In January 1923, a group of twelve women, headed by Mrs. Edward Buckland, met to discuss the formation of a Junior League in New Haven. The initial idea of establishing our League came from Mrs. Brower Hewitt, who had been a member of the Junior League of Brooklyn. By April of 1923 our league, with a membership of fifty, was officially admitted to the Association of Junior Leagues of America, and Miss Rachel Trowbridge became our first president.
The society pages heralded "the Junior League, which came into being but a year ago, wrote its name into the history of New Haven in red letters on Friday night, not only as one of the leading, most powerful and most helpful organizations of the city, but also its most versatile," after the first of what was to become a tradition of glittering extravaganzas, the Balloon Ball at the Lawn Club.
Throughout the 1920s, emphasis was placed on work associated with health. 1925 saw the evolution of the League's first project-to finance the hospital care of needy maternity patients who could not get assistance from any other source. By 1933 its function was absorbed by a new "City Plan" for pre-natal care, concentrating the care in the three hospital clinics. This full cycle of the project followed the general policy of the League-to initiate a program which would ultimately become independent of League support.
During the 1950s, a number of large fundraising projects were undertaken. From 1950 to 1956, the League gave over $26,000 to local organizations.
For many, 1964-65 will be remembered as the year of the Volunteer Bureau. This project, initially organized by the League and established by the Community Council, served to coordinate the efforts of local volunteer personnel with community organization needs. The Volunteer Service Bureau grew to include a high school division, the administration of Meals on Wheels, and a weekly column in the New Haven Register to inform the community about volunteer opportunities and needs. This project was terminated in 1971, primarily due to a lack of financial support from within the community.
By the early 1990s, the Junior League of Greater New Haven had undergone a fundamental change: the overwhelming majority of its Active members now worked outside the home full-time. In order to accommodate the needs of its members, general membership and committee meetings were now held in the evening; an effort was made not to meet as frequently; and League projects became a more collaborative effort with other community organizations. These changes allowed for a level of community involvement and impact that otherwise would not have been achieved, and accommodated the schedules of women who worked outside the home.
In 1991, the League's signature project for the next six years was born: Elm City Kids, an evening child care program for the children of men and women in substance abuse treatment programs. The project was developed in conjunction with the Hospital of St. Raphael, and in the mid 90s, it also gave rise to the related project of Parenting Workshops. Following the tradition of turning projects over to the community, in 1997, the Clifford T. Beers Guidance Clinic took over the Elm City Kids Program.
During these years League volunteers were busy organizing events in collaboration with other community organizations. The League played an important role in the 1993 and 1995 Hearts for Life AIDS benefits, organizing the gala dinners and post-show receptions for these events that raised over $90,000 each for New Haven-based AIDS care providers. Members also helped with concert benefits for the Clifford T. Beers Guidance Clinic in 1993 and the Michael Bolton Foundation in 1994.
Another organization with which the League has had a long-standing relationship is Big Brothers/Big Sisters of New Haven. In 1993, League members organized what has become an annual event for boys and girls in the program waiting to be placed with a "Big". Events for the children have been parties, a day with horses at High Hopes Stables, New Haven Ravens baseball games, a trip to Mystic Aquarium, and, in more recent years, sailing trips on the educational schooner, Quinnipiack.
In 2001, a fabulous luncheon featuring Dr. Henry Lee raised over $4,500, which became seed money for the League's current primary project, the creation of a "Family Room" at the New Haven Police Department's headquarters. Working in collaboration with the Yale Child Studies Center, this room will provide a quiet retreat for both children and adults at the police headquarters. Also that year, the League established a new Community Voluntarism Award, an annual award and scholarship that recognized up to three female high school students who have shown great commitment to volunteerism in the Greater New Haven area and who exemplify the ideals of the Junior League.
By the mid-2000s, with a smaller and increasingly career-oriented membership, the League began to reassess its structure and policies to become more streamlined, focused and resourceful. This allowed the League to more effectively address evolving community needs while still meeting the desires of its membership. In 2005, the League developed its first three-year strategic plan to better define the League’s vision, values, and goals, and to give its members a clearer understanding of the League’s identity and purpose. Through these efforts, the League sharpened its focus to address the issues facing underserved school-age children and their families. As part of this plan, by 2007 the League initiated a Community Advisory Board to help assess community needs and to provide guidance and support for the League’s mission and projects.
To directly address the needs of school-age children, the League developed the New Haven Public Schools Cooperative in 2005. Partnering with Timothy Dwight Elementary School, the League brought to the classrooms educational activities such as “Science Night,” a Mystic Aquarium traveling program, and a Sounds of Afrika drumming event. In addition, League members conducted monthly read-alouds, donated over 1,000 books to the classrooms, and provided cozy reading nooks with colorful rugs, chairs, and lamps, to encourage literacy. The project has continued into 2010 through a partnership with Clarence Rogers Elementary School.
In 2005, the League began its first annual Kids in the Kitchen event with area Girl Scouts within the Connecticut Trails Council. An Association of Junior League’s International initiative to address the growing problem of childhood obesity, Kids in the Kitchen offered educational programming for children and their families about healthy eating and living. For the first two years of the project, League members organized day-long events including exercise classes, recipe-book making, tips for herb gardening, cooking demonstrations, and games to learn about tips for making healthy choices. In recent years of the program, League members brought these educational activities to the children at Timothy Dwight Elementary School and initiated a partnership with Yale University Sustainable farm where inner-city children had an opportunity to garden, to learn about nutrition, and to make their own pizzas in a brink oven.
While the face of the Junior League of Greater New Haven has changed since its founding in 1923, the heartfelt passion and dedication of its members and their desire and ability to make a positive and lasting impact in the community has remained strong. The incredible volunteer training women receive in the League, and, in turn, bring to other organizations has set a standard that no other organization can match.