At first glance, the Museum of Discovery, Riverfest, the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts and Seven on Your Side appear connected only by their status as some of Little Rock’s most iconic institutions, past and present.
But despite the diversity of mission and purpose, these city mainstays, and others, are siblings, all of them sharing the same lineage.
As the Junior League of Little Rock celebrates its centennial, current and former members can look back on a history of developing worthwhile initiatives and programs, bringing them to life, nurturing them and then handing them off to the city.
Commemorating its “Legacy of Impact,” the league is reflecting on more than 70 visionary projects that were created independently or through coalitions and became local fixtures that helped people in need and enhanced life in the capital city.
As a former JLLR president and the league’s 2022 Sustainer of the Year, Mimi Hurst, who joined in 1984, is something of an institutional memorist for the league. Since 1922, she says, the JLLR has impacted the community through its projects, many of them designed to help children, youth and families.
“I think the legacy is that it has and it does — and I think it will continue to — put its mission into positive action for tangible results that benefit the lives of children and really the quality of life for all people in Little Rock,” Hurst says.
Since its founding, the JLLR has taken women with different backgrounds and careers and pulled them together to identify and address unmet needs in the city through the action of trained volunteers. With close to 1,000 members, the league as an entity was one of this year’s inductees into the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame.
“From the beginning the league has been involved with projects with people,” Hurst says. “It’s not white gloves, it’s work gloves.”
With the anniversary and hall of fame induction, the JLLR has spent part of its celebration year reaping accolades.
However, in typical fashion, the league has also acknowledged the milestone through good works. In late May the JLLR announced a gift of $13,500 to the Rockefeller Early Childhood Center for the creation of a media center and updates to the play area.
The Centennial Celebration Committee hosted a summer celebration and reveal, with a new member class, a ribbon cutting and Scholastic book fair at the center, which provides early education for Little Rock School District children ages 0-4.
On March 1, the outset of Women’s History Month, the Arkansas state Senate honored the league with a resolution. As far as self-recognition, the JLLR has been commemorating its legacy with events for members and the general public, with 100 women serving 100 hours in one weekend and a planned finale to close out the year.
“There is no doubt JLLR has established a well-deserved legacy,” says former president JoBeth McElhanon. “What might not be as easily seen as a landmark on a map is the impact the organization has had on its members and in turn their families, their careers, their companies and beyond.”
Institutions like the Baby Welfare Station — the JLLR’s first undertaking — Gaines House, Centers for Youth and Families, Potluck Food Rescue and Kota Camp, as well as the preservation of Trapnall Hall and the Women’s City Club building, all began as league projects that morphed into local pillars, and many still exist.
Donna McLarty, who joined in 1975, chaired the founding board of The Parent Center and oversaw its merger with the Elizabeth Mitchell Children’s Center and Stepping Stone to become the behavioral health provider Centers for Youth and Families. The center serves at-risk youth, foster families, human trafficking victims and adults suffering from behavioral and mental challenges.
“Like many league members, I was a mother of school-aged children, and one of the things I valued most was the chance to work with people across our community to invest in projects that would serve children and families,” McLarty says.
The nonprofit training and experiences the league provides have also created a small army of people who branch out, on their own or to other organizations, with the experience and ideas on how to best get things done.
“Hopefully, Little Rock looks better because of the league,” Hurst says.
LEAVE IT TO LITTLE ROCK
What would become the JLLR began in 1914 as an auxiliary to United Charities, but the group wanted to be independent and form its own projects. It became the Junior League of Little Rock eight years later when it joined the Association of Junior Leagues of America (now known as the Association of Junior Leagues International) and was incorporated in 1929.
Hurst says it was actual work and not simply a group of women meeting for tea, despite what some might have thought through the years.
“I think the perception has been league members showing up to meetings in pearls,” Hurst says.
The league evolved with society and its changing roles for women, and its own rules also changed over time. For instance, members no longer have to wait until they turn 40 to become sustainers and need only serve a set period of time.
“Not growing up in Little Rock, this is where I made my friends and where I learned about my city,” says Barbara Hoover, who like her daughter Josie Felton, is a JLLR sustainer. “During that time, most women did not work and our functions were held during the day before our children got home from school. How wonderful that it has now been adapted for everyone. The Junior League serves our community, and if you have the league involved, one knows it will be done the best it can.”
The league continues to grow with changing times, taking measures to ensure a diverse membership of talented, experienced women eager to contribute to their communities. The league has a diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) task force and offers regular DEIB training.
“The goal of that task force is to come up with a plan as to how we have the DEIB lens in everything we do,” JLLR board president Tabitha McNulty says.
While the league has evolved, the process of identifying a civic need — enlisting financial support, finding volunteer labor, bringing a project to life and handing it off to the city — has been in place from the JLLR’s first major effort.
