Junior Auxiliary of Meridian members have a right to be proud. They’re still going strong after 90 years and counting, and their accomplishments are legion. You can also see they really care about those in their community, for example children whose families struggle with covering the basic necessities of day-to-day life, the teachers who teach them in school, and so much more.
There is no doubt that JA of Meridian is a community asset. We feel this small grant recipient must be generating a lot of goodwill for its impressive record of service. Wanting to know how they do it, we put some questions to Junior Auxiliary of Meridian Executive Board Member Marie Roberts (Sponsorship and Giving), to learn more:
Kars4Kids: Can you tell us something about the founding and history of JA of Meridian? What was behind the decision to focus on the children of your community?
Marie Roberts: Junior Auxiliary of Meridian began in 1931 with a group of women who called themselves a “spinster club” and shared a common goal of wanting to help underprivileged children in our community. More than 90 years later, we’re still a group of women working toward that same goal as part of the broader National Association of Junior Auxiliaries.
Kars4Kids: What’s your demographic? What can you tell us about the children you serve?
Marie Roberts: Our chapter service projects range from meeting physical needs such as school uniforms, shoes, personal hygiene products, eye exams and prescription eyeglasses for school-aged children; ongoing mentoring relationships for at-risk middle school girls and area children living in foster care; and care bags for expectant young mothers to provide prenatal vitamins, referrals to community resources, and more. We serve children ages 0-17 or those aging out of foster care, and our demographic is directly drawn from community referrals from school counselors and administrators, social workers, other non-profits, and teachers.
Kars4Kids: We like that you include assistance to teachers, via your Teacher Mini-Grants program, as an important part of helping children learn and grow. Can you tell us about this program? We’d love to know about some of the items and projects your mini-grants have funded.
Marie Roberts: Our Teacher Mini-Grants project allows for large scale student impact and involvement without burdening teachers with a full scale research proposal and grant pitch as seen in other education funding options. Our grant application is concise and non-restrictive, and the speed of awarding allows for teachers to come up with amazing ideas they can implement within the current school year. Our community sees such great value in Mini-Grants, too, so we’ve seen great support in donations and sponsorships earmarked for this specific project. In 2022, Mini-Grants funded everything from arts integration through a school play; classroom technology in the form of stylus pens; an outdoor reading space; a STEM-station for elementary; a PA system; and new hand tools in a career and technical education classroom in a high school setting.
Kars4Kids: Helping Hands provides for necessities children from less fortunate circumstances might not otherwise have, for example eye exams, glasses, and shoes. How do families find you to get this assistance? Are they referred by an agency or the child’s school? What are the short and long term impacts of this service to the community?
Marie Roberts: Helping Hands is a personal favorite service project of mine as I’ve served on that project committee for the longest. When a school counselor, nurse, social worker, or administrator contacts our chapter with an urgent need for a student, we are honored to meet that need and we strive to have items to them within 48 hours. That contact triggers a chain of events that has our members collecting sizes; inquiring about other children in the home who may also be in need; shopping for any situation-specific items; and delivering the items requested to the school official. In the short term, we meet an immediate, tangible need, but the long term impact is invaluable. We never know the child’s name, but we do know that a child with clean clothes, access to personal hygiene products, a warm jacket, a school uniform like that of their peers, etc. is a child who is more likely to be confidently engaged in and out of the classroom.
Kars4Kids: How about an overview of your mentoring program? Why is this program specifically for young women? Why is there a need for this type of mentorship? Do mentees ever return as mentors?
Marie Roberts: Bloom is our newest standing service project and emerged as a community need during COVID-19 with great input from our area school counselors. More and more mental health professionals report that adolescents need a safe space in which to express their thoughts and emotions, and the global pandemic negatively impacted relationships and interpersonal communication. Bloom allows for our membership to connect with young women who may benefit most from a female mentor as recommended by their school counselor. The project is in its third year, and we have doubled the number of mentor pairs with mentees. As it continues to grow, I believe our chapter would love to see these young ladies grow up to be active members of our community who express interest in joining Junior Auxiliary of Meridian to give back, too.
Kars4Kids: Tell us about Crown Club. Is it a new innovation, or a program with significant history?
Marie Roberts: Crown Club is new for our chapter but has a rich history with other chapters within the national network. It is mentoring and community service-driven and aimed at high school girls as a reflection of our own experience as a chapter. It’s amazing to see these students who juggle academic, extracurricular activities, part-time jobs, and all of the things that go along with being in high school, serve our community. We are exposing the benefits of volunteerism to a younger population while also providing opportunities for character development – two aspects that many seek out in preparation for college, career, and future-focused success.
Kars4Kids: What is the Hearts for the Arts Trail and where is it located? Is participation in Hearts for the Arts limited to a certain age range? How does this program enrich the community?
Marie Roberts: Hearts for the Arts is an ongoing initiative that promotes arts awareness and involvement in the broadest sense of the word – art, photography, painting, murals, graphic design, photography, and so much more – to promote self-expression and creative outlets. As with all of our service projects, Hearts for the Arts is directly benefiting children, but the benefits are reaped by families, friends, and the greater community through public artwork; interactive murals, art and written essay contests with awards; and a World Art Day celebration that brings together art museums, artisans, musical groups, colleges and universities, and groups from the private and non-profit sectors together in celebration of the arts.
Kars4Kids: The Provisional Class Project is, according to your website, a yearly service project based on community need. Can you tell us about some of the projects that have been carried out through the years?
Marie Roberts: Our 2023 provisional class project “beYOUty shop”builds self-esteem in local 6th grade students by teaching self-care skills through a hair care workshop. In 2022, “Bump Bags” were created for young, expecting mothers to include prenatal vitamins, community resource referrals, and parenting literature. Other provisional projects include the creation of a special needs area on a community playground to include a wheelchair accessible swing, the addition of personal hygiene products as part of Helping Hands, a prom dress closet, a shoe campaign, and more.
Kars4Kids: How has the JA of Meridian moved with the times from its earliest beginnings until now?
Marie Roberts: Our earliest beginnings meant a chapter made up of women who were predominantly stay-at-home mothers. The vast majority of our membership now works outside the home. Our service and service projects have opportunities to give back to our community for both scenarios, which is one of my favorite parts about being involved with the chapter. We can choose to read to second grade classrooms during the school day, help host a cooking class on a Saturday morning for children in foster care, hop on a weekly Zoom call with a middle school girl to talk about life, shop for and deliver school uniforms and bath soap to a school nurse on a weeknight, and so much in between. With more than 3,000 hours served annually, there is a way to positively impact the lives of the underserved children in our community for everyone.
Kars4Kids: What’s next for the Junior Auxiliary of Meridian?
Marie Roberts: As our chapter gets back to the “new normal” of a post-COVID-19 environment, I think what is next for us is coming back stronger in service than ever before. We’re able to go into classrooms, have in-person mentoring sessions, celebrate teachers receiving mini-grants, and fundraise to support all of our work. Our 2023 theme is “Just One” as we share our stories of service with others in the hope they are inspired to uplift us, support us through sponsorships and charitable gifts at any level, and rally behind us as we aim to help “just one” more child through service.