On August 6, 1923, “the original ten” met at the home of Mrs. John E. Barbey, and the Reading Junior League was born. Mary Griggs Barbey was elected the first president, and 40 candidates and eight associates were proposed for membership.
While the League recognized the importance of each individual’s volunteer contribution, the leadership knew that the organization needed a group project that would not only serve as proof to the community of the organization’s sincerity but also create a “bonding” of the membership. The first projects included a Day Nursery and working with the Red Cross to create Braille books. However, after the results of a needs survey, the members chose a Settlement House.
On November 6, 1925, the League initiated the first of many successful community projects, the Junior League House (Settlement House) at 229 South Fifth Street in Reading. The purpose of the Settlement House was to furnish a center for the neighborhood where various groups may gather for social and educational clubs and classes. Under the direction of a paid House Director, a myriad of activities and classes – carpentry, singing, dancing, sewing, cooking, Kindergarten, and social groups – was offered.
At the end of the decade, the doors to the Settlement House were closed. This allowed a new and even more innovative program, the Tyson-Schoener Recreation Center.
The hallmark of the Thirties was the Great Depression. At the height of the depression and the peak of Reading’s population, the unemployed in the thousands “flocked old City Hall for doles”. Recognizing the magnitude of the problem, the League responded.
On October 15, 1930, the Junior League of Reading in a joint venture with the city Recreation Department and the Reading School Board opened the Tyson-Schoener Recreation Center, the first recreation center in the city. “The purpose o f the Centre was to supply wholesome leisure time for underprivileged adults.”
An interesting aside regarding the Tyson-Schoener School is that a Reading League member, Virginia Muhlenberg Brooke, designed some of the tiles on the exterior of the building. These tiles are still visible in the 21st century.
In 1938 the Reading Rec Center Department took over financial responsibility for Tyson-Schoener therefore ending JLRs connection and the need to find a new endeavor.
The new project voted on by membership was A Neighborhood Council (Pioneer Neighborhood Council). The JLR chose south of Penn as their logical area (same area as the Rec Center) and invited 5 identified leaders from the neighborhood and identified problems in the neighborhood such as inadequate playground facilities and traffic hazards. They obtained police protection at intersections for school children and fought for improved playground conditions
The 1930s also marked the development of a new venture, the Reading Country Club Horse Show.
In response to the increased community need due to World War II, JLR demands increased to support war relief including the British War Relief and additional work with the Red Cross.
The Pioneer Neighborhood Council disbanded in 1949 after many accomplishments over the years including setting up a flood warning system, had traffic lights placed at 5th and Spruce Sts, opposed smoke violations and worked for smoke abatement act, and held backyard contests and children’s flower show, for years.
The Hobby School, an offshoot of the Institutional Recreation program (1944) began in the basement of the Tyson-Schoener School building and assisted youth, ages 9-15, by channeling their energies into healthy hobbies – model making, needlework and music.
The period of 1950-51 was one of uncertainty on both the international and domestic fronts due to the constant hazard of another world wide war. It necessitated an evaluation of the current League program and created the immediate need of participation in the vital Civil Defense Program.
They continued to expand the Hobby School as well as start a puppetry for children’s theater at local schools and orphanages. They even created and presented a weekly, fifteen-minute program, Sylvester and His Friends, on channel 33, WEEU-TV. This 26 week series featured puppets and Encyclopedia Britannica Educational Films for children.
The sixties were a time in League when many accomplishments were had! The number of fundraisers, in-League activities and projects led one to wonder how so few could do so much!
It was the time of “Balls”. The League had multiple fundraiser galas throughout this decade that allowed fun to be had by all while also raising money for their causes. One such event, the “You Can’t Top Berks County” event was held in the Reading Aviation Service hangar in 1965.
With all of the money in the treasury, League voted in three projects,
– Community Action Volunteer Service Bureau to provide a coordinated volunteer service in the community
– Music in Schools : to support a music in the schools program for Reading School District grades 4-6, consisted of concerts performed at the schools
– an Arts Fair co-sponsored with the County Art Teachers Association to encourage the development of art in all forms in the secondary schools; held at Governor Mifflin Junior High School
They also sponsored a Pilot Child Care Center with United Way and YWCA, both financially and through volunteer hours. In fact, it should be noted that the three prime movers of the Pilot Day Care Center were members of the Reading League.
