“I think the biggest misconception is that the membership base is comprised of debutantes or socialites and that admission is ‘invite only.’”

— Barbara Burke DiCostanzo, member of the Junior League of Greater Princeton, mother of three, and a portfolio manager who commutes to Manhattan

It’s easy to see why you might think the Junior League is all stay-at-home moms with rich husbands if you look at how the league was started. But in fact, a century later, that stereotype couldn’t be further from the truth. In 1901 Mary Harriman, a 19-year-old New York City debutante with a social conscience, mobilized a group of 80 other young women to work to improve child health, nutrition, and literacy among immigrants living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Inspired by her friend Mary, Eleanor Roosevelt joined the Junior League of the City of New York in 1903, teaching calisthenics and dancing to young girls at the College Settlement House.

Quickly spreading to other cities, Junior Leaguers have been a powerful force in virtually every corner of the charitable world through every decade of its existence. During the Great Depression they opened nutrition centers and milk stations. During World War II they chaired hundreds of war-related organizations. During the 1980s, Junior Leagues gained recognition for advocacy efforts to improve the child welfare system and helped gain passage of the first federal legislation to address domestic violence. In 1981 Junior League of Phoenix member, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to be appointed a Supreme Court Justice of the United States.

And in 2001 Deborah Brittain, a Princeton resident and the Association of Junior League International’s first African-American president, presided over the league’s centennial celebration with guests Maya Angelou, Nane Annan, and Gloria Steinem, among others.

Contrary to what you might think, far more leaguers work than don’t work. According to 2007 figures released from Junior League of Greater Princeton, 72.5 percent of its active members work outside the home full or part-time, 95 percent have attended college, and 45 percent have graduate degrees. They come from every professional field you can think of — lawyers, doctors, scientists, academics, marketing and communications professionals, financial advisors, realtors, pharmaceutical executives, and entrepreneurs.

We peeked inside the lives of three working women who, faced with full plates on the work front and equally full plates at home, consciously choose to make time for that most basic yet demanding of charitable tasks — rolling up their sleeves and helping others.

The Organic Chemist

On Sunday, April 27, Molly Hoke posted on her FaceBook page that she was “tired (but happy) from a very busy (but very fun weekend).” Not surprising. As president of the Junior League of Greater Princeton, she was in the spotlight at the patrons preview party of the league’s biennial designer showhouse, which this year showcases the work of 20 interior designers and 11 landscape architects at the Ridge House, a 1930s brick mansion at 226 Drakes Corner Road in Princeton. (Of course U.S. 1 crashed. See page 26.)

Hoke, 35, a music hound’brainiac/do-gooder, is the perfect stereotype-buster for the Junior League. When she’s not going to live concerts (she’s looking forward to Seether at the Starland Ballroom in May and Linkin Park and Radiohead at the Susquehanna Bank Center this summer) or running in charity 5Ks (she completed the New Jersey Marathon in 2006 just 19 minutes short for qualifying for the Boston Marathon) or adding music favorites like Band of Horses, Amy Winehouse, Smashing Pumpkins, and Paulo Nutini to her FaceBook page, you might catch her reading (she just finished female comic Chelsea Handler’s book “My Horizontal Life: A Series of One Night Stands” and is in the middle of Bill Clinton’s “Giving” and Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love”) or curled up in her Montgomery Woods townhouse with People and US Weekly (“for my celebrity gossip buzz!”) or listening to her favorite local bands — the Shaft, the Dawgs, LifeSpeed, and Damaged Goods (co-leaguer Susan Keeler’s husband is in the band) — with friends at KatManDu in Trenton, the Sticky Wicket in Hamilton, Triumph in Princeton, Tiger’s Tale in Montgomery, and Seasons in Edison. And “the Ivy can’t be beat for karaoke,” she says.

The younger of two girls, Hoke grew up in the small town of New Cumberland, PA, outside of Harrisburg. Her father manages a building product wholesaler and her mother is a nurse at Holy Spirit Hospital in Camp Hill, PA. A 1995 graduate of Gettysburg College with a bachelor’s in science and chemistry, Hoke first considered medicine until her squeamish side got the better of her. With the encouragement of Alex Roland, an organic chemistry professor and mentor in college, Hoke refocused her studies, earning a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Maryland in College Park in 2001.

She also has two fulltime jobs but only gets paid for one. A senior research scientist with Wyeth Research, at 865 Ridge Road in Monmouth Junction, she is part of the Discovery Synthetic Chemistry group in Princeton, one of two such groups at the company. Her team includes six people in Princeton and about eight in Pearl River. “We used to have assistants but the timelines for drug development have gotten so compressed, the group only utilizes senior level staff. We’re a liaison between medicinal chemistry and process chemistry,” Hoke says.

