Junior League Little Black Dress Initiative helps tackle a big problem in the Quad Cities

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Jackie Celske, a board member for Junior League of the Quad Cities, started both a new job and a new fundraising campaign on Monday.

Jackie Celske not only started a new job Monday, but the former Junior League of the Quad Cities president started a new marketing campaign to address women’s mental health.

A public relations “arsonist” with LeClaire-based MindFire Communications, Celske is wearing the same black dress every day for five days (washing it each night), with a button that says, “Ask Me About My Dress.” It’s part of the Junior League’s second-annual Little Black Dress Initiative (LBDI) — to do more to normalize discussions on mental health, increase access to critical services in the Quad Cities, and foster a more intentional awareness of how gender biases impact mental health treatment.

About half of the 30 active Junior League members are participating in LBDI, to raise $1,750 for the Vera French Foundation and its Women’s Mental Health Endowment Fund, to help with long-term mental health services for women in the QC area.

Jackie Celske is former board president of Junior League of the Quad Cities, for which she’s volunteered the past five years (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“We have women in Junior League who are working remotely and choosing to put the outfit on every day,” Celske said Wednesday. “We all take a picture every day, and that’s the accountability. We all change our profile picture to have a photo with the ‘Ask Me About My Dress’ button. I promise you, it starts a lot of conversations.”

“That’s the whole point, really to normalize conversation about mental health,” she said, noting each member posts the same information about the campaign on social media with a new photo every day.

Junior League has partnered with Vera French for about a year. The fundraising goal was given to Junior League by the mental health center, to help them fill their gaps, Celske said.

“As a woman, most people assume you have a little black dress in your closet, so the concept was let’s not recreate the wheel – let’s grab something we all have in common,” Celske said. “It doesn’t have to be a dress; it has evolved over the years. It’s more what you feel comfortable in. Let’s all wear the same color and wear it consistently for five days to catch people’s attention, start those conversations and raise awareness.”

One member has been wearing a black T-shirt that says, “The future is female,” she said. “We’re all kind of making it our own, the same way we do the social posts. Have a consistent message each day, but we put our own spin on it.”

Junior League of the Quad Cities is part of a worldwide organization of women committed to promoting voluntarism, developing potential of women and improving communities through effective action and leadership of trained volunteers.

Little Black Dress started in London

The Little Black Dress effort was founded by the Junior League in London in 2014, as a social media campaign to bring awareness to issues that affect women in poverty. Every Junior League around the world (there are about 275 chapters) chooses their own issue to tackle.

The Little Black Dress Initiative launched in London by Junior League in 2014.

It started in 2020 in the Quad Cities, and raised $1,700 for the QC Haven of Hope (exceeding a $1,200 goal), as part of the Junior League strategic plan to focus on women’s health – including physical, mental, social and financial health, Celske said.

Last year, the funds went to cover the cost of transportation for women served by the shelter to get to mental health appointments, such as bus passes and Uber gift cards.

She’s been part of Junior League for about five years, and was the local president last year. During the pandemic, Junior League has not slowed down, since a lot of their work can be done online and from anywhere, Celske said.

Last year, when many people were struggling financially, the fact that Junior League surpassed its fundraising goal was “really empowering and encouraging for us, and that’s what got us excited o do it again this year and find a new partner,” she said.

Her new MindFire role has worked out perfectly with the new LBDI campaign.

“I think for me, moving into a PR role, it’s been cool to prove that I can run a cause marketing campaign; I can do these things,” Celske said.

Women face increased mental health risks

Just identifying as a woman in society raises risks for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, and it impacts the way therapists treat you, she said. There is a lot of research on unconscious gender bias in mental health treatment.

“We can really show the need for the mental health endowment fund that Vera French has,” Celske said.

The goal is to become more aware of biases and make sure everyone is being treated equally and has access to proper care, she said. “In the last wo years, what we’ve seen is more women being in double roles – where they’re working and serving in caretaker roles. With the pandemic, that magnified everything. There’s now a disproportionate number of women who are more restricted in the time they have, the financial resources they have.”

The pandemic alone took a huge toll on everyone’s mental health, Celske said, noting United Way Quad Cities found that a majority of Quad Citizens ranked mental health as their top concern during COVID. “That’s huge,” she said.

Denise Beenk is chief operating officer for Vera French Foundation.

“The pandemic has really emphasized these roles – women are often tapped to be caregivers, to be sisters, to be mothers, to be wives. It’s been very difficult, with homeschooling children, with taking care of elderly parents, with really expecting to increase those roles – which are already stressful,” Denise Beenk, Vera French chief operating officer, recently told Local 4’s Loving Living Local.

“So we’ve seen a rise in anxiety and depression, which women are already more prone to in normal times, and the pandemic has really exacerbated some of those stresses,” she said.

For Vera French, they’re just trying to grow the fund (invested with the Quad Cities Community Foundation), to always have resources dedicated to researching mental health needs for women, monitoring how they’re evolving, and offering financial assistance where needed, Celske said. That can include for virtual and in-person treatment, or support groups.

“We’re leaving the strategy for that up to the Vera French Foundation,” she said. “We feel, Junior League is a women’s health organization, and if we’re trying to build community leaders, we feel like we have a responsibility to stand up for what women here need.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Female gender is a significant predictor of being prescribed mood-altering psychotropic drugs.” Vera French believes in treating the whole person, as per their founder, Dr. Vera French, making the treatments received extremely valuable to those in need.

“Unipolar depression, predicted to be the second-leading cause of global disability burden by 2020, is twice as common in women,” according to WHO. The Women’s Health Endowment Fund through Vera French has a goal to create and grow a permanent and reliable source of spendable interest to help fund women’s mental health initiatives in perpetuity.

Denise Beenk of Vera French and Junior League president Kirby Marcure recently spoke with Mikhayla Hughes-Shaw on WHBF’s Loving Living Local.

In 1982, the Scott County Community Mental Health Center was renamed in honor of the agency’s executive director from 1968 to 1980, Dr. Vera (French) Bates.

Under her tenure, she marshaled the QC community to build a state-of-the-art community mental health center at 1441 W. Central Park Avenue in Davenport. This facility opened in 1971 and just celebrated in 2021 its 50th anniversary serving those in need in our community. Dr. French passed away in 2002, but her core values and belief in treating the whole person remain central to the work of the agency.

Each year, the 200+ employees serve approximately 7,500 to 8,000 people. The vast majority of Vera French services are reimbursed through Iowa Medicaid. Their service area is primarily Scott County, and while 51% of the Scott County population is female, over 58% of Vera French’s clients are women. They are a cross-section of our community, with many clients living at or in poverty.

How you can help Junior League

Here is how you can give to the Little Black Dress Initiative:

  • Via PayPal to JuniorLeagueQC@gmail.com
  • Checks can be made out to Junior League of the Quad Cities, PO Box 1125, Bettendorf, IA 52722

Another project Junior League did last year and will continue next spring is a women’s hygiene drive, Celske said. Last year, they helped collect feminine hygiene products for local high school students. Junior League will partner with the YWCA this spring to serve their clientele.

Each member doesn’t have a personal fundraising goal for the LBDI, she said. “A lot of times with the power of social media, you don’t know who is reaching who.”

For more information, visit Junior League’s Facebook page, or the Vera French website.

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