By Judy Carmack Bross
The Junior League of Chicago realized that as we stand almost a year into the pandemic laughter is the best medicine next to the vaccine. President Melissa Schumacher, Director of Corporate Events for the Peninsula Hotel, said that comedy sketches abound in this year’s virtual gala on February 20. “No dress, no problem, it’s as casual as you want,” Schumacher says. “And we have found a way to provide a fabulous dinner from Northern Fork Catering. Tionna Van Gundy and Rachel Pustejovsky serve as our Annual Gala Chairs, talk about creativity–planning a Gala now.”
Jenny Mills (former Board Member), Melissa Schumacher (2020-2022 President) and Delane Heldt (2018-2020 President)
Founded in 1912, the League was just six years old at the time of the last pandemic. The young women volunteers worked through their partnership with the Visiting Nurse Association and Jane Addams to accompany nurses to disadvantaged neighborhoods where people were dying of the influenza which had hit the world. Now 2000 women volunteers strong, the League has found ways to keep their commitment to community projects intact despite pandemic challenges to non-profits wishing to offer on site services.
“We have been able to have volunteers gather in person at a safe social distance for some programs. However, we’ve also been able to build out a robust number of virtual volunteer programs so our members can still make a difference in our community while staying safe,” Schumacher said.
Mixed in with the comedy sketches will be profiles of Kids in the Kitchen, a nationally recognized education program that empowers youth to make healthy lifestyle choices to reverse childhood obesity and its associated health issues. The Junior League of Chicago’s mission with Kids in the Kitchen is to improve area children’s lives, teaching them about healthier lifestyles through hands-on events throughout the year. Kids and youth are encouraged to be active participants in their own health and well-being when they are given fun, family-oriented solutions to healthy living.
“Typically we would highlight our chosen community project through a display at our Gala venue. This year, we will salute Kids in the Kitchen through a video montage of photos and stories from committee members that provide a rich illustration of how we are changing the lives of the young people involved. Our volunteers have been a collective problem solving team, trying their best to reach all the kids in the program. We drop off individual cooking kits and have live demonstrations on Zoom teaching about healthy foods, sharing recipes and introducing foods the kids might not have already tried.”
“The Kids in the Kitchen mission closely aligns with the Junior League of Chicago’s vision for its community projects which aims to empower at-risk families, especially women and girls, through mentoring, advocacy, and education, with healthy lifestyles being one of our areas of focus.”
Dancing the night away to the music of Green Fourteen at the 2019 Gala at the Drake Hotel. Photo by Flint Chaney
“Our chairs planned a large-scale, in-person event that would be as “normal” as possible, however as the pandemic continued, plans quickly changed They researched a wide variety of options and were hoping for a virtual-hybrid style event. Ultimately, they landed on a virtual-only event for our JLC members’ safety and aligned with Chicago mandates around large, in-person gatherings. It was all about pivoting and reimagining the event several times until we found the style that fit the JLC community best.”
The 2020 JLC Gala Committee including The 2021 Gala Chairs Rachel Pustejovsky (center in orange/red dress) and Tionna Van Gundy (right end in black dress)
We asked Schumacher how she will be celebrating the Gala. Having recorded her Presidential greeting earlier this week she is ready to just have fun that night.
“I followed Chicago guidelines and am inviting over five friends to my apartment in Streeterville. After cocktails and hors d’oeuvres we will watch the Gala unfold. We all chose the ticket with food option and the menu choices look terrific. The delivery of the food stemmed from the original idea of having a virtual-live hybrid event. The initial thought was to have several locations of 30 people or less enjoying dinner while we tuned into the same virtual broadcast. We kept the program’s virtual components and layered in a bit of comedy to give the night a fun approach in place of a live band and open bar. Then we stuck with the idea that we may as well still “break bread” together over our commitment to the JLC and our community partners. This allowed us to provide added value to the ticket price while also supporting our local restaurant community. Historically, the Gala is an elaborate and elegant affair. The meal option allowed us still to bring a bit of that flair to the night.”
Schumacher grew up in Clinton in Central Illinois, a three-hour drive from Chicago.
Melissa Schumacher and JaCee Burnes, JLC Operations Director
“I came to Chicago frequently on school field trips to the museums and family outings to Cubs games. I went to Eastern Illinois University and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Business with a concentration in Hotel and Restaurant Management. And I have spent the past 26 doing precisely that. I started my career at Walt Disney World, then worked for the Ritz-Carlton Hotel company, then the Four Seasons, and I am now proudly with The Peninsula Chicago. My work took me all over the country, but it was in Atlanta, Georgia, I was introduced to the Junior League. After attending one of their fundraisers, I knew it was a great organization committed to helping women and children, and I wanted to be a part of it. A few years later, after moving back to Illinois, I joined the Junior League of Chicago. I couldn’t think of a better way to give back to a place so near and dear to my heart than to commit to improving the health and well-being of women, children, and families in this great city through my membership in the Junior League.”
We asked Schumacher about what makes a memorable event.
“Of our corporate events, it is the hotel’s own anniversaries that have been the most fun. We take over rooms and public spaces for over-the-top festivities. In terms of events in general, it is a powerful program that really engages your guests that makes a party great. A fine staff that helps make the event go flawlessly and a beautiful location are obviously wonderful.”
Schumacher is proud that the Peninsula has joined her in serving the League’s community projects.
“For 20 years the League has supported the Women’s Treatment Center for women in final stages of substance abuse. When executives at the Peninsula saw our holiday video about how you can help, they immediately donated 41 Christmas dinners to the Center. How appreciated those meals were.”
The JLC website headlines it all: “train leaders, save communities, change lives”. We asked Melissa what it is like being President of an organization of 2000 members with these marching orders during a pandemic when no large meetings can be held.
“Like everyone, we’ve faced many challenges during this time, including Zoom fatigue. While we would prefer to keep moving on with our regular programming, our members and community partners’ safety is of the utmost importance. We’ve had to take a few steps back to determine how to serve the community best, but that is our focus right now: how can we best serve the community in a time like this. We know that many people are struggling right now, so as a community-focused organization, we are evaluating how our projects can have the most impact.
“This year the ticket price of the virtual event is also much more accessible. Tickets range from $25-$75 each, compared to the previous years’ $250 ticket price. We can offer this reduced price due to the lower overhead cost of hosting on a virtual platform. Another benefit is that you don’t have to physically be in Chicago to attend – a virtual function allows people near and far to tune in!”
For further information, visit jlchicago.org