Acting on requests from the therapeutic group, Hoke’s team makes leads (compounds/molecules that have been selected for further development) for safety and efficacy studies. Her work is considered Phase 0, a stage of drug development that follows preclinical studies in animals and comes before studies in humans begin. Sometimes called human microdosing studies, Phase 0 trials are designed to speed up the development of promising drugs by establishing early on whether the drug behaves in human subjects as was anticipated from preclinical studies. Hoke is currently working on a project for asthma and has also worked on a drug designed to treat Alzheimer’s that is in Phase I in humans.

As for her other “job,” when Hoke moved here in January, 2000, she remembered that one of her high school teachers had been a member of the Junior League in Harrisburg. Hoke joined the Junior League of Greater Princeton initially as a way to meet people. “I work in a very male-dominated environment. With the league I can connect with motivated, intelligent women.” What has surprised her most about her experience with the league is the amount of training the members get and how that training has crossed over into her professional life. “I learned how to write press releases, event planning, fundraising, all sorts of things I wouldn’t have learned on my job.”

As president she says she has gained a unique skill set that has spilled over to her work life. “The training the league provides is fabulous. It’s given me experience with public speaking, with confidence.” She hopes to head her own section at Wyeth someday and feels her experience with the league will help her when she does. She is a member at large for the division of organic chemistry of the American Chemical Society and says that when the division wanted to survey its membership, she was able to help, thanks to her experience doing online surveys with eBlast for the league.

“When I joined the league I had no leadership aspirations. My first year I helped with new member recruiting, then was a provisional chair (who assists incoming members with their first-year project), sat on the board for four years, then I was asked several times to become president, and I finally agreed. It’s a huge responsibility and sometimes I do feel like I have a second fulltime job. I’m very committed and make sure everyone has a great experience.”

Hoke says the volunteer environment is changing. “People are looking for a quick fix, you know, come in, work for a couple of hours, I think they call it episodic volunteering. We do have projects called ‘Done-in-a-Day,’ though the planning may take a couple of months.’ She says the league’s mission is about training women to be volunteers, so they can serve not only in the league but on other boards as well. “You need to be committed. We encourage lifelong membership. I consider myself a lifer.”

After her term as president expires, she plans to volunteer for the development committee. She won the league’s individual leadership award in 2002-’03, and the Presidents’ Bowl, the league’s highest honor given to someone who exemplified the ideal volunteer, when she was president-elect in 2006-’07. She has also won awards in her professional life, including the leadership development award from the American Chemical Society’s Younger Chemists Committee in 2007, the Wyeth Above and Beyond Award three times, and the art of the Mentor Award from the New Jersey Association of Biomedical Research in 2007.

She says the greatest misconception outsiders have about the league is “the notion that we are only high society types who wear ‘pearls and white gloves,’ which disappoints a lot of us who are in the league. I firmly believe leagues adapt and change to meet the needs of women, and that is why we will be in existence years from now. Junior League of Greater Princeton members are not afraid to get their hands dirty, and are friendly, fun, hard-working, and committed. I am good friends with the other seven presidents of leagues across New Jersey (there are 293 in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Great Britain) and their leagues are pretty much the same.”

She says the league’s members who work full or part-time “are very diverse. We have a lot of marketing executives, attorneys, women in financial services, a TV reporter, several women who have their own businesses, and a lot of realtors. But a lot of us go (to the league) to not think about work. It’s putting on a different hat.”

Hoke, who is divorced and does not have children, devotes a time commitment of between 30 and 40 hours a week to the league, on top of the 45 to 50 hours a week she puts in at Wyeth. “Dating has fallen by the wayside,” she says, “but I haven’t neglected friends and family. I love live music and I’m pretty social.” Her FaceBook page can attest to that.

Once a month Hoke sits on the Child Placement Review Board for Mercer County, which requires rigorous training. The board helps monitor cases of children in DYFS. “You are an extra set of eyes for the judge who’s overseeing the case,” says Hoke, who found out about the CPRB through someone at the league. She also volunteers occasionally with Angels Wings, a shelter for abused and neglected children in Hamilton. Since 2001 she has been a volunteer with the American Chemical Society’s local section at Princeton University, which hosts National Chemistry Week, an open house science night for kids. Since 2004 she has served as Wyeth’s liaison for a program with Douglass College that sponsors summer research internships, networking practice for undergrads with professionals, and other activities.

