History and Traditions
What does it take to keep an organization viable and productive for over 70 years? For the Houston Junior Forum, the answer is clear: members who possess a strong work ethic and commitment to service, financial support, and a shared dream. In 1946 a “dream team” of 22 young women and their mentor embraced a vision of community service that became the Houston Junior Forum.
The Early Years
In 1946 postwar Houston experienced tremendous growth, resulting in an influx of new residents and an increased need for assistance by those in under served areas. Among the new arrivals were many newly married young women who, by the standards of the day did not work outside of the home. They wanted to broaden their horizons through service work and new friendships. The stage was set for the development of the Houston Junior Forum.
Mary Dungan Cooper moved to Houston from Dallas where she had been a member of the Junior Department of the Dallas Woman’s Forum. She contacted Mrs. Roy Rowntree, president of the newly formed Houston Woman’s Forum, about the possibility of starting a Junior Department in Houston. After attending a Woman’s Forum meeting, Mrs. Cooper, along with Mrs. Rowntree, invited a few interested friends to meet with them in March 1946. That meeting was the first meeting of the Houston Woman’s Forum Junior Department, and those 22 women who attended became the charter members.
These women between the ages of 20 and 30, bonded quickly through their service work and friendships. They decided to declare their independence from the Houston Woman’s Forum and formed their own organization.
Throughout 1947 Mrs. Rowntree guided the younger women along their journey, like a loving, compassionate mother.
The Houston Junior Forum’s first independent project was with the Mexican-American community on the east side of Houston, a connection that remains strong today. In December 1947, Houston Junior Forum members opened and staffed a library at the old Rusk Settlement House, which was soon followed by libraries at the New Rusk-St. Charles Settlement House and four schools in the area. From this small beginning, the Forum’s influence in the Hispanic community expanded through the decades to eventually include the Community House Preschool and the HJF College Scholarship Program.
The Community House Preschool
As Forum members filled the libraries at the Rusk-St. Charles Settlement House, The Anson Jones, Brackenridge, Lubbock, and Lamar schools with books and participated in the library programming, they realized that many of the young children in community they served needed to learn English. This realization inspired the Forum to begin a nursery school where English could be taught along with academic, health, and social programs.
The 1951 the Houston Junior Forum opened a nursery school in the DeZavala Park Building. Soon, however, the need for a permanent location arose, and HJF members and their husbands cleaned and remodeled a house and a lot on Avenue H, which for several years housed the growing preschool. The Avenue H preschool was operated in partnership with the Houston Settlement Association (later named Neighborhood Centers/Day Care Association.) By 1957 the preschool needed to expand again. A lot was located near the Houston Ship Channel to build the new facility. By 1963 the preschool was Houston Junior Forum’s main project, with an educational nursery school and a full-scale settlement program for adults, teens, and children.
The Community House Preschool continued to expand through the years. HJF members planned the curriculum and extracurricular activities, maintained the building, and supplemented the professional staff. ESL classes and adult/parent education classes were also provided. As of May 2009, more than 3,000 children had graduated from the preschool. As numerous resources for comprehensive preschool education became available in the community, the operation of the Community House Preschool was reevaluated. The school was closed at the end of May, 2009.
The Recreation Center for Older Adults (RCOA)
In the early 1960’s members Elaine Fuller and Martha Sumners were facing the issue of caring for their aging parents and grandparents. Recognizing the existing need for senior adult services in Houston, they influenced HJF to launch a program for seniors. In 1964 HJF accepted the donation of the Helena House Building and $1,000 from the Anderson Foundation.
Matching the Anderson Foundation grant with $1,000 and true grit, HJF members and their husbands remodeled the M. D. Anderson lab into the Helena House Recreation Center for Senior Citizens, and with Sheltering Arms, started a program there in November, 1964.
Originally the center was open three days a week and volunteers served light refreshments. Seniors worked on various crafts and sold their items in the gift shop, keeping a percentage of their sales. Soon the Helena House was bursting at the seams and expansion was needed. In 1967 the City of Houston granted HJF a 30-year lease on a one- acre site on West Dallas for a senior citizens’ recreational facility.
HJF designed and built a facility, and The Recreation Center for Older Adults opened in 1970. The lease was renewed in 1998.
During the peak years of service, the center was open five days a week and often served over 200 people a day. The services of the RCOA included low-cost hot lunches prepared onsite, classes in weaving, bridge, painting, dance and crafts, exercise, ceramics, computers, needlework, beading, quilting, sewing, and the Lifelong Learning lecture series. A gift shop was maintained to offer clients a venue for selling items they created in classes. Several clients also provided entertainment as members of a senior band called the “Swinging Strings.” HJF volunteers were involved in all aspects of teaching and managing the services of the center with the assistance of a professional director.
As the turn of the century neared, senior services became available in all sections of the city, and client participation at the RCOA was greatly reduced. Operation of the RCOA was evaluated and the center was closed in the summer of 2004. Currently HJF members serve senior adults in a variety of locations in partnership with several Houston organizations.
The Senior Guidance Program/Directory
Established in 1989, with the help of the Isla Carroll Turner Trust, the Senior Guidance Program was a telephone information and referral service for senior adults and their caregivers. Staffed by trained volunteers and a professional director, the Program was recognized throughout the City of Houston for its standard of excellence in connecting senior adults and caregivers with resources that helped them meet the challenges of growing older. The Senior Guidance Program was completely computerized, allowing volunteers to quickly access information for the over 10,000 calls received annually. Unique to Senior Guidance was its callback program which provided ongoing assistance to a caregiver or senior via telephone until their area of concern was fully resolved. The Senior Guidance Program also obtained the services of attorneys who provided legal assistance for the clients on a pro bono basis.