“It started really with the very first project, Child Welfare Station,” Hurst says. “And the process is to canvas and survey and identify a need. That can also entail meeting with leaders and different groups around the city to identify a need.”
The Child (Baby) Welfare Station provided volunteer medical personnel to help mothers of preschoolers and infants with examinations and education on care and feeding. It served thousands of local kids, expanded its days of operation and was handed off to Little Rock in 1937.
ADVOCACY, ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
In the 1950s the JLLR’s desire to create a community arts center helped forge a 1959 agreement between the Museum of Fine Arts and Community Arts Center to support what became the Arkansas Arts Center. Now the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, it is set to unveil its full-scale expansion and renovation next year.
When mental health care was a novel concept, the JLLR in the 1960s banded together with the Pulaski County Mental Health Association, Arkansas Rehabilitation Services and Altrusa International of Little Rock. Their brainchild was The Gaines House, opened in 1967 as a transitional facility for homeless women with mental, physical or behavioral health issues. The Gaines House was formally turned over to the city in 1972.
It hasn’t always been about health care and the arts, Hurst says, noting that entertainment is also good for the community. The league devised the Summer Arts Festival in 1978 — after being approached about an outdoor event by the American Wind Symphony — which began in Murray Park and evolved into the late, great spring celebration remembered as Riverfest.
“Through the Junior League, I volunteered as a committee chair for Riverfest, chaired the festival and then became the executive director,” Jane Rogers says. “From there many doors opened for numerous important and enjoyable volunteer and professional opportunities. Each involvement has given me a sense of helping to make our community a better place for our citizens.”
The league was also involved in creating the early consumer advocacy program Seven on Your Side with KATV Channel 7 in the 1980s. It worked with the Interfaith Hunger Task Force and Arkansas Foodbank in the 1990s to form the food redistribution nonprofit Potluck Food Rescue, and it joined forces with Camp Aldersgate to create the local Kota Camp, an inclusionary camp for children ages 6-18 who are and are not disabled.
Of course, as a nonprofit, the JLLR needs to raise money to operate, and even its Ways and Means projects have had local notoriety. From its cookbooks — “Little Rock Cooks,” “Traditions, “Apron Strings” and “Big Taste of Little Rock” — to Bargain Barn to Downtown Dash to the ongoing Holiday House, the league has made its presence felt.
“During my time as [JLLR board development vice president], at each meeting we started by writing hand-written thank you notes to donors,” Tanya James says. “Why? Because it’s personable, a way to connect and say ‘thank you.’ Donors offer their financial resources for the league’s community projects, which in return allows us to maximize our community impact. [We're grateful] for all of our donors over the years.”
Built in the Greek Revival style in 1843, Trapnall Hall at the time was one of the city’s few brick houses. The home was owned through the years by different members of the prominent Trapnall family before passing out of the family’s ownership.
Julia Taylor purchased the home in 1929 and donated it to the Junior League in memory of her late husband, Charles Trapnall. For years it served as headquarters for the JLLR, which sponsored a major restoration in 1963 and, in typical fashion, donated it to the state for half its appraised value in 1976.
The elegant home stands as yet another positive JLLR contribution to Little Rock, and it serves as the governor’s official receiving hall.
The league leased office space for a time, then in 2001 it bought the Women’s City Club building and made extensive renovations before moving in in 2002. The distinctive, three-story, brick structure has been JLLR headquarters ever since.
In 2013 the league restored the third floor, which has become the nonprofit center available at reasonable cost for nonprofits in need of space to work and grow.
“[It's] like an incubator for new, budding nonprofits,” McNulty says. “It’s reduced rent and shared workspace so they can afford to have a home and get a nonprofit up and running and hopefully outgrow us.”
The floor is also home to the JLLR Nonprofit Board Institute, a five-week training session for community and league members to learn the ins and outs of leadership and board training that aligns with the league’s mission of training volunteers for community service. This year’s theme was “Bringing it Back to Basics” and it focused on board basics, roles and responsibilities, legal and fiduciary responsibilities, mission and vision and resource development.
Along the same lines, the JLLR Boardwalk committee is a group of members who have been placed on the boards of close to 20 central Arkansas nonprofits. Boardwalk allows JLLR members to experience the work of other nonprofit boards and allow the nonprofits to learn about the league in a mutually beneficial arrangement that creates effective leaders and contributors.
The JLLR has spent most of its existence taking the lead on worthwhile projects and cherished organizations that have become pillars of Little Rock and provided lasting value for the city. In a century of women making an impact, the league continues to develop projects that fill a vital need in the community and to provide the pipeline of talent to get those things done.
“You’d think we have some experience,” Hurst says.