On her FaceBook page, Hoke, a member of St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Princeton, posts her favorite quote: “To whom much is given, much is expected.” (Luke 12:48). She writes: “I feel very blessed in this life and feel a strong need to give back to others through volunteer service, charity work, and philanthropic giving.” Her first project at the league with her “provisional class,” or group of new member inductees was for the Cherry Tree Club Preschool at the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in West Windsor, which serves homeless preschoolers who are housed in motels along Route 1. “It’s a transient population,” says Hoke, “so we created a little graduation ceremony. We created a little scrapbook about the story of (each child’s) life, something that they could take with them.”

Working with Trenton-based Isles, this year’s provisional class transformed a bleak, blacktop area into a raised-bed community flower and vegetable garden for the students at Washington Elementary in the Chambersburg section of Trenton. Other provisional classes have renovated a resource room at the Morrisville YMCA, designed to improve the Y’s rating to enable the school access to more state funding, and refurbishing the living areas for the women and children who reside at A Woman’s Place, a domestic violence shelter in central Bucks County.

Although she admits it’s “challenging to balance everything,” Hoke says the most rewarding aspects of the league are “the friendships I’ve been able to make and the opportunities to develop myself, to be able to motivate and develop others. It’s exciting when I see someone volunteer for the league, or arrange for a speaker and people are still talking about it.”

The Portfolio Manager

Barbara Burke DiCostanzo’s calendar last week looked something like this: Monday through Wednesday at her offices at 51st and Lexington in Manhattan, where she is one of three partners in Penbrook Management, an investment advisory firm she founded in August, 2004, with two former co-workers at BMI Capital Corp. They manage accounts for high net worth individuals and buy small cap stocks. Tuesday night was a Junior League board meeting. Wednesday she had a personal meeting in the evening. She had to switch one or her two normal work-at-home days to Thursday, so she could work all day at the Junior League designer showhouse (members each have shifts at the house during its month-long run) and participate in a photo shoot for this newspaper. Friday, a work-at-home day, included a Mother’s Day Tea with her son, CJ, 6, at Maurice Hawk Elementary School. (CJ’s older sister, Hannah, 7, also attends Maurice Hawk, and baby brother Jack, nine months, is at Kiddie Academy in Carnegie Center.)

“My BlackBerry is indispensable to me as I am so often in between stops and spend so much time on the train. I can get work, league, and personal E-mails all in one device, plus it is my phone as well, so that is one item I can’t live without. That said I’m still a paper girl when it comes to scheduling — I have a Franklin planner that I use for my scheduling for work and home.” Also squeezed into that planner are “niche” training sessions — working out with a personal trainer and three other women — at Gold’s Gym in Lawrenceville, as well as walks with a friend across the street.

Burke DiCostanzo, 39, lives in the Charter Club development in West Windsor, and joined the league in September, 2001, during her second pregnancy. She says it was “one of the most impulsive things I have ever done. I joined having no idea what the league was all about. I knew that they do community projects. I didn’t understand the full extent of their mission of training women to work in the community. They have a wonderful getting-to-know-you event, an orientation meeting called Super Saturday. I was hooked.”

The daughter of an anesthesiologist and a stay-at-home mom, Burke DiCostanzo grew up in Garden City, Long Island, with five older brothers. “It was wonderful and challenging all rolled up,” she says. She says her mother was very philanthropic and was always “dragging me around to some headquarters” of organizations she was involved in. Burke earned a bachelor’s in business administration from Adelphia University on Long Island in 1991 and earned a master’s at night, also from Adelphia, in 1995. She met her husband at a part-time job she had in college. After he went back to school to get a master’s in marketing at NYU, he was offered a job at J&J in Skillman and they moved to West Windsor. He is now CEO of Songbird Hearing in New Brunswick, the leading developer of disposable hearing devices.

When Hannah was born in November, 2000, Burke DiCostanzo says she “took the requisite three months,” and returned to work, working four days a week in New York and one at home. Brother CJ, born in 2002, joined Hannah at J&J’s day care, and Burke DiCostanzo changed to three days in the office and two at home. When baby Jack was born in August, 2007, the family decided to get a nanny. Currently in between nannies until the summer, they will use the Kiddie Academy in Carnegie Center (the two older children are bused there after school).

Burke DiCostanzo says she has technology to thank for giving her the flexibility to work from home. “I can be at my home desk and look at the same computer screen (I have in New York). The information flow is there. Can I have productive phone calls? Not always.” She also counts on her “wonderful” support staff. “My other partners are male and one has worked remotely more often than in the office. Face time and physical presence doesn’t equal effectiveness. In my business your performance is measured on how well your accounts do. I can do research while my kids are in bed.”

