s annual Mistletoe Marketplace or attended the preview gala, you’ve probably noticed how big it all is. People pour in by the thousands. And they spend money — not just on shopping passes or gala tickets, but on meals, fashion shows and admission to other related events.
In fact, Mistletoe generally brings in about $1.1 million total.
So where does all that money go?
Well, first, it would help to know the purpose of the JLJ, which is a member of the Association of Junior Leagues International (AJLI). All the member leagues share a mission: to promote voluntarism, develop the potential of women and improve communities through the effective action and leadership of trained volunteers.
In other words, the JLJ exists to improve Jackson and train women to be effective servant leaders, to borrow a churchy phrase.
The JLJ’s annual budget is approximately $1.2 million. Of that, about $800,000 goes to community projects in and around Jackson. The remaining $400,000 goes to membership development, fundraising and administrative costs.
Mistletoe nearly funds the entire budget, but revenue sources also include membership dues and the League’s two other annual fundraisers — Touch a Truck and Junior League Jumble.
“We are in the black each year,” said JLJ President LaKeysha Greer Isaac (pictured below left). “Any unspent funds are donated to community partners at the end of the year.”
You also might not know that for the past seven years, the JLJ has had an overall goal for its community projects: improving the high-school graduation rate in the Jackson metro area, with a big emphasis on Jackson Public Schools.
Under that umbrella, the League focuses on three community impact areas: early literacy, children’s health and social development.
Literacy is an obvious win for educational achievement, but “we believe you have to look at the whole child,” Isaac said.
“If there are health challenges, like for instance if the child lacks adequate food to eat, or if the child has experienced some type of trauma, those could be obstacles to them graduating high school.”
That’s why JLJ projects range from rocking babies in the neonatal intensive care unit to filling backpacks with food, along with helping kids walk through the loss of a loved one and introducing teens to colleges and universities in metro Jackson and beyond.
Several years ago, the AJLI asked its member organizations to take stock of where they could make the most impact. The JLJ spent nearly a year surveying its community partners and other stakeholders in greater Jackson and analyzing the data.
The result was the focus on high-school graduation. The League re-evaluates this overall focus, along with the three impact areas, every four years. (The graduation rate focus is nearing the end of its second four-year cycle, and will be re-evaluated next year.) And every year, organizations apply or reapply for the League to partner with them on specific projects.
For the last 15 years, the JLJ has sent volunteers to The McClean Fletcher Center in Jackson, where children ages 4 to 18 receive free grief support in a nurturing environment. League volunteers spend time one on one with the kids and facilitate group activities.
“(McClean Fletcher does) an excellent job of training every volunteer, and they do an intensive training for the facilitators,” Isaac said. “It’s a several-hour training.
One of the League’s health projects is Backpack Buddies, done in partnership with the Mississippi Food Network. JLJ members fill backpacks with nonperishable food for kids to take home on weekends during the school year. This past year, the League filled backpacks for Johnson Elementary School in Jackson.
Literacy projects have included working with Stewpot’s Lunch-n-Learn initiative, Operation Shoestring’s Summer Reading program and the Readers to Leaders program at the Mississippi Children’s Museum. (The development and opening of the museum itself was also one of the League’s signature projects.)
Twice a year, the League meets with its community advisory council, made up of business and nonprofit leaders in Jackson. Council members receive updates on the JLJ’s work, and they give feedback on “what they see as the needs” in and around Jackson, Isaac said.
“One of our current projects this year arose because of that. We’re holding a series of parental engagement workshops for parents of middle-school students in conjunction with Jackson Public Schools.”
One of Isaac’s favorite JLJ moments came a few years ago, when the League was offering free ACT prep every other month in conjunction with Get2College.
“As you can imagine, when you’re offering six hours of free ACT prep, the signup goes quickly. One Saturday, we had an entire bus of children show up from Sunflower County, and they did not know they had to sign up. We were (already) at capacity,” she said.
But a quick decision was made, and some very excited students wound up sitting crosslegged on the floor or wherever they could find a spot.