In 1996, the Senior Guidance Program produced the Senior Guidance Directory, a Resource for Senior Adults and Their Caregivers. The Directory provided help annually to at least half a million seniors and their caregivers.
Ownership of the Senior Guidance Directory was transferred to Senior Guidance, Incorporated in May 2005. HJF volunteers continued to provide service to the program until 2014. The United Way of Houston’s Care for Elders program assumed responsibility for the directory in 2016 and will publish new editions with hard copies available at the United Way, as well as electronically on the United Way website. Until the new United Way edition is available, the most recent Directory is available on United Way’s website at: https://www.unitedwayhouston.org/news/publications/.
The HJF Resale Shop
Since 1969 HJF has operated a resale shop which has provided a service for its customers and funds to support HJF programs. The first shop, Poco Dinero, was a success from the beginning. In 1977 HJF bought a Victorian home at 828 Heights Boulevard to house the expanding project. Again in 1982, the shop outgrew its boundaries. HJF purchased and renovated the 10,500 square-foot old Heights Post Office building on Rutland Street in the Heights, hosting its grand opening s the Houston Junior Form Resale Shop in 1987. Today the upscale Resale Shop is open six days a week, with paid staff assisting HJF volunteers. Profits from the shop support the College Scholarship Program and the Community Grants Program, as well as the operating budget of HJF.
College Scholarship Program
The Houston Junior Forum established the College Scholarship Program in March 1976. The program benefits the best-qualified high school graduates who have attended the HJF Community House Preschool. Qualified students receive $2,000 for each academic year. The scholarship support continues each year up to four years if requirements are fulfilled. Funds may be used for tuition, books, clothing, or living expenses. After receiving an undergraduate degree, students may apply for additional monies to complete graduate degrees. The College Scholarship Committee members maintain contact with each recipient throughout the year.
Since its inception, the program has awarded over $1,000,000 in scholarships to students. Over 200 Community House Preschool graduates have benefited from the program. With the support of their families and HJF College Scholarship Committee “Mentor Moms,” recipients have become part of a tradition of higher education that will enrich their lives and those of future generations.
The Endowment Fund
Formed in 1989 the Houston Junior Forum Endowment Fund, Inc. was established to receive, invest, and manage contributions given to the corporation to specifically provide financial support to assist the Houston Junior Form, Inc. in fulfilling its charitable purposes in the community. The Endowment Board is composed of seven members (Trustees) appointed each year for a three-year term. The HJF President and the HJF Treasurer serve as ex-officio members for one year. The seven members are appointed by the Executive Committee.
With generous support from HJF members and the community, the Endowment Fund is approaching $1,400,000 in its investment portfolio. Each calendar year, the Endowment Board may distribute an amount of the corporation’s net income. Since 1992 the Endowment Fund has provided over $500,000 in grants to the Houston Junior Forum, Inc. in support of its charitable purposes.
The Community Grants Program
Recognizing the important role of grant funding within the community, the Houston Junior Forum established the Community Grants Pro- gram in the fall of 2010 and awarded inaugural grants to the community in the spring of 2011. Originally, grant monies were restricted to benefit organizations with which the Houston Junior Forum had a volunteer relationship (HJF-approved service sites).
Within two years continued and successful fundraising efforts allowed the Community Grants Program to expand the scope of giving. With the approval of the membership, the HJF Community Grants Program moved forward to provide grant awards to benefit not only HJF service sites, but also other nonprofit organizations with missions aligned to that of HJF. Expanding the scope of the Community Grants Pro- gram provided opportunities for Houston Junior Forum to partner with other entities that share a common philanthropic ideal and there- by increase assistance to the community.
Since its inception the Houston Junior Forum Community Grants Program has awarded almost $200,000 and has been instrumental in helping nonprofits assist thousands of children, youth, women and seniors.
The Presidents' Skirt
The Presidents' Skirt is an honored tradition of the Houston Junior Forum. Friends of the third president, Elizabeth Bracewell, made a skirt for her to wear to a “Fiesta” themed fundraiser. Inspiration was taken from the highly decorative “china poblana” ensemble worn in traditional dances of Mexico. As the idea caught on, each president received a skirt. Skirts were made of velvet, trimmed with satin and decorated with sequined chintz appliqued in a design.
The tradition continues in the present day with each HJF President being honored for her leadership with an amazing one-of-a-kind skirt that is truly a work of art and a labor of love. Today’s skirts are conceived as original art in a theme favored by the president. The elaborate designs are covered in sequins and beads, and then applied to a custom fitted velvet skirt. Completing a skirt can require months of detailed needlework by over 20 volunteers. The intricate beading and fabric applique results in skirts which may weight over 20 pounds. The president may also have a blouse or jacket made in a coordinating fabric. Several presidents had jackets in matching velvet made for their husbands. It is a distinct pleasure to see these skirts worn at galas and fundraising events. The skirt tradition is a tangible expression of the close friendship and support that HJF members have for their leadership team and for each other.
The Houston Junior Forum is the founding chapter of Junior Forum, Inc. JFI is a statewide women’s service organization composed of nine individual chapters, serving the communities of Austin, Baytown, Dallas, Georgetown, Houston, Pasadena, San Antonio, Nacogdoches, and Cypress-Woodlands.