She also gets a lot of her Junior League responsibilities done in the wee hours. As web coordinator for the league, she says “the beauty of this particular job is that I can do it from home at midnight if I have to.” She had no previous website design experience but has worked alongside the previous year’s web coordinator and says most of it is on the job training, with help from their vendor, Digital Cheetah. Other league commitments include attending the monthly membership meeting.

She debunks the myth that the league is made up of clique-y women. “We are a diverse organization and admission is open to any woman over 21 who has an interest in voluntarism and improving their communities.”

She says some women are there more for the social aspects but others join for the training and leadership opportunities. “The league runs because we have both, you can’t have all chiefs and no Indians.” She says some members are just out of college, some with younger children, some with teenagers. “It’s a great reference group, whether you’re looking for a nanny or a great place to go for dinner.”

Burke DiCostanzo says there is virtually no static between the stay at home moms and the working moms and working women: “I have friends who are on both sides of that fence, but I’ve never sensed that in the league. It’s more about why we’re all there. How you get there doesn’t matter as much as the end result.” She believes the league benefits from “the breadth of ideas that come from the varying perspectives of all these women.”

What has kept her in the league most, though, like president Molly Hoke, is the training and the leadership opportunities. “What has been enlightening to me is what it takes to run a league — it has a budget, a board, departments, responsibility to our donors and to our community, and to our members who pay the dues.” Burke DiCostanzo has been a league board member and a planning chair, developing a strategic plan for the league.

She says that through the league she has met “so many wonderful people I wouldn’t necessarily have had a chance to meet because of my professional work. I’ve met a lot of dynamic women, was able to serve on the board for a number of years, learned about running meetings, and collaboration, and work skills, communications skills, and organizational skills that are not hallmarks of my job. The league also offers training on various things, and brings speakers in for our membership meetings.” As part of the league’s current mission of improving children’s math and science literacy skills, someone from Princeton Academy came in and spoke about gender-based learning. “That’s something I can also use with my own kids,” says Burke DiCostanzo.

Acknowledging that it’s a challenge to pick and choose where you can fit in volunteering, she says “the wonderful thing about the league is that the leadership understands that there are women in all different places in their life. You can always find a time to contribute. For example, I’m willing to take a personal day (from work) and fulfill my showhouse obligations; this year I’m doing a weekday at their request. I like to save weekends for my kids.” She talks to her kids about her league work. “I use the opportunity to explain to them that there are children who don’t have the advantages they do, and that’s what I’m doing.”

One of her most memorable moments in the league came during her provisional project, providing a holiday party for the “Adopt a Family” gift program for the Community Action Service Center in Hightstown, which, according to its website, “facilitates family development and access to affordable health care, information, and support services families need to build and maintain self-sufficiency.” “We arranged a holiday party at a local firehouse and had Santa come. Some kids had never seen Santa let alone had their photo taken with him. You would see a child open up a box of shoes and you’d think it was gold.” The league has since put a literacy tilt on the now-annual event, and Santa hands out books. “Six hundred children come through there,” says Burke DiCostanzo.

The City Attorney

As she looks back Kimberley Wilson, an assistant city attorney in Trenton, says the seed of her desire to join the Junior League was planted back in the spring of 2005, as she read the newspaper coverage of alleged rapist Brian Nichols, who on March 11, 2005, shot and killed the judge presiding over his trial in Atlanta, then killed another deputy as he left the courthouse, then later killed a federal agent. Later that night he held a woman named Ashley Smith at gunpoint outside her apartment, apparently choosing her at random.

According to press accounts Smith calmed Nichols by reading an excerpt from “The Purpose-Driven Life.” On Day 33 of the book, the passage Smith read to Nichols, author Rick Warren, a Southern Baptist pastor in California, writes, “We serve God by serving others. The world defines greatness in terms of power, possessions, prestige, and position. If you can demand service from others, you’ve arrived. In our self-serving culture with its me-first mentality, acting like a servant is not a popular concept.”

Nichols and Smith talked through the night about God and family and in the morning Nichols agreed to let Smith leave to pick up her daughter, who she had told Nichols was in a children’s program at a nearby church. She dialed 911 and Nichols was immediately taken into custody.

Wilson, 38, says: “This woman was able to minister to him, to say, ‘Despite what you’re facing, the death sentence, you can achieve and accomplish and live a worthwhile life.’ I said if that book was that powerful for that young man, I need to read it. I read that book and that was a start for me of a transformation. For a long time I defined myself by the amount of money I made. But then I said the value of your life is what you give, not what you get.”