The 1960s was also the start of the Junior League of Reading Town Halls.
Conceived, written, edited and designed by the Junior League of Reading, The Berks Countians – The Wonderful Way We Live, a 224 page book was a magnificent tribute to the community and was met with financial success and public acclaim.
The beginning of the 1970s the focus was on drug abuse. Four general meetings provided education on drug abuse among teens in Berks County with the result that the JLR donated seed money to Confront and the National Council on Alcoholism to start their drug education programs. The League also purchased the film Drugs Are Like That and took it into Berks County elementary school classrooms to be seen by 5,000 students that first year. As part of their 50th Anniversary celebration JLR donated $15,000 to The Chit Chat Foundation for a reception area in the detoxification unit.
The mid 1970s brought a new project, Children in Trouble. It was a three-year project designed to develop (1) a runaway facility with Aware, Inc. and (2) a youth advocacy conference and council.
The Town Halls were a huge hit during this time and brought speakers like Gloria Vanderbilt and Phil Donahue to Berks County. They also had a Tennis Exhibition with tennis pros Rod Laver and Roy Emmerson.
In the wake of Hurricane Agnes in June of 1972, the Junior League helped restore the Birdsboro Community Library which lost much of its collection to flood waters. The 255-page second edition of Berks Countians was published in 1974. By the end of the decade the League had donated a staggering $60,000 back to the community in projects including but not limited to: Old Dry Road Farm, Chit Chat Farms, Berks County Senior Citizens Council, People Against Rape and Berks County Easter Seals Society.
During the Eighties, women’s issues permeated virtually every in-League decision. Working women, who constituted the majority of the membership, needed flexible hours and options.
For the 60th anniversary in 1983 the League sponsored “A Day for Women” – an educational conference free for women of all ages as a gift back to the community. They also donated $6500 to complete renovations to the Berks Women in Crisis community living area.
In the 1980s the League adopted many new projects including Leadership Berks, the Children’s Hands on Museum, and an emergency shelter for women and children in cooperation with the Reading Urban Ministry (future Opportunity House).
Leadership Berks, a cooperative venture of the League, the Berks County Chamber of Commerce, the United Way of Berks County, and the United Labor Council of Reading, remains a viable community program. This was, perhaps, the most apt project of the decade as it addressed a major tenant of the League’s philosophy, quality training of volunteers, and extended this conviction into the entire Berks community.
The 1980s were a period of many projects, most of which focused on youth, and a time of collaboration. Fundraising gained new heights in the Eighties with the expansion of Town Hall and the creation of Gourmet Sampler and Whale of a Sale.
The 1980s also saw a move in headquarters to Penn State Berks’ campus.
The League began the decade by changing the focus area to “Affordable, Low-Income Housing” and awarded more than $15,000 to community agencies through endowment and mini-grants. In addition to outright gifts, it continued to sponsor Kids on the Block and Leadership Berks and initiated the The Volunteer Connection, a one-month media blitz designed to promote, enhance and increase volunteerism in Berks County.
The new focus area led the Junior League to collaborate with the YMCA to implement the Beacon House, which provided homeless families safe and affordable housing while moving from dependence to independence. The League’s initial commitment was for $25,000 plus mandatory volunteer hours. Within the first three years the JLR gave significant dollars and contributed 15,000 volunteer hours in administrative or direct services.
Another collaborative effort of this decade was with the Reading-Berks Emergency Shelter and Kutztown University to establish a daycare facility, the Second Street Learning Center, at the shelter. This allowed parents to engage in work or training and know that their children were in a safe situation.
In celebration of JLR’s 75th Anniversary, the League voted to commit $75,000 to the furnishings, landscaping, playgrounds, and other needs of Emma’s Place, the Child-Parent Center located within the Emma Lazarus Place, a facility of Berks Women in Crisis.
In 1998 the Junior League moved again to a home purchased at 1520 Penn Avenue in Wyomissing. This is still currently Junior League headquarters; just seven blocks from where it all started at the Barbey residence on Reading Boulevard.
The 2000s has seen a continued commitment to the health and welfare of children with focuses on Healthy Kids as well as Youth Empowerment.
Current programming includes Young Women’s Summit which invites 6th and 7th grade girls to take part in a two-day program that focuses on youth empowerment. It has been one of the Junior League’s main events for eleven years. And with mantras like “I Am. I Can. I Will.”, the girls learn how they can become stewards of their community.