Amid culture shift, Junior League of York redefines its identity and impact

As their influence in the community has changed over the years, today’s members have sought new ways to make a difference in York.

Presented by: Our York Media
For the past 90 years, the Junior League of York has worked to empower women while strengthening York’s community. Pictured in front of the League's Thrift Shop, from left, are Angela Ang-Alhadeff, Lisa Bornt-Davis, Natalie Williams, Jen Hitz, Tiffany Rabin, and future league member Eleanor Rabin. (Photo by Ken Bruggeman/Our York Media)

Some come carrying veggie trays, cookie platters, or slow cookers. Others come carrying their babies or toddlers. Most come from work, tired, and head straight for the box of wine.

Regardless of what they’re bringing or where they’re coming from, every member of the Junior League of York comes to its headquarters at 166 W. Market St. each month for the same reason: to make York a better place.

For the past 90 years, the Junior League has worked to empower women while strengthening York’s community. Since 1930, its membership has built parks, was instrumental in starting Olivia’s House, and even once bought an ambulance for a local hospital.

It opened its Thrift Shop in 1952 as not only a community service but as a revenue resource that could put profits back into the community. More than $1.5 million has been given by the York league.

Its speaker series that started in the 80s drew luminaries from former First Lady Laura Bush and the Queen of Jordan to Katie Couric and Joan Rivers. Invitations to the before- and after-parties were perhaps more desirable than tickets to the talks themselves.

But as times changed, so did the League.

The Junior League opened the Thrift Shop in 1952 and continues to offer affordable new and gently used clothing today. At right, Heather Evans shows a dress to Angela Ang-Alhadeff. (Photo by Ken Bruggeman/Our York Media)

A changing league

Declining civic engagement around the turn of the century swept through York County as it did the rest of the country. Local Rotary clubs and other social organizations watched membership drop. The Lafayette Club, which served as a male-only organization for almost 100 years, shut its doors in 2012.

While the Junior League noticed its own decline in membership, a culture shift left the organization to question its identity.

Stay-at-home wives and mothers no longer assumed the majority of membership; among active members, the role is now quite rare. Committing to the same hours of volunteering as prior generations became a taller ask.

The League cut the speaker series in favor of other fundraisers nearly a decade ago, as increased speaker fees started siphoning funds meant for greater purposes.

The checks they once made out to local organizations had fewer zeroes and were given out less frequently.

As its influence changed, members wondered about the organization’s impact – and they decided to do something about it.

“We weren’t known for doing the big things we used to,” says Jen Hitz, the League’s president. “We wanted to be in that realm again and be seen as a community resource.”

Jodi Wintrode and Heather Evans stand behind the counter at the Thrift Shop. (Photo by Ken Bruggeman/Our York Media)

A uniting cause

To empower women and enable their members to be the best they can be, the League needed a jolt. Members don’t join just to be social. Rather, they seek an impactful way to give back to York.

“If I was going to use my time to be a part of something, I wanted it to have meaning,” says Jen, who outside of the league is the Chief Development Officer at Leg Up Farm. “We needed to find something to put our power behind.”

Last spring, the League held a strategic planning session. They wanted to find an area of focus that would leave an impression.

They thought about tackling homelessness or poverty, but as the list grew longer, one common thread united them all: the opioid crisis.

“When we kept talking about concerns in our community, everyone we spoke to talked about how drugs were playing into those issues,” Jen says. “It became apparent that, if we could address substance use, it would potentially help all these other issues.”

Kayla Ewart holds her daughter, Evelyn, before a recent Junior League meeting. (Photo by Ken Bruggeman/Our York Media)

Making an impact

This past Christmas, the opioid crisis struck Lisa Bornt-Davis, reinforcing in her the League’s mission to address it.

She got a call out of the blue from her close friend, whose high school son overdosed and died after trying a Percocet he didn’t know was laced with fentanyl.

Lisa felt helpless.

“What do you even say in a moment like that? It’s terrifying to think of your high school kid trying something for the first time and dying,” she says. “It’s not just the people that overdose who are affected by this. It’s a wrecking ball for their family and their close family community.”

Over the past year, the League has researched the substance use in York County, bringing in speakers with close ties to the issue to educate members. With a better understanding of how substance use continues to impact York, the Junior League believes it has found a way to make that bigger impact.

The women hope to raise $45,000 by 2022 to put toward a grant for an organization addressing substance use and its impact on women and children.

Members like Erin Smith don’t join Junior League just to be social. Rather, they seek an impactful way to give back to York. (Photo by Ken Bruggeman/Our York Media)

Changing lives

Much of that funding comes from the group’s annual Black and White Gala. Like many organizations who had to change plans because of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Junior League pushed back its spring fundraiser to late 2020. While the coronavirus changed fundraising plans, it has made the need even more apparent. The rate in overdose deaths in York County doubled from spring 2019 to spring 2020.

“This is a chance for us to show people what Junior League is and what we do,” says Lisa, the League’s events chair. “We want to bring focus to the opioid epidemic and let people know what we’re doing.”

The women of the Junior League know that no amount of money can fix addiction and mental illness in York, but, in the league’s 90th year, they want to find a way to change lives.

“This will be successful if we fill a gap that hasn’t been filled before,” Jen says. “We don’t want to recreate something that’s already going on. We want to find something that makes a difference.”

Support the Junior League of York

The Junior League of York hosts its annual Black and White Gala at Warehaus, 320 N. George St., York on Saturday, Nov. 7. Entertainment includes a performance by Peter Bottros, catering by Ginger Babies, and MINT photobooth. Tracey Young will share his personal story about addiction and substance use. Proceeds go toward the Junior League of York’s goal to raise $45,000 to make in impact on substance use in York County. More information on the event can be found at
​166 W. Market Street York, PA 17401

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