In a League of Its Own

Above: Junior League members past and present celebrate the opening of the Byram Pool; Photography by Bob Capazzo.

Every fall for more than twenty years, the Junior League of Greenwich (JLG) holds its annual Road Rally to introduce new members to the reach of its community impact in an up-close and personal way. The morning-long tour features pit stops at places such as the new community pool at Byram Park, Children’s Day School and the Boundless Playground in Bruce Park.

At each stop veteran JLG members are on hand to give a little history about the role its membership—along with a long list of community partners—played in creating these vital Greenwich institutions and recreational spaces.

JLG community director, Hillary Watson; executive director Kids in Crisis, Shari Shapiro; CEO Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich, Bobby Walker

The tour, of course, serves as an interactive highlight reel. “A tour of everything we’ve done would probably take all day, maybe longer,” says current JLG President Elizabeth Peyton laughing.

Since it was formed sixty years ago, the JLG has evolved into an accomplished group of volunteering women, currently more than 650 strong, who collectively flex their service and leadership muscles to identify and fill pressing community needs. From its 1959 inception, the Greenwich chapter of the international service organization has helped launch more than 113 community projects.

“There are a lot of people in this town who say if you want to get something done, give it to the Junior League,” says Lin Lavery, a former JLG president and Greenwich realtor who went on to serve as a Democratic member of the town’s Board of Selectmen.

While the JLG has been the driving force behind the construction of many brick-and-mortar projects, former president Anne Miller, who led the organization in 2011, notes its legacy extends beyond taking projects from great ideas to ribbon cuttings. “Every year, we’re launching programs and service projects and also thinking about new things that need to get done.”

Betty Hinckley, founding member and first president of the Junior League of Greenwich

Last year is a good example of the way JLG members roll up their sleeves to make Greenwich a better place: They helped mentor more than 250 local tween and teen girls through the PositivelyMe! and PositivelyMore! programs, created more than eighty-five literacy kits for clients of the nonprofit Family Centers, sent fifty floral bouquets to breast cancer patients at Greenwich Hospital, and committed to raising more than $2.5 million to help open the new community pool complex at Byram Park.

Past and present JLG leaders say that beyond launching impactful programs, the nonprofit organization’s most enduring gift to Greenwich may be the generations of community leaders it has inspired.

Lin says joining the JLG eventually led her to a successful run for selectman. “I would never have considered running for political office without the leadership skills I developed in the league,” she says. Her friend and fellow JLG member Brooke Urban (who served as JLG president in 1990) says her JLG service ultimately gave her the guts to become executive director of the Greenwich chapter of the Red Cross. Although Lin and Brooke have since moved on from those roles, they say their experience is common within JLG ranks.

“We spend a tremendous amount of time training our new members intensively in nonprofit management and board leadership,” says Elizabeth. “And as a result, our reach often goes beyond what our members are doing in the league.”
As the JLG celebrates its milestone, we asked former and current leaders to reflect on some of its most impactful achievements.

“THERE ARE A LOT OF PEOPLE IN THIS TOWN WHO SAY IF YOU WANT TO GET SOMETHING, GIVE IT TO THE JUNIOR LEAGUE.”
—Lin Lavery, a former JLG president

Belinda Benincasa and Pamela Speer at the Children’s Day School ribbon cutting


KIDS IN CRISIS

Forty-one years ago a Greenwich United Way needs assessment uncovered a community crisis: Too many local teenagers were homeless or runaways. “We learned the crisis was really complicated,” says Lin, who was a JLG leader at the time. “It involved alcoholism and drug addiction, and sometimes, family dynamics. These kids had no safe place to go.”

JLG members teamed up with Hotline, a Greenwich-based telephone counseling program, to launch a pilot emergency shelter for teens. “We wanted a warm, home-like environment where the kids felt safe and supported while they were getting the help they needed,” explains Lin.

Along the way, Lin says, “miracles happened.” Although they were novice grant writers, JLG members drafted a successful $100,000 federal grant application for seed money. When members found the perfect ten-bedroom home for their shelter in Cos Cob, they worked personal contacts to convince the owner to donate it.

Today, the JLG’s pilot shelter has evolved into Kids in Crisis, an independent nonprofit that has expanded to include emergency shelter for infants and young children. Under the leadership of Executive Director Shari Shapiro, Kids in Crisis has provided hundreds of thousands of hours of crisis and supportive services to children, teens and their families. It remains the only agency in Connecticut that can house children from newborn to age seventeen.


