Great ideas often come from chance meetings in the most unlikely of places — a common enough experience in a city like New Orleans. So it stands to reason that the impetus for a new Junior League of New Orleans partnership began last summer with a chitchat in the produce section at Rouses Supermarket. Sustainer Laura Claverie recalls running into then League President Maria Pardo Huete while grocery shopping and having a conversation that would eventually lead to JLNO’s newest community project.
At the time, Laura and her husband Phillip were serving as co-chairs of the 2016 Sleep Out fundraiser for Covenant House New Orleans, a shelter for runaway, homeless and at-risk youth, mothers, and chidren. The event invites participants to sleep on the sidewalk with just a sleeping bag and piece of cardboard to raise money for Covenant House programs including a 24-hour Crisis Center and services in counseling, health, education and employment. When Laura and Maria’s conversation turned to the Sleep Out, others might have politely stated, “How interesting,” before seguing into farewells. However, Maria’s enthusiastic response of, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to do that!” set the wheels in motion for seven participants from the JLNO Board of Directors to spend the night on Rampart Street last November.
The 2016 Sleep Out, which featured 145 participants and raised over $400,000, included small group sessions with Covenant House residents. These interactions made a lasting impression on the JLNO team members. According to JLNO Active Christine Vinson, you couldn’t help but be impacted by meeting the residents and seeing the role Covenant House services play in their lives. “Everything there is about giving a chance to these young people,” explains Christine. “They find support. For so many of them, their perception of normal is totally different than what we might take for granted. Covenant House is important because making that change without help is almost impossible.”
As a result of her experience, Christine’s involvement with Covenant House extended past last year’s Sleep Out. Christine and Active Kate Kelley now serve as co-chairs for the newly formed JLNO Covenant House Committee, one initiative of which is organizing monthly birthday celebrations for Covenant House residents. The parties will be open for all residents to attend and will feature all the birthday classics like cake, ice cream and presents. But Christine points out that the gift of these celebrations is more than just the trappings of a simple birthday party. “These parties,” she states, “are about doing something tangible as well as intangible where we celebrate the people who are there and trying to grow. These residents are the people who need to be given a chance and opportunity to see that they’re appreciated and cared for.” Covenant House New Orleans Executive Director Jim Kelly echoed this sentiment when describing why the parties are important for residents. “What our kids often lack, number one, is love, and part of love is joy. These celebrations bring joy.” The Covenant House birthday celebrations have gone through several iterations over the years.
According to Jim, approaching JLNO about reviving the birthday celebrations felt like a natural step. His first experience with the Junior League came in 1988 as Covenant House prepared to open its doors in New Orleans. The shelter was open at partial capacity during the holiday season, with the plan being to open the full residence in January at a kick off celebration. However, when construction wasn’t complete by the deadline, a group of 20 JLNO provisional members arrived to help get Covenant House across the finish line. Jim described the unexpected sight of young women spread out across the facility sweeping, mopping, cleaning bathrooms and even using hair dryers to dry freshly painted hand rails as inspirational. “If those 20 provisionals hadn’t been there…I don’t know what we would have done.”
His experience with other JLNO volunteer work that touches Covenant House—like the Diaper Bank, the Parenting Center and Dress for Success—makes him excited to strengthen this new partnership and to look for more ways to work together. Jim “salutes the Junior League because they get it. They get it and do something about it.”
Much of the legacy of service within the New Orleans community is derived from the efforts of League members like former JLNO President Sally Suthon. As JLNO’s 1998-99 President, Sally now pulls double duty as the current Sustaining Advisor to the JLNO Board while simultaneously serving on the Covenant House Board of Directors. She shares Jim’s enthusiasm for the partnership and described its importance to JLNO’s mission with, “If you want to see a program that’s truly working and helping kids and families, this is where you can make a meaningful impact. I love Covenant House because it takes the kids that other people have thrown away. It works, and it saves lives. What more can you ask?”