Michelle Linn-Gust for The Sun
4 March 2013
Junior League. For many people, the name brings up images of women in the 1950s having lunch with white gloves on. And for others, it’s about the regional cookbooks the organization publishes as fundraisers. Still, few know much about what it does or that notable women, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Laura Bush and Sandra Day O’Connor, were members.
While the service organization is more than 100 years old, its existence as a chapter in DuPage County spans only 20 years. The chapter was organized to serve the needs of the western suburbs rather than the city, where the focus is often different because of the population variety.
For women in Naperville though, “the league,” as they call it, has been instrumental in their lives for multiple reasons.
“We are all about volunteerism,” said Alissa Johnson Tripas, president of the Junior League of Kane & DuPage Counties Inc. While the league works to help those in need, it also seeks to develop and promote women by giving them training in both skills and leadership.
“We send our trained volunteers into the community and make sure we’re serving those who need us,” she added.
Johnson Tripas, 44, grew up familiar with Junior League because her mother was a member in Wisconsin where they lived. Since her mother’s death, she sees her Junior League role as a way of honoring something that was important to her mother.
The league is involved in a variety of activities, although the current focus is on school readiness for at-risk children. Sometimes the organization takes on what it calls “emergency projects” where the circumstances are just right and the skills of the women are needed.
At the heart of the organization is giving women the opportunity to challenge themselves while learning new skills they can use in the community.
Jessica Salasek, 29, joined when she moved from Chicago to Naperville with her husband and wanted to meet other women but also do community work. The head of publicity and advertising for Quest Books in Wheaton learned invaluable leadership skills in her three short years as a league member.
“I work for a nonprofit publishing house, so I don’t have a team working under me,” she said. “This allowed me to cultivate and learn a skill set (of managing a team).”
For Natasha Bonomo, 43, she was looking to make social connections but also for networking opportunities. She didn’t expect the greater benefit.
“I learned a lot about myself in the process,” she said regarding the variety of activities she immersed herself at the league. The vice president of wealth management at Northern Trust didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a banker, although it was logical to find her on the finance committee.
When Bonomo ran a fundraiser, something she said didn’t see herself as having the skills to do, she realized that her organizational skills allowed her to make it happen. She also served as president of the organization.
Although she remains a league member, she has taken what she learned there to become a board member at the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce and United Way.
“Not only do I have the business perspective,” she said, “but also the fundraising and nonprofit perspectives as well.”
The women acknowledge that the club allows them to change their involvement as their lives ebb and flow. Career women might be involved heavily until they have children and then back off until their children are older and they can contribute more. Members include women who are lawyers, doctors, engineers and stay-at-home moms. Single professional women might be looking for something different from the organization than the mothers with young families.
Salasek appreciated that she no longer had to drive into the city to meet with a group of women to eat dinner.
No matter what the reasons, the league is ultimately about giving back.
“It allows us to bring our skills to the table to help our community,” Johnson Tripas said.