The Junior League of Champaign-Urbana has a long, rich history of helping women and children in the community.
The group was involved in starting a long list of community nonprofits you're probably familiar with, including what is now Developmental Services Center in Champaign and Crisis Nursery in Urbana
The organization is celebrating its 80th anniversary soon.
"Our women have been visionaries," Junior League President Sam King said.
The Junior League's gala is scheduled for 6 p.m. Feb. 16 at the Champaign Country Club. It will feature a cocktail hour, dinner and silent and live auctions. Its theme is, "Celebrating 80 Years of Service." To RSVP, you can go to http://www.juniorleaguecu.org by Feb. 10. Tickets are $80 per person, $150 per couple and $600 for a table of eight.
Champaign-Urbana has changed a lot in 80 years, and so has this organization.
"We have gone from a group of mostly stay-at-home mothers to a very diverse group of single working women, working moms, stay-at-home moms and grad students," King said, adding that the league is attracting members who are in their 20s and 40s, who "are at a stage in their lives when they can contribute more time to volunteer work. It is the growing diversity of membership that makes us such a strong organization."
King attributes the organization's growth, at a time when women's groups are struggling or disbanding, to being flexible.
"We change when change is necessary," she said, adding that some members are as young as 21 or 22. The group has 265 sustaining members, who have served at least seven years in the organization. They range in age from their mid-30s to octogenarians.
However, its efforts to improve the community haven't changed.
The Junior League has a specific goal and tailors all its activities toward it: to help and support women, children and infants in the community.
"Our projects speak for us," King said.
The organization also aims to develop leadership among its members and then to send them out as trained volunteers to serve on nonprofit boards within the community.
"The training of women, that's what we do," King said. "Through this training, the impact we make reaches beyond the organization."
Because it's now such a diverse group, some members are showing others how to use social media, and some are reminding others about the importance of a hand-written thank-you note, said Heather Vazquez, the league's fundraising chairwoman.
"We're teaching each other," she said.
It's also diverse in that members have different religious and political beliefs, King said.
"It's nice that our membership (represents) who lives here," King said.
Over the last few years, the group has changed in that it has shifted its fundraising emphasis from relying on Festival of Trees to generate most of its money, to hosting fundraisers throughout the year that reach more community members.
The group is also relying on more donations for its fundraisers — so the money raised is used for the Junior League's projects — and is exploring grants and other ways of paying for its work in the community, Vasquez said.
The Junior League aims to develop projects that help the community, then pass them on to community partners to stand on their own, once the projects are ready.
For example, the Junior Aid Society (which merged with the Service League in 1959 to create the Junior Service League) founded a community day care center, which went on to become the Bradley Street Daycare, which was also known as Community Day Care. The Junior Service League also founded the Champaign County Rehabilitation Center in the early 1960s, which is now the Developmental Services Center.
In the mid-1980s, Junior League of Champaign-Urbana worked with Burnham Hospital to create Crisis Nursery, and it worked with Eastern Illinois Foodbank to start Food for Families, also in the 1980s. It also helped found the Women's Emergency Shelter, now the Center for Women in Transition, in the late 1980s.
King said looking at and celebrating the past helps current members understand what they can do as a part of the organization.
"We look back to look forward," she said.
Now, it's planning two new programs, which it will implement with help from community partners.
One is a community garden, which the group plans to start in September.
The other is some sort of program that will address kindergarten readiness for families who don't qualify for available services through local institutions, such as school districts or counties, but can't afford private preschool.
The Junior League plans to work with local school districts, the Champaign Public Library and the United Way of Champaign County to put on kindergarten-readiness camps in the summer and educate parents on how they can get their children ready for kindergarten. The goal: All students should be able to recognize their names and count from 1 to 10 when they start school.
"Junior League, with our partners and resources, we can do that," King said.
The project will probably start in the summer of 2014, King said, and the league will work with educators to develop it.
The Junior League is also flexible when it comes to changing its existing projects. Its Kids in the Kitchen program has been around for years, but now, the Junior League is working with the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club to include the same youngsters over several different sessions.
The Junior League has also created a strategic plan to guide it and works in committees to foster bottom-up leadership.
The organization works to maintain ties with its sustaining members, who have countless ties to other community organizations.
"We have support in this community," King said.
Carol Scharlau, the United Way of Champaign County's director of planned giving, was Junior League president from 1979 to 1981.
At that time, the league was changing as it started hosting evening meetings to accommodate working women after being a "traditionally daytime organization," Scharlau said, as the organization worked to become more inclusive.
The group's dedication to education was evident when Scharlau was president, as the organization was then working to include Character Counts into the curriculum in Champaign County schools.
Also evident was the league's dedication to leadership — as it hosted speakers to address members on leadership and board development.
Scharlau's experience with Junior League made her a better leader — "no doubt about it," she says — with the ability to pull people together. The same is true of other Junior League members and sustainers who serve with other local civic organizations.
Gail Rost, who was the Junior League president in 1988 and 1989, said she joined at a time when she was a stay-at-home mom and was looking for opportunities to get involved in the community.
Rost is now executive director of the Champaign Urbana Schools foundation.
"As a member of the league, I had amazing training," Rost said. "I always felt like it was an opportunity to be explored."
She said she learned about board development, how to work with volunteers and even how to "work on a state and national level to make things happen," Rost said.
She served on a public policy committee with the Junior League of Illinois and attended conferences all over the country.
"Junior League really provided me an avenue of exposure to opportunities I wouldn't have had in the same way," Rost said.
Now, women have more opportunities to get involved and serve the community, she said. But Junior League of Champaign-Urbana still has a reputation as an effective local organization.
"When something needs to get done, they can do it," Rost said. "I still believe a person can have an impact on the community in working with the league."