Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, September 22, 2017

Family tradition lives on

Journey leads Walker back to familiar role

As a little girl, Caroline Walker was aware that her family was heavily involved in the community.

Her mom volunteered at the food bank, bought Christmas gifts for children in need and planted gardens to feed the less fortunate.

Her paternal grandmother strongly supported the arts, while her grandfather donated considerable time to United Way.

But it wasn’t until her 20s, when her grandparents died, that Walker realized just how influential they were.

“Seeing places in Coolidge Park, and the (smaller theater on) the top floor of Memorial Auditorium, which is named after my grandfather – I don’t think I knew the impact they had on this city while they were alive,” she says, referring to Robert Kirk Walker, who nearly doubled the size of Chattanooga through annexation while serving as mayor in the early 1970s, and his wife, Joy.

“It was always in my blood to give back. It feeds your soul. It just makes you a more complete, well-rounded and empathetic person.”

New York experiences

This year, Walker, 31, is feeding her soul as centennial chair of the Junior League of Chattanooga, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary as the city’s oldest volunteer organization for women. (It is also the second-largest chapter in the South, after Atlanta.)

She recently wrapped up a one-year post as president.

A native Chattanoogan, Walker was 4 years old when her dad, the headmaster at Bright School, took a similar job at Ensworth, a private school in Nashville. Then, when she was in eighth grade, her dad was hired to lead McCallie School, and the family returned to the Scenic City, where she finished her education at Girls’ Preparatory School.

Spirited and creative, Walker earned a BFA in musical theater from the New School in New York City, then performed in off-Broadway shows and national tours. Seven years later, she began doing public relations and marketing in the food and wine industry.

In an effort to help her daughter adjust, her mother, a Junior League of Chattanooga “sustainer” – a member who has already completed the minimum eight years of service – urged her to join the club in the Big Apple, declaring, “Caroline, it’s just going to make a big city like New York smaller.”

Mom was right. Almost immediately, Walker felt a sense of belonging among other like-minded women with a penchant for service work. Joining the group’s fund development committee was a natural fit and one that “single-handedly changed my career path,” she adds.

“The worst thing people can say to you (when you’re fundraising) is ‘no,’” says Walker, seated at the large oval dining room table at the League’s two-story Victorian home near McKenzie Arena. An elegant chandelier hangs overhead; group photos of past Junior League presidents hang on the walls. “They’re not giving money to you. They’re giving that money to an organization or back to the community.”

Back home

Walker had already discovered a love for the behind-the-scenes side of theater – producing, directing, choreography – and was curious to see where her new fundraising skills would take her.

So, in 2012, she came back to her hometown and  worked at GPS and McCallie in development and annual fund endowment before taking a job at Lamp Post Group, an incubator that invests in start-ups.

There, Walker handled business development, marketing and sales and mentored companies like Torch, whose signature Wi-Fi router enables parents to manage all the web-connected devices in a home through one access point.

For fun, she helped produce musicals for GPS, McCallie