Junior League chief leads ladies who launch social change

Published Oct. 9, 2014|Updated April 30, 2021

Junior League of Tampa president Lee Lowry acknowledges that women’s charity groups sometimes conjure up stereotypical images of “ladies who lunch” or highfalutin tea parties replete with white gloves and fancy pearls. • But not the Junior League. They might still wear pearls, but the gloves are off. With 85 percent of its members working outside the home, the league consists of women with diverse backgrounds who want to enhance their skills while taking on child welfare and education issues. • Ad 2 Tampa Bay recently awarded the league its pro bono Public Service Campaign for 2013-14, and the league hopes to be at the forefront of raising awareness about sex trafficking. • Lowry, a married mother of two who also works as the communications director for St. John’s Episcopal Church and School, recently spoke with Times staff writer Aimée Alexander about the awareness campaign and the league’s upcoming holiday gift market.

What is an issue that you would really like to see take off under the wings of the Junior League?

The thing we are really focusing on right now is sex trafficking and child sex trafficking. It's something that has really come to the forefront. We are trying to figure out just where we fit in. But I think one thing in general is to just raise awareness about that crime. It's a real problem in Florida and Tampa. It's something I really hope will take off in the next few years. Other organizations such as Redefining Refuge and Bridge to Freedom are the two main ones in our areas. We are trying to figure out where we fit in with them and how to build a house or provide services.

Tell me about the league's new community campaign against sex trafficking.

We applied for AD 2 Tampa Bay's Public Service Campaign. AD 2 is a young advertising and marketing group. We had to apply and make a presentation, and I believe the vote was unanimous that we work together with several other organizations and we come together to fight human trafficking. We really felt at the league that we could help them (victims) speak with a voice.

The ad campaign is really huge, and it's complete with billboards and ads and all sorts of things. January is human trafficking month, and Jan, 11-18 is the week that we and other organizations are going to bring awareness. I think that we will hit it hard that week and really get the community to understand this problem.

What has been your proudest accomplishment during your time at the Junior League of Tampa?

Just seeing the women grow and watching them take on things that they didn't think that they could. In some cases, mentoring them and in some cases development. It's pretty cool because I see people going in directions they never thought they would go in. It's so interesting because sometimes we will see the lawyer who is recruiting gift merchants for our holiday gift market or the CPA doing craft projects with kids in foster care. It's putting people outside their comfort zone, and I think that's part of their growth.

What does it feel like to be president of the JLT?

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It feels amazing. We have 1,800 members, 600 of which are active. And you get projects, you're running the office. It's like having a business with 600 employees. We do a lot. It's hard to stay on top of it, but it's incredibly rewarding. It's also a serious sense of responsibility because we have grown to be a real, true nonprofit. It's not a membership organization, which I think some people think it is. People think we do some big work but that we are more sort of a ladies club, and that's just really not who we are at all. I feel like I have been entrusted with this amazing opportunity.

Tell me about the stereotype. How do you think that evolved?

I think in our past, at times, it's been accurate. But when I look at the founding of the Junior League movement in New York more than 100 years ago, you know those people might have been socialites but they were activists. They also were hard-core social change agents.

There is that sort of '50s stereotype of the pearls and the gloves. We are ladies, but we are also hard workers. And what we bring to it as an organization of women is the fact that we are training women to go out and be community and civic leaders. The projects we have started, true change we have made, it's been really rewarding.

Tell me about the Kids Connect project.

It's really great. We actually had an event last Saturday. We partner with Eckerd Youth Alternatives and Camelot Community Care to bring together foster children and people who are looking to adopt, in varying stages of that process. Sometimes they are just dipping in a toe to see what it's all about. So we bring them all together in a very relaxed way. It's a chance for the parents to see how the kids really are and the kids get to know the parents in a different way, too. We have games like tug-of-war and they get to know each other.

What sort of things can we expect at this year's holiday market?

This year is a bigger venue. We will have over 150 merchants. It has something for everybody. It has all kinds of price points. There's jewelry, things for men, food and kids clothes. Definitely women's clothing and monogrammed things and cute things like that. And home items, candles, electronic things. Thousands of volunteer hours go into that event. We have always had a holiday thing. I think we have made over a million dollars since we've been doing it. Moreover, the money goes back into our projects and programs.

When you were younger, did you ever envision being president of the Junior League?

I don't know that I would have been totally surprised, but I thought I would probably be in the arts my whole life. I think at heart I am pretty philanthropic. It's not that I have a lot of money to give away but ... I think there is so much that can be done for the nonprofit sector, and it's not a complete surprise that I am still in that sector.

Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.