CHILDREN’S DAY SCHOOL

In the late 1990s the JLG and its Child Care 2000 committee took on the ambitious task of closing the affordable childcare gap for hundreds of parents living or working in Greenwich. “You had lots of kids who were staying home with grandparents while their parents were working, because preschool wasn’t in the family budget,” says Brooke. “In a lot of cases, it was a choice between preschool and paying the mortgage. And it was setting these kids up for an educational equity gap as early as kindergarten. They couldn’t compete with the kids who’d had a quality preschool experience.”
To create more preschool access, the JLG raised more than $3 million and partnered with the former Christian Day School to create the Children’s Day School.

Today the preschool program, which has locations in Riverside and Glenville, has provided hundreds of local little ones with the right educational start. Critical to its enduring success is the $1 million tuition endowment fund, which helps the school provide access to families who can’t afford it, notes Brooke, who is still on the school’s Board of Advisors.

the Greenwich Skate Park gives kids a safe and supervised place for freewheeling fun


SKATE PARK AT ROGER SHERMAN BALDWIN PARK

When the JLG was researching recreational options for middle schoolers in the late 1990s, when about 300 Greenwich teens gave them a big hint about something that might keep them occupied: The teens petitioned town officials asking for a safe place to ride their skateboards.

Enter the JLG, which collaborated with the town’s Parks and Recreation Department to gift the town—and throngs of appreciative young riders—its first skate park at Roger Sherman Baldwin Park. It’s been offering kids a safe, supervised place to navigate with skateboards and scooters since 2003.

“This wasn’t one of our easier projects to get off the ground,” recalls Anne Miller. “We had to find a place for it and there was some concern from people worried about teens congregating in parks in their neighborhoods, but we think it turned out to be a really positive thing.”

The skate park remains so popular that it got a concrete face-lift in 2017, and now it offers the option for kids to ride bikes there at designated times.


BOUNDLESS PLAYGROUND

The most thoughtful playgrounds are the kind where all children, regardless of their physical or cognitive abilities, can gather for fun and recreation. It was in that inclusive spirit that the JLG partnered with the Greenwich United Way, the town’s Parks and Recreation Department and private donors to bring Greenwich its first Boundless Playground, which opened at Bruce Park in 2009.

The Boundless Playground

Built with the guidance of Boundless Playgrounds, a national developer of playgrounds for kids of all abilities, this accessible outdoor space features a sensory garden, tetherball and fabricated rock structures, along with traditional playground equipment. The JLG joined its partners again to raise funds for improvements to the park in 2011.


THE GREENWICH POOL AT BYRAM PARK

For too many years, our lone public pool was an antiquated, leaky structure on a private estate that could barely accommodate forty swimmers at a time. That often meant disappointed kids and grown-ups had to wait their turn for a dip. “A town the size of Greenwich really needed a pool that would welcome swimmers who didn’t belong to private clubs or have one in their yards,” says Lin. So, Elizabeth Peyton says, “it was a very proud day” for the JLG in June 2018 when its partnership with the Town of Greenwich culminated in the opening of the new pool complex—complete with a main pool, kiddie pool and splash pad with interactive features—in a revitalized Byram Park.

Byram pool

The JLG launched an ambitious $2.5 million capital campaign to help support construction of the $9.5 million complex and has been actively involved throughout the project. “This is one of those projects that was an incredible collaboration for [the JLG] because it took a tremendous amount of support and leadership to move this project forward,” notes Elizabeth.

If there was any doubt of the need or interest in the pool, those questions were put to rest during its inaugural summer, when the pool averaged 1,000 visitors a day.

JLG President Elizabeth Peyton and past cochair of Byram pool committee, Carisa Sykes

Says Elizabeth: “It gives everyone involved an incredible sense of pride and accomplishment to think we’ve gone from a pool that could accommodate forty people a day to a complex that is serving so many children, seniors and families—and will be for generations to come.”

“YOU HAD LOTS OF KIDS WHO WERE STAYING HOME WITH GRANDPARENTS WHILE THEIR PARENTS WERE WORKING BECAUSE PRESCHOOL WASN’T IN THE FAMILY BUDGET.”
—Brooke Urban, 1990 president of the Junior League of Greenwich

All photographs are contributed.

share this story