Pensacola, Florida
Monday September 15th 2014

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Not Your Mother’s Junior League

By Jennie McKeon

It’s probably safe to say that Andrea Tippett, president of Pensacola’s Junior League has seen “The Help.”

“Women wearing white gloves and pearls do not describe us,” said Tippett, a league member since 2004, in an e-mail.

While the international organization was founded in 1956 when women rarely had careers, today it’s used to help develop career skills.

“The Junior League has changed because women have changed,” Tippett explained. “Our organization is a reflection of this. Over the years Junior League members have sought to solve problems and help others. Not only do they want to do something about it, but they also want to grow and develop into leaders. It is this emphasis on the development and training which sets us apart from other groups.”

Members today may have less time, between full-time jobs and kids, but not less passion.

“What is the same is that women in our organization are the most caring group of people I have ever had the privilege to be associated with,” Tippett said. “As president, I have met League members from all over. They are burning with a passion to make the world a better place.”

Some members were hesitant to join because of their preconceived notions of what the organization is about.  Their opinions quickly changed.

“I wasn’t one hundred percent sure what it was,” said Theresa Cserep, a member since 2003. “I thought it was more of a social organization. I didn’t know how much networking I would get or how much I would grow personally. It makes a huge impact on the community.”

Leagues in different regions choose how they would like to serve their area and, after some research, the Pensacola Junior League decided to focus on the 3,000 foster children in Santa Rosa and Escambia counties.

“Members were moved by the difficulties, which foster care children faced, and felt there was something we could do as a group to make a difference,” Tippett said. “By picking one cause we could also have a greater community impact. This year we have chosen to primarily work with Lakeview Center’s FamiliesFirst Network, PACE Center for Girls, Children’s Home Society and Families Count.”

And it’s not just collecting more than 175 pairs of pajamas for the FamiliesFirst Network’s annual Tucking Kids in Safe and Sound event, which the league did. It’s about improving the situation for children.

“We want to advocate for foster care children in our community and bring attention to their many challenges,” Tippett said. “For example, children who ‘age-out’ of the system leave foster care without the parents you and I take for granted. Imagine not having that caring person you can depend upon to continue to teach you how to be a dependent adult at such a young age.”

That’s why the Junior League of Pensacola developed the Steppin’ Out program. Last year, over 60 girls, age 10 and older, participated in workshops designed for them. Topics such as healthy relationships, self-esteem, personal finance, exercise and nutrition were just some of issues discussed. Think of it as a crash course in adulthood.

The choice to support foster children was also a personal one for some members.

“I feel very strongly about the cause,” said Kris Thoma, a member since 2009. “One day I want to be a foster parent and eventually adopt a child.”

Erica Allen, who got involved this past August, joined because of the organization’s current focus.

“Some of my close friends are adopted,” Allen said. “I wouldn’t have the privilege of having them in my life if it wasn’t for their parents taking the initiative.”

Helping children in the community was a no-brainer for Cserep. At her full-time job with the University of West Florida she is a senior training specialist at the College of Professional Studies. She teaches a course for those that report child abuse cases, making sure they meet the standards for state certification. As a mother of three, Cserep feels connected to the cause.

“Within all the children, I could see my own children,” Cserep said.

She was particularly touched when another member donated a twin bed to a foster parent so that siblings would not be separated because of inadequate conditions.

“She took off from work and donated the bed,” Cserep said.

The league has a diverse group of members because there are minimal requirements to join. Women must be 21-years-old or older, be a resident of the greater Pensacola area for at least six months prior to admission and, of course, be dedicated to volunteering. Once members join they must attend meetings and complete at least 19 hours of community service each year.

“The great thing about Junior League is that you can be flexible,” Cserep said. “I’ve been in the league with no husband and no kids eating Ramen noodles, to marriage, to pregnancy and kids. There’s something for everybody.”

Financial obligations are reasonable, too. Annual dues are $125, and there is also a $100 financial obligation. The $100 can be spent as a tax deductible donation to Junior League, or to purchase Marketbasket tickets or to purchase the Junior League cookbooks “Some like it South!” and “By Invitation Only: An Artful Entertaining Southern Style.” Funds raised go into the general pot for the organization.

Marketbasket is one of the league’s main events. It will feature over 100 items for holiday shopping, such as jewelry, children’s clothing, home and garden accents and gourmet foods. The preview gala and silent auction, featuring signed celebrity memorabilia, vacation packages and many other gift ideas, is on Nov. 17. The shopping begins Nov. 18, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and continues the next day, Nov. 19, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

League members today are leaders in the community and not just because of the organization. Tippett is the court coordinator for Fiesta of Five Flags, on top of her presidential league duties. Thoma is the regional market manager for Baptist Hospital, as well as community vice president for the League. Allen and Cserep work at UWF in the college reach-out program, helping low-income students pursue higher education.

“We’re awesome women,” Thoma said. “We do a lot outside the Junior League. The League is what ties us together.”

The Junior League of Pensacola’s motto is “Women building better communities,” and it couldn’t be more appropriate. These women are building a better Pensacola just because they feel the need to improve their community through volunteering.

“Giving back to the community is the most important thing I do,” Thoma said. “It’s why I wake up every day. We need to give back because we’ve been given so much.”

And since women play a bigger role in society, compared to the first league members of 1956, their reach is limitless.

“With our long history, the Junior League has deep traditions regarding how we do things,” Tippett said. “This year is about a re-examination of ourselves and nothing is sacred.”

MARKETBASKET
WHEN: Preview Gala is from 6 to 9 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 17; Marketbasket is from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday, Nov. 18 and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 19.
WHERE: Pensacola Civic Center
DETAILS: juniorleagueofpensacola.org