Dating back to more than a century ago in 1901, The Junior League is an international nonprofit women’s organization with a membership of 140,000 volunteers across 293 chapters in four countries. The Atlanta chapter headquartered on Northside Parkway in Buckhead was founded by just 45 women in 1916 and today is the third largest in the world with over 2800 members.
Centered around education and promoting voluntarism, The Junior League of Atlanta (JLA) is dedicated to building better and stronger communities in the Atlanta area. Members are encouraged to participate in one or more of a wide variety of causes, programs, fundraisers and initiatives available through the League and the League’s local partnerships. Throughout the course of their involvement, members gain valuable leadership skills, broaden their community connections, and network with other powerful women.
I recently interviewed Andrea L. Smith, President of the JLA for the 2019-2020 term. As her tenure comes to a close at the end of May she reflected back on her decade of involvement with the organization. She joined in 2010 knowing only that she wanted to give back and pursue networking opportunities. It didn’t take long before she was hooked and began her provisional year, the term used for all first year volunteers.
“I remember this like it was yesterday,” Andrea recalls. “I was sitting in an education series and they were talking about different volunteer opportunities in the league and areas that they support. It was a presentation about the pilot project of human sex trafficking.” Though Andrea had been fundraising and volunteering in a professional capacity for years, what she learned during this meeting came as a shock to her.
“I had no clue. I heard the statistics and I thought ‘did she just say what I think she just said?’ I got chill bumps… I could not believe that this is happening, I could not believe that children at the age of 12 are being trafficked, and I knew right then and there that was what I wanted to work on.”
This introduction to a very dark subject matter, something that many people were not aware of or didn’t want to talk about but remains a pressing concern that needs to be addressed within her community has sparked a deep passion within Andrea. She proceeded to campaign for placement on the teams working on the issue despite being a provisional volunteer, a status which is typically centered around education and usually doesn’t allow one to get involved in active campaigns. JLA’s efforts related to this issue include victim advocacy and campaigns to ensure harsher sentences for offenders.
The same passion and zeal that she experienced in her early years in the organization has propelled Andrea into positions of increasing influence, serving on boards and championing efforts to address human sex trafficking.
All of the positions within the JLA, with the exception of certain administrative roles, are exclusively volunteer positions. Outside of her role as president Andrea has had a full career working first in the medical industry and later in education, facilitating fundraising and development for organizations such as the Grady Health Organization, Muscular Dystrophy Association, and the Piedmont Healthcare Foundation. Today she holds the position of Vice President of Development for Scholarship America. “I kind of joke that I have a full time paid job and a full time volunteer job that I absolutely love,” she said with a laugh.
The structure of the Atlanta chapter of The Junior League is focused on three causes: early childhood education, generational poverty, and commercial sexual exploitation and human trafficking. While there are other causes that JLA members can get involved with, the direction of the organization’s emphasis is research-based, and these categories represent some of our city’s greatest needs.
While networking with other passionate women leaders is certainly a bonus, it’s not the central focus of JLA members. “I truly did join the league to volunteer, it’s a great organization with a legacy of giving back to the Atlanta community,” said Andrea. Volunteers help out by actively engaging with more than 100 community partners to achieve results through hands-on help as well as fundraising events.
“It’s kind of all of the above; it’s not just the leadership of the organization, it’s being out in the community doing the good work.”
The JLA has been involved with a number of local organizations throughout the years, including Trees Atlanta, the Ronald McDonald House, and the Atlanta Speech School among others. One of the biggest fundraising efforts in recent years was the Centennial Grant launched in 2016, the Atlanta chapter’s 100th year. They raised $1 million towards three local organizations: the Atlanta Community Food Bank, Generational Poverty Law Project, and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
The Atlanta Community Food Bank received a $380,000 grant to expand its Child Nutrition Programs which focus on elementary, middle, and high school students in Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett counties. Through school focused programs the Food Bank was able to provide an additional 800,000 meals per year for hungry children.
Another $380,000 went to the Generational Poverty Law Project which funded a joint effort between the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, Georgia Heirs Property Law Center, and the Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta. These nonprofits seek to ensure that clients of the organizations receive legal help and social services.
Lastly, $240,000 was designated to the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Institute for Healthcare and Human Trafficking, which was used to provide training and education to healthcare workings and promote evidence-based research on human trafficking.
“We know that we can’t save the world ourselves and we need to work together with other organizations to make a difference,” Andrea continued. While her term as president is coming to a close, her involvement in the JLA is nowhere near over. She intends to stay involved as a “sustainer” which is a role akin to an alumni that serves in more of an advisory capacity.
Prospective members can apply to join the JLA three times each year, during which time the League accepts 500 members. Membership dues are $200 annually, and there is an additional $125 course fee for first year provisional members. While there used to be an hourly requirement for all members, that has been repealed in recent years and is now evaluated on a case by case basis. Learn more online at The Junior League of Atlanta website.