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Sunday, March 7, 2021

Junior League of Wilmington Celebrates a Century of Service

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Christy Fleming
Christy Fleming
The managing editor of TownSquareDelaware.com, Christy Fleming also supports a variety of non-profit initiatives in Delaware. Her background includes positions in public relations, advertising and journalism.

Angela Gustavsen is the current president of the Junior League of Wilmington. The league has done extraordinary philanthropic work in Delaware since its founding 100 years ago and remains relevant today.

Some of the most significant nonprofit programs in Wilmington can find their roots with the Junior League of Wilmington, a vibrant, women-led organization which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

Delaware Adolescent Program, Inc., Wilmington Senior Center, Ronald McDonald House and other programs that still operate today can thank some of the founding members of the Junior League of Wilmington (JLW), who identified critical community needs and applied their energy toward supporting innovative organizations addressing real unmet social needs.

We sat down with Angela Gustavsen, the president of the JLW, at their headquarters on North Market Street – just blocks away from many of the constituents the group serves – to learn more about this milestone achievement and how the League has become more diverse, relevant and dynamic in our community.

Former Gov. Jack Markell signed Erin’s Law at JLW headquarters on August 10, 2016. The JLW spearheaded the passage of the law, which requires publicly funded schools to implement a prevention-oriented child sexual abuse education program.

Town Square Delaware: Can you please tell us about the roots of the Junior League of Wilmington – the guiding purpose of its founders?

Angela Gustavsen: The League was founded to develop women to be leaders in the community. Historically the league has identified and met critical needs in the community. You can imagine 1918 when we were founded, there were not the non-profit and social services there are today and so there were just so many critical needs. 

So when we started, we worked with new immigrants who needed services at the Italian settlement house, which is now West End Neighborhood House.  We founded a well-baby clinic there, for example, and tons of other work.

TSD: The League really did fill a critical role and was influenced, in part, by Eleanor Roosevelt, correct?

Gustavsen: The first Junior League was founded in New York City in 1901 by a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt’s, who was an initial Junior League member herself. They were socialites but were smart and wanted to make a difference with immigrants there on the lower east side. 

So some community-minded women compelled toward action decided they wanted to do the same kind of work here in Wilmington. They founded the Delaware Curative Society in 1940’s for people with various handicaps. They found ways to help them adapt physically, do some small work and feel valued. 

JLW has always been active in the Wilmington nonprofit community, training their members to volunteer and assume leadership roles.

Then in 1950’s, they realized that underserved seniors in Wilmington had virtually no resources, and they helped to found the Wilmington Senior Center.  Then what league members do. We physically start an organization, find people and funding, then spin off the organization. 

Being a teen Mom in the 1960’s you don’t get your own reality show like you do today.  It was viewed as an incredible misfortune, and League members worked to help found the Delaware Adolescent Program (DAPI) to give those girls high school and prenatal care.

A JLW member reads to children, circa 1950s/60s. The League has a longstanding support of literacy initiatives.

TSD: Do you have ongoing initiatives with other non-profit programs?

Gustavsen: Yes. We are training women to be leaders in the community.  We work directly with a variety of nonprofits. Our training is almost like non-profit boot camp. We are learning on the job how to identify a problem and create long-term transformational solutions. 

Our community focus right now is empowering young women to reach their potential.  Recent projects have included continued work with DAPI and life skills workshops with Bayard House, a residential program for homeless, pregnant teenagers. Imagine that not only are you pregnant, but you are also homeless, which is just incredible.

We are also working on a series of empowerment workshops that deal with issues like healthy relationships, bullying, self-confidence, overcoming obstacles and setbacks.  Our one-day summits have been really well received. Then last spring we piloted a workshop series with the Choir School of Delaware, which we hope to continue.

Junior League of Wilmington members getting ready for November’s Whale of a Sale.

TSD: Tell us about Delaware’s largest garage sale, Whale of a Sale, on November 10.

Gustavsen: This is our 35th year, and it is one of Delaware’s time-honored fundraising sales. We find donated warehouse or office space of say 20,000 square feet or so to offer new and gently used quality merchandise which has been donated. We basically set up a department store inside of a month and have this magnificent one day sale.

This year’s sale is at 20 Corporate Circle in New Castle from 8 am to 1 pm.

Everything from baby clothes to baby equipment, strollers, toys, formal gowns, antiques, books, housewares, holiday decorations — you name it. Some are donations from our members and we also have community donation days.   We make sure the items are really good quality offered at really low cost.  You wouldn’t believe the things we accumulate, and it sometimes gives all of our volunteers a little laugh.

We usually get about 3000 people – some camp out overnight to be first in the door!

TSD: Your Heart of the Home Kitchen Tour is another wonderful community-wide event that helps support your mission.

Gustavsen: We just finished our 12th Kitchen Tour this past spring, and our next one will be in 2020. We typically line up a dozen homes or more – each gorgeous dream kitchens – to be on the self-guided tour.  We have local restaurants and sometimes private chefs donate their food.  So that is an awesome day.

TSD:  What is the significance of the centennial milestone, and how will you celebrate it?

Gustavsen: There are 291 Junior leagues in the US, Canada, Mexico and Great Britain. Of those leagues, probably only a dozen have celebrated their 100-year anniversary.  So, this milestone is pretty significant. Also, some leagues that started up decades ago are no longer operating. So, to be around and still relevant in the community and also staying relevant in the lives of our members is huge.

Red and white JLW Centennial scarves are on sale at Ellie and Wilmington Country Store.

So, to take a step back and see where these amazing women who came before us have been and the huge impact they have had on the community and to see where we are headed has just been such a gift this year. 

In July, Bethany Hall-Long, State Rep. Paul Baumbach and State Sen. Margaret Rose Henry came to our Iced Tea event and gave us tributes from the Governor, House of Representatives, and the State Senate. 

In September we held a Centennial Gala which brought many new and life-long members together for an incredible celebration.  We have also had a couple of different tea parties with our senior members, which has been nice. 

We always welcome new members. Women just have to be over 21. Any women who support our mission of training women to be leaders in the community are welcome to join.  And this year we are taking a rededication to advancing diversity and inclusion in our league so that we reflect the community we serve.

TSD: What are some of the key requirements of membership?

Gustavsen: Women now have many more opportunities than they did in 1918 and even 20 or 30 years ago. Virtually all of our members have highly developed, really interesting careers.

But new members can come and learn new skills in all sorts of areas. In general, they are required to attend some general meetings and some of our trainings and work on one of our league committees. We have a communications team, a fundraising team, treasurers, event planners. If a woman wants to develop a new skill that she can then apply through the community or non-profit world she can do that here.

There’s also a book club, we do 5k together, even pot-luck game nights. It’s really a lot of fun!

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