Around this same time Wilson’s paternal grandfather died. “At his funeral a young lady came up to me and said ‘I really loved Mr. D,’ and she proceeded to tell me that when she lost her father, my grandfather was taking food to her family. When she told me that, I learned that again it’s the quality of your life, it’s the little things you do to help your fellow man that makes the difference.

“I began to understand who I am, that my role is to serve others and serve God first, and I serve God by serving others. It’s not only my work, it’s what I do for my family. The league, even through my personal transformation, has continued to allow me to be who I need to be and serve the community.”

Wilson grew up in Marietta, Georgia, 15 miles northwest of Atlanta. Her mother is a teacher and her father, who now lives in Kingsport, Tennessee, is a college and high school baseball and football official. Her younger sister is a morning anchor for the Fox affiliate in Greenville, South Carolina. Wilson earned a bachelor’s in journalism/political science from the University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill in 1991, then worked as a newspaper journalist before attending law school at Washington Lee University in Lexington, Kentucky, graduating in 1995.

She met her husband, Ali Wilson, in law school. They agreed that whoever got a job first would get to pick where they lived. Her husband got a clerkship with a judge in Morris County, and they moved to New Jersey. Today, Ali works for AIG in product development in New York, and they live in the Hilltonia neighborhood of Trenton, with their daughters, Victoria, 8, who attends Villa Victoria Academy, and Ava, 5, who attends Trinity Cathedral Academy.

Wilson technically found out about the Junior League while shopping at CostCo. “I love to cook and picked up the league’s cookbook celebrating their centennial. It’s one thing to look at the recipes, but when you start reading about the women. They were a mix of women you would know and others you wouldn’t, and you could tell how significant their service was.” In late 2001 she saw a newspaper ad for a new membership meeting of the league; in 2002 she became an active member.

“What I respected was that they were open to me; as I was interested finding out about them, they were interested in finding out about me. We had been living in Trenton for about three years, and I was looking for the opportunity to meet some women to broaden my horizons. I really went into it open-minded, really saying, ‘Let me see what this is.’ The warm reception I received really was helpful for me.”

She says that an unexpected by-product of becoming a league member is that you often learn about gifts you have that you hadn’t seen before. She has come to realize that her own gifts are her speaking skills — both in court and in her work as an adjunct professor of English at Mercer County College — and her writing skills.

Wilson, who previously worked for a private law firm in Princeton doing sports-related litigation, fits in her league duties as development chair in and around her work at City Hall, where she represents the city in civil rights and personal injury cases. Officially, her job is 35 hours a week “but as a lawyer you never really leave it. There are times I’ve been home with my sick children and working on a motion that has to be filed on deadline.”

She says most of her league work is “nuts and bolts, sending out letters, contacting people, thinking about the future, where we possibly can be in ten years, not only in terms of fundraising but in working with the community and looking for positive, mutually beneficial corporate partnerships.” On a weekly basis she puts in about five to 10 hours. “I work at lunch. This morning I sent out E-mails, on lunch I might look at documents, in the evenings I’ll maybe have a meeting or send letters out. What makes the time commitment easy is a true love for what we do and the people we are serving.”

Wilson is used to juggling: her day starts at 6 a.m., she takes her husband to the train, then she might cook dinner for that evening, then gets her girls ready for school, and by 7:45 a.m. is out the door to drop Ava at school on West State Street (Victoria takes a bus), then on to East State Street to City Hall.

The payback comes in unexpected moments like the one she had recently on a field trip to the Insectarium museum in northern Philadelphia, as part of the league’s ROCKETS initiative, a theme-based early literacy program focused on improving the math and science skills of preschool children, developed in collaboration with Trenton Head Start.

When a museum staffer offered to take out some of the exotic insects for the children to see, Wilson says, “The awe and excitement of their faces was such a joy. That for me was very touching. I am optimistic there is going to be a time someone is going to say, ‘ROCKETS was helpful to me because — fill in the blank.’ Personally there have been too many people who have said a kind word to me, presented opportunities, and to be able to give that opportunity back is wonderful. You really never know how you can influence a group of people based on what you’re doing. That’s the excitement ROCKETS gives me.

“I would encourage anyone who is thinking about the league not to think about what you can’t do, think about what you can do. This organization continues to fill a need I have — the ability to interact with women who are passionate, diverse, and bring a lot of assets to the table. It’s inspirational to see what other people are good in; it inspires you to find that thing you’re good at.”

Junior League of Greater Princeton new member information session, Wednesday, May 21, 7 p.m., the Terrace Cafe of the Junior League’s designer showhouse, 226 Drakes Corner Road, Princeton. Rain or shine. RSVP to Liz Dowling at 609-235-9389 or E-mail lizdowling@comcast.net. For more information visit www.jlgp.org.

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