Junior League's new era

Volunteers: The group marks its 90th year at a new site in Hampden and with a renewed community focus.

April 24, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Goodbye, cucumber sandwiches. Hello, Cafe Hon.

The Junior League of Baltimore, formerly based in buttoned-down Ruxton, celebrates its 90th birthday this month at a new headquarters in a renovated funeral parlor in proudly blue-collar Hampden - a neighborhood famous for its whimsical holiday lights displays.

The relocation signals a seismic shift taking place in the organization's raison d'etre. Once known for high-society debutantes, the league is throwing off the white gloves and finding a more relevant image as it enters a new era. Members devote Thursday nights to a new social service initiative, processing domestic violence paperwork in a Spartan, white-cinderblock room at the Police Department's Northern District.

At an open house at its new building at 3818 Roland Ave. on April 13, the league displayed portraits of past presidents on walls painted daffodil yellow. But, in other ways, it was fast-forward into the future.

"One of the league's goals is being part of a community where we can have a positive impact," said league President Maria T. Johnson, 35. "We have 500 [members] who will go through that headquarters in a year, so hopefully we'll help the local economy."

The organization has a solid social service record in Hampden. Working with a community coalition, the league co-founded the Hampden Family Center on West 36th Street, known as "The Avenue," in 1996.

For the past several months, league members have helped in the city police domestic violence unit.

"It's Ladies Night," said Baltimore police Detective Debra Fox, who works in the unit. She said she looks forward to the female camaraderie in the mostly male Northern District. Johnson and other members review the details of domestic disputes. Their conversations are peppered with such phrases as "ex parte restraining orders."

The volunteers help in several ways. They address letters to victims containing practical advice from the police. They also type police officers' handwritten reports into the department's citywide computer system.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said he asked for the group's help on the subject because it's "a women's issue, a women's organization. What a great bunch, bright and well-educated." He called it "such a score for the public sector, to have people of this caliber." Norris is a veteran of the New York Police Department, which has an extensive partnership with the Junior League of New York.

Johnson said the most striking truth they have discovered about domestic abuse it that it respects no boundaries of race, religion, class or color. "That was a real eye-opener, all races, economic and educational levels," she said. Domestic violence came shockingly close to the national Junior League a few years ago when the president-elect of the Dallas chapter was killed by her husband.

Alice C. Smith, 41, the president-elect of the Baltimore chapter, said, "We were surprised at the sheer volume of [domestic violence] reports."

The Baltimore chapter, fifth oldest in the nation, is keeping faith with the founders of the national organization. Two wealthy young women in New York, Mary Harriman and Nathalie Henderson, began the league in 1901. They worked in settlement houses to improve living conditions for immigrants.

Given their social status, Johnson said, "They didn't have to do that."

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