RALEIGH — When Pat Wilkins left a high-flying retail career to stay home with her children, she wanted a way to keep her job skills sharp.
In the years since, a century-old women’s organization has trained her to do things she never expected to do: ask for tens of thousands of dollars without blinking, hire and fire employees, open a community center – and, most recently, throw one of the state’s most important parties.
As president of the Junior League of Raleigh, Wilkins was in charge of inaugural festivities leading up to Gov. Pat McCrory’s inauguration Saturday. Raleigh’s league, the ninth-largest of the nearly 300 affiliated groups, is the only one that runs its state’s inaugural festivities – as it has done for 80 years.
The inauguration included five events on Thursday and Friday, from a concert at the Lincoln Theatre aimed at youth to the formal ball at the Convention Center. It is the local Junior League’s largest fundraiser, bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars that the league uses to fulfill a community need.
The inaugural events also provide the kind of on-the-job training Wilkins says the league aims to offer its members. About 400 league volunteers spent more than 20,000 hours garnering the sponsorships that pay for the event, arranging the food and entertainment, and working with the governor’s office.
Virginia Parker, associate executive director of the Wake Tech Foundation, was president of the organization during the last inauguration, which Wilkins helped organize. She says Wilkins not only knows how to throw a great party but always keeps that higher purpose in mind.
“She really loves the League and loves what we do,” says Parker. “She’s always thinking, ‘How am I going to train women through this experience?’ That mission is constantly stamped on her forehead.”
Growing in the League
Wilkins grew up in Goldsboro, one of four children. She was only 2 years old when her mother died of breast cancer; her siblings were 10, 9 and 19 months. She says her dad, who cared for his young brood while also holding down his job at Southern Bell, is her hero.
Her husband, John, is another Goldsboro native. His father delivered Wilkins and her siblings.
Wilkins studied business at UNC-Chapel Hill, and started working at The Limited clothing store. She stayed with the company for 13 years, working her way up to a corporate position.
The store, still a mall staple, was on a growth tear, and she traveled across the country opening up new stores.
She left her job to spend more time with her children. But she is not wired to be idle.
Two months after her first child was born, she was training to be a guardian ad litem, a volunteer who advocates for children who are part of legal disputes.
She now works part time as a financial adviser, and also has a home fashion business that involves holding trunk shows four to five times a year. She’s an avid runner and triathlete.
It was a fellow volunteer with the Guardian Ad Litem program who suggested she join the Junior League. Wilkins joined in 2001, and was a fast and passionate convert.
The league gave her a chance to help others and quelled some of her concerns about leaving the work force.
“I was worried about continuing to grow,” she says. “But they’ve given me tremendous opportunities.”
In some ways, Wilkins is not the typical Junior League member. She joined the organization, which has been traditionally geared toward young women, in her late 30s, and turned 50 shortly before taking her year-long position as president.
The league she heads now bears little resemblance to the group that started in 1933 with 87 members. Nor does it resemble the vision of tea parties and bridge games that the Junior League brings to mind.
Nearly 90 percent of the Raleigh league’s 1,800 active members work outside of the home, and half of those also have children.
“They’re juggling friendship, work, church, family, and they want to do something in their community,” Wilkins says.
The group is divided into 40 teams, each with a different job, such as producing the organization’s magazine, running its Bargain Box thrift store at Cameron Village, volunteering with entities throughout the city and putting on fashion shows and silent auctions.
The Raleigh league has given more than $5 million and a million volunteer hours to the community, Wilkins says. Its members currently serve on the boards of 40 community organizations and assist in some way at 165 other nonprofits.
“I don’t think the public at large understands what an impact we’ve made over 80 years,” Wilkins says. “We’ve always brought women in and trained them to be leaders, and then dispatched them into the community.”
A major fundraiser
Last week, Wilkins sat in the Junior League’s offices during a brief respite from inaugural business. Since immediately after the election, her volunteer position has been a full-time job that entails whatever needs to be done: signing piles of checks, answering phones, dropping off tickets.
The inaugural events are the Raleigh league’s largest fundraiser. A committee starts planning years ahead, but the work intensifies after the election, and even more after invitations go out Dec. 10.
“That’s when the crunch begins,” Wilkins says.
The group funnels funds from the balls to meet various community needs. The first ball raised about $2,000 to fund a pediatric clinic in Southeast Raleigh. Others launched SAFEchild, a nonprofit that fights child abuse in Wake County, and the first Hispanic Boys and Girls Club in the Brentwood community.
In 2009, the ball raised more than $600,000, which helped open a conference building at Hillsborough and St. Mary’s streets that provides affordable training space to nonprofit groups. This year’s event will also fund that effort.
Each event presents its own challenges. The last ball came only months after the new convention center opened, and the facility had about 100 fewer tables than the group needed for the ball.
This year, a nonprofit political organization linked to McCrory threw a separate event Saturday night, prompting some league members to fear the competition would hurt ticket sales.
But Wilkins says the controversy didn’t affect the group’s planning: “We were working on this before we knew whose name to put on the invitation.”
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