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Junior Service League combines friendship with community service

By Debbie Coleman-Topi Special to The Examiner

Hundreds of local women have drawn on the dream of four Independence visionaries who first met in 1945 and created an all-female community service corps: the Junior Service League. Their efforts have filled a gap in services to those who need them most while also helping to preserve historic landmarks, creating children’s educational programs, and addressing crucial community issues.

Members of the Junior Service League at a recent community function. {Submitted photo]

League members, today celebrating three-quarters of a century, have not been afraid to tackle tougher issues, including domestic violence and child abuse, and their reach even has extended to projects such as helping to formulate methods for bringing health care to those in need and programs for the disabled, according to a video on the league’s website.

The Junior Service League is this year’s recipient of The Truman Heartland Foundation’s Heartland Service Award. It was among several groups and individuals honored at the Toast to Our Towns virtual gala last weekend.

“Over the years,” a descriptive video says, “the Junior Service League of Independence has evolved from a day when ladies lunched in hats and gloves to a time when career women squeezed evening meetings between work and family time.”

The league’s history tells the story of women who sought to have a positive impact in their community with an array of projects, many which have become long-held traditions, including the Bess Wallace Truman Scholarship, awarded annually to an Independence High School senior, said current JSL president, President Stephanie Merriott.

Members recently funded permanent street signs advertising the farmer’s market at Drumm Farm in Independence. Other recent projects include care packages sent to veterans and enlisted military, she said.

Some earlier programs filled a need at the time but have since lapsed to be replaced by other projects more appropriate for the era. One such 1940s-era project brought the Kansas City Philharmonic to Independence School District students. Members were not content to merely offer the concerts, but also conducted advance programs in Independence schools, educating students about the music and proper concert etiquette, the website states.

In 1956, a key Junior Service League member received an anonymous phone call about the next morning’s planned demolition of the historic 1859 jail. Members staged a sit-in to protect the historic site, which was restored and operates today as a local tourist destination.

Sustaining member Gloria Smith, a local historian, said the club’s early days had members who were known as the “movers and shakers” of Independence. 

Some were friends with, or had ties to, the city’s most famous couple, Bess and Harry Truman. Sometimes the league benefited from those ties. For instance, members have a long history of creating cookbooks as fundraisers. Some years, the books even featured specialties dished up by Bess in her kitchen and Harry’s favorites from his time in the White House, according to the video.

The ties to the Trumans became apparent at other times, most notably when the Truman Library was opened in Independence, and the former president requested that JSL members create an educational program for school children who visit his library. Truman personally trained JSL members as docents and the league managed the volunteers for the next 30 years, according to the video.

Sometimes club activities have been more light-hearted. Smith said an important part of her early days as a member was planning and hosting monthly luncheons, complete with themed decorations, costumes and food.

League members are creative in fundraising as well, to pay for their plethora of projects. In recent years, members have hosted an annual Bingo Brunch and Bubbly, a popular social event, for members and their guests, that has become one of the group’s highest-paying fundraisers, Merriott said. In addition, the group draws revenue from the rental of its clubhouse at 3122 S. Crysler and from the $100 in annual dues paid by each member, she said.

While the Junior Service League’s mission always has centered on community service, the social aspect of the group also plays a pivotal role in growing and maintaining membership, Merriott said.

“The relationship piece is what sets us apart,” she said, adding that members often report that “some of their best, lifelong friends” have come from the league.

She said, “We find a lot of joy in serving together.”