Junior League women still ‘making a difference’ a century later

FAIRFIELD — The year was 1920. The 19th amendment was ratified that August, giving women the right to vote, and in southwestern Connecticut a group of women had just banded together to step into leadership roles and serve their communities in another way.

Forty-seven women joined forces to launch the Junior League of Bridgeport, making it the first Junior League in Connecticut. It focused on social, economic, educational, cultural and civic conditions in the city of Bridgeport. The group, now called the Junior League of Eastern Fairfield County, celebrated its centennial this Saturday in Westport.

“These women were so ahead of their time,” said Samantha Collin, past president of Junior League of Eastern Fairfield County. “We are so proud to follow in their footsteps.”

By the 1930s, the group had already grown to 170 members and done more than 10,000 hours of community service.

Collin said she is extremely proud, not only of the group’s longevity, but of all of the women connected to it over the years.

Since the Junior League’s inception in New York City in 1901, the women have navigated a number of social changes and issues and even been at the forefront of certain social reforms. When it started, women were battling for the right to vote. From there, they began leaving the home to go to work, had to hold down the fort when the men went to fight in World War II and experienced the evolution to a household of two working parents, while raising children.

Collin said that through all of that, they still found time to give back.

“It’s that giving back that’s most rewarding,” she said, adding the league has also led to lasting friendships.

The Junior League of Eastern Fairfield County now has about 275 members, most of whom come from its service area of Bridgeport, Easton, Fairfield, Monroe, Newtown, Redding, Shelton, Stratford, Trumbull, Weston and Westport. The bulk of the members are Fairfield residents, where the group is based, and the majority of the projects are in Bridgeport where Collin said the need is greater.

“We’re so delighted that we’ve been able to serve our 12 communities and done such great work in Bridgeport,” Collin said.

Many of the women’s projects from the past 10 decades are still apparent today.

Its first signature program in the 1920s was an occupational therapy program at Bridgeport Hospital, which has evolved into the four Ahlbin Centers for Rehabilitation Medicine.

The league spent most of the 1950s working on the Wonder Workshop, which became the foundation for the Discovery Museum in Bridgeport. In the 1960s, it helped create parts of the Beardsley Zoo.

The group began to expand out of Bridgeport more in the 1970s or so, supporting moderate income housing in Fairfield, though Bridgeport has remained a focus.

Children have long been a big part of the league’s mission. It began Project YOU, one of the country’s first school volunteer programs and was even featured in LIFE magazine. By the end of the 1960s it had become the School Volunteer Association of Bridgeport, and lasted more than 50 years. It also did a multi-year, nationally recognized Survey of Youth Services and co-sponsored the Youth in Crisis Hotline. They also continue to promote literacy.

In the 1980s, the group began to also emphasize a focus on health and fitness, launching a number of new service projects with these goals from then until now, including preparing 150 meals a month to Operation Hope, cooking demonstrations with Mercy Learning Center and partnering with other groups for bi-monthly meals at the United Congregational Church of Bridgeport. Some of the fundraisers also took a fitness twist with the creation of their 5K.

Collin said these focus areas are near and dear to their hearts because many of their members are active themselves, as well as parents. She said they are also aware of the stark contrast just seven miles down the road between Fairfield and Bridgeport.

The group is always examining the organization and what it offers so they can remain viable, Collin said. In 2018, the league started a Volunteer-A-Thon, a 26.2-hour long volunteer marathon where members work with family, friends and community partners on a myriad of projects to support community needs.

“It still is relevant,” Collin said of the league. “It still is attractive to people and it’s still getting jobs done big and small.”

They managed to get those jobs done during the pandemic too, shifting to virtual options, or adjusting their drives and outdoor cleanups to meet COVID guidelines.

“We made a point of not putting the league on pause during the pandemic,” she said.

And as the group marks this milestone, current President Christina Grabon is looking to the future.

“We hope this next century of our Junior League is about marrying the importance of community and helping our neighbors with the busy, sometimes frenetic lives of our members,” she said.

Grabon said they’re excited to re-envision the league to better help its members and the community at large.

“Women join to be surrounded by amazing women who know the power of making a difference together and I’m honored to be a part of ensuring the league is positioned to continue to make a difference for another hundred years,” she said.

Visit jlefc.org for more information.