“We later found out some of their scores went up as a result.”
Training, structure and a united front
During the past 2018-19 fiscal year, the JLJ partnered with local organizations on 24 community projects. That translates to an estimated 50,000 volunteer hours. Oh, and there are nearly 2,400 JLJ members, making it the sixth-largest Junior League in the international association.
How on earth does a group of 2,400 women spend 50,000 hours on 24 projects — in a unified manner — and not go bonkers in the process?
Well, for one thing, the League educates its members, especially those in their first year, i.e., Provisionals. That training includes information on Junior League history and projects, “but also cultural competency — how to communicate (internally) and outside the League,” Isaac said.
“I think it’s the training (that keeps us running smoothly).”
JLJ Community VP Susan Rockoff agreed: “Most of our volunteers have had experience on teams somewhere. But we try to personalize it. We actually won a national award from the Association of Junior Leagues International (on diversity and inclusion).
“(Also) it shouldn’t just be about you feeling good (as a volunteer). I think that’s a very tricky maneuver because sometimes what feels good as a volunteer doesn’t feel good to receive. I think that’s something that we’re very conscientious of as a League.”
This year, Rockoff is in charge of developing next year’s projects, overseeing a team that makes sure current projects are running smoothly and focusing on relationships with community partners.
But that’s just her role this year. She’s been in the League for more than 10 years. Isaac has been a member for nine.
After seven active years, JLJ members can become Sustainers, who ease off the JLJ grind while continuing to support the League and maintain certain projects. Instead, both Isaac and Rockoff opted to become “extended active” members. That means that they continue performing 50 hours of community service a year like any other active member.
Clearly, something about the League keeps them coming back.
Isaac, who works full time as an attorney at Cosmich Simmons & Brown, joined the League as a way to broaden her horizons a bit.
“I’ve always volunteered and enjoyed those things tremendously. But I spent a good deal of time around people a lot like myself. The League is one of the most diverse organizations in the metro area,” she said.
“(Our members are) from a wide variety of backgrounds, from age, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, physical ability. It’s a special thing to see people from such widely divergent backgrounds come together for the mission and work so well together.”
In fact, Isaac has been surprised and delighted at the long-term friendships she’s formed in the League — because her focus is usually more about getting the job done.
“I tend to be business-oriented. I don’t consider myself a social butterfly. But I have really thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Rockoff, who is originally from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, and moved here from Texas, just wanted a way to give back to Jackson. What surprised her was how focused and organized the League is.
“It’s hard to (find time to volunteer) with family, with working full time,” said Rockoff, who is the director of the Beth Israel Early Learning Center in Jackson. “I think we all need a little structure sometimes. And (the League) provided me with that opportunity.”
Making a difference that lasts
Isaac said part of the League’s mission is to create lasting change. But how?
For one thing, the JLJ works with organizations that already have boots on the ground. In other words, the League isn’t swooping in to save the day — they’re coming alongside groups who are already making a difference. This means less dependence on the League.
Also, “we build and train so that (projects) could be operated without League resources, so that we then have the capacity to help build new projects,” Isaac said.
One project that operates independently of the League now is the ACT prep class, Rockoff said.
“(Get2College) would train us and we would run the (classes). I think after a while their organization grew to the point where they could staff it themselves. And they do very well.
“And then we switched to a different model with Get2College and Operation Shoestring called Camp JLJ (Junior Leadership Jumpstart) … Basically, we take middle-school students and we expose them to college prep (and) we visit different colleges in the area.”
Isaac said the League also has also started opening its member training sessions to the general public.
“We have a women’s leadership and advocacy series that kicked off with a board training program this summer and will conclude with a women’s leadership summit in the spring. All community members are invited and we hope that they are able to use that training elsewhere.”
Likewise, Isaac hopes any woman who’s been part of the JLJ will continue serving others throughout their lives.
“We want them to take their talent and use it abroad, whether that’s in their workplace, their community, their place of worship — we don’t hide it under a bushel here at the League.”