By: Kayleigh Creswell
While 7 years of service is the standard requirement to reach sustainer status, many active and sustainer members alike spend more years, if not decades, engaging with the Junior League of Washington. Everyone has their own individual reasons for why they find value in spending their limited free time and energy on volunteering – whether that’s making new friends or business connections, giving back to the community, growing new skills, or deepening existing interests.
As a new member, taking full advantage of one year of membership can often feel daunting, albeit achievable. However, as those years advance into the double digits, how can you ensure your relationship with JLW grows with you? What can you do to make the most of your time in the Junior League?
I sat down with Gretchen Ehle, 17-year Junior League member, and Sustainer Committee Chair, to get her advice on shaping a successful long-term membership path within JLW, how that’s changed for her and other members across League history, and what the past can teach us about having a fulfilling experience now.
1. If friendship or networking are part of your goals and you meet someone great, be brave– ask them for their contact information before you say goodbye.
For 111 years, JLW has supported its members by connecting them in mutually beneficial relationships with the DC community in which they serve— placing members with organizations and supporting causes that need them, all the while helping members develop skills and new relationships along the way. According to Ehle, some Sustainers joined JLW when not many members had careers outside the home. Many members could spend most of their weeks dedicating themselves to JLW causes. The League organized activities like a singing group and shifts at the League-owned Thrift Shop which benefited those in need. But as times changed and more League women explored other careers outside homemaker, volunteer shifts had to shorten or become less frequent to accommodate the pressure of full-time careers. Thus, the Thrift Shop evolved into our yearly Tossed & Found Event.
Although the work we do now as members is just as impactful than ever before, the relationships between members don’t have as much time to naturally develop. Ehle shared, “I thought at first it would be more natural but…you might not see that person ever again. Take down numbers/names, follow up with texts/emails because there are so many active members, the chances of seeing the same people over and over again are low.”
2. Support all the causes you care about—from home or in-person
Many members don’t have the time to volunteer for the mid-week lengthy shifts that past volunteers served, instead the League has expanded the frequency and types of opportunities. If the cause is close to your heart– like fighting poverty, increasing literacy, or creating community, you can find a committee or event that supports your passion. Ehle said that while it’s tempting to stick with one or two committees for many years, she recommends trying several. “I bounced around, I decided I’m going to learn new skills and do things I don’t do in my day job; I learned a lot about myself. It allowed me to think more broadly.” As a modern member, there’s never been a better time to try a bit of everything, especially now that we have many virtual and hybrid ways to engage.
3. Assess your priorities frequently
Although many of us know that the demands of modern life force us to spend our time wisely, and with all of the events that the League offers, it can be easy to overcommit yourself. While Ehle encourages members to try a little bit of everything the League has to offer, she reminds members the importance of knowing your personal boundaries. There was a point when Ehle pulled back on her volunteerism to focus on her love life.
“I was doing a ton of stuff and I didn’t have time to have a relationship. I made a decision in 2013 to prioritize where I was spending my personal time and pulled back to make time for things that were important to me. Think hard about what’s important to you at different times of your life because that will change,” explained Ehle. Remember few decisions are permanent and you can take on more or less with the League as you feel ready.
4. Try something you haven’t done before
The League offers many ways to engage as a leader, creative, strategist, and more. It’s important to remember that JLW doesn’t expect you to be an expert to fill these positions. While Ehle was recently promoted to CFO at her company, she cannot stress enough what an impact acting as JLW Treasurer had on her ability to achieve her new role. The League allows us to try on new hats if we’re brave enough to put them on.
5. Celebrate each other’s success in all parts of life
The last thing I discussed with Ehle was her future with the League. . One of the things she spoke about was finding new ways to celebrate members for their achievements. Currently, the Sustainers Committee honors those who have served for 50 years with the League or reached the age of 80 every year. But, Ehle has asked herself, “how do we celebrate our members for more of their successes? For their promotions, advancement in careers and home life, sitting on other boards, helping other organizations be successful.” JLW is a place to both work towards goals but also to empower each other when we reach them. Whether that’s recognizing an outstanding committee member, congratulating a member on their new baby, or toasting a member’s promotion, The Junior League has evolved across the years to fit into and benefit the lives of modern women. We must celebrate all the realms of modern life.