Mary-Margaret Marks Gets Behind the Wheel as New President of the Junior League of Little Rock

Humbling. Awesome. Challenging. Exhilarating.

These are all words new Junior League of Little Rock President Mary-Margaret Marks uses to describe how it feels to lead arguably the city’s most extraordinary group of female volunteers and community advocates.

A self-described taskmaster, Mary-Margaret officially became president June 1 but has been planning for the role since October 2011, when she first learned of her appointment. The 600-plus days between have given her the opportunity to think about where she needs to lead the organization and what the roadmap to that destination looks like.

“I have been planning, meeting, strategizing, learning, evaluating and, most of all, listening to our membership and our community partners about both what the Junior League means to them and the potential impact the JLLR can have in our city,” she says. “I look forward to seeing what bold ideas ‘stick’ with our membership and am excited to perfect them for our members and the community.”

Mary-Margaret’s dedication to community service can be traced back to childhood, when from a young age she watched her mother and her father serve the city. Her brother has been a lifetime Easter Seals client, so much of the family’s service revolved around that nonprofit.

“I have a vivid memory of working the phones with my family at the annual telethon for Easter Seals, and I remember family outings every holiday to retirement homes across town; my dad is a piano player, and my brother and I are not the best singers, but we had heart,” she jokes.

A graduate of Mount St. Mary Academy, Mary-Margaret and her husband Matthew first met at a YTeens dance in seventh grade. The two crossed paths a second time as sophomores in high school and dated until graduation. Both attended college in Virginia — she at the University of Virginia, he at Washington & Lee University — but went their separate ways to have their own college experiences. They “met” a third time at a mutual high school friend’s wedding two years after college and have been together since.

They have two children, 4-year-old William and 2-year-old Charlie, and Mary-Margaret says she’s “managing the wild and wonderful at home and the wild and wonderful of the JLLR,” which traces its roots back 91 years and currently has 1,237 members.

Seventy-eight percent of the league’s active members work outside of the home, she says, and many are professionals. “We are business owners, CPAs, computer specialists, nurses, doctors, teachers, attorneys, accountants and nonprofit directors. We work in the public and private sectors. We are mothers. We are married. We are single. The only ‘requirement’ for membership is a desire to work with other women to identify unmet needs, forge effective coalitions and work for change.”

The women of the JLLR don’t sit still and wait on change to come to them, either. They are proactive doers, “women in motion,” says Mary-Margaret, who chose the phrase to define this year of service. She first saw it on a billboard while traveling and decided it fit perfectly with where the JLLR has been and where it’s going.

In the 2012-2013 league year, the JLLR adopted four strategic goals that will sustain the organization and improve our community for years to come. They are:

  1. Reduce by one percent the number of students in Pulaski County with a BMI classification of overweight or obese (from 37.51 percent to 36.51 percent of all students) by 2018.
  2. Improve the percentage of Pulaski County third graders reading “proficiently” by five percent (from 69 percent or above to 74 percent or above) by 2018.
  3. Secure the organization’s financial future through the growth of investments, endowments and sustainable fund development by 2022.
  4. Establish the JLLR as the premier source of female leadership development in Little Rock by 2023.

“Our goal for 2013-2014 is to put these goals into play,” says Mary-Margaret, who plans to execute them through training, JLLR community outreach and advocacy efforts and old and new fundraisers. The JLLR is supplementing existing community projects, like the well-known Boosters and Big Rigs, Nightingales, KOTA Camp, Stuff the Bus and Girls Realizing Opportunity Within (GROW) with a few more designed specifically to help them reach their strategic goals.

The organization has recently partnered with Reading Is Fundamental, First Book and Macy’s to give each of its Stuff the Bus recipients three age-appropriate books to keep for the next school year. This is just the first of many steps the JLLR will take to increase literacy among Pulaski County students.

To help reduce students’ BMI, the JLLR plans to incorporate the nationally recognized Cooking Matters curriculum into their existing mentoring program with middle school girls. “Our plan is to have the 50-60 GROW girls participate in a cooking matters-style class during the morning and then continue the elements of self-esteem programming we have created in the afternoon,” Mary-Margaret says.

The JLLR is also planning a 10K/5K for spring 2014 which they hope will attract the running community as well as families. “We are excited about the opportunity to showcase our ‘home’ in the heart of downtown Little Rock and to invite others in the community to learn a bit more about the work we are doing to make Little Rock an even better place to live.”

One of the most exciting new projects is the Nonprofit Board Institute, which will be a four-to-six-week program that will train the community and the league how to be effective nonprofit board members. Participants will learn from local subject matter experts, and upon successful completion of the course, may be paired with nonprofit organizations to serve as a board intern.

“We are thrilled to offer the entire Little Rock community an opportunity to participate in a Nonprofit Board Training Institute,” Mary-Margaret says. “We are embarking on a new training opportunity; we are the beneficiaries of the wonderful training the Junior League offers and now we will be able to share our training with others.”

To enhance the JLLR experience for its membership, Mary-Margaret has also tweaked the membership requirements to allow for more flexibility. “We expect a lot from our members, but we also give significant opportunities to them,” she says. “In an effort to meet our members where they are, we have reworked some of our requirements and are hopeful that we can reposition ourselves to be recognized by even more women in the greater Little Rock area as THE premier source of female leadership development in Little Rock.”

At the end of her term, Mary-Margaret hopes to have record-breaking fundraisers in the books; she hopes for continued recognition of JLLR programs by the City of Little Rock; she hopes that each JLLR member will have increased pride for what the organization does for the community; and most importantly, she wants to see increased numbers of women and children touched and transformed by the work that the JLLR has done for the past 91 years will continue to do for the next century.

“We not only call Little Rock our home, but we are building it, enriching it, serving it … we are a part of it,” she says. “We are forces to be reckoned with, and next year, as we have always been, we will be women in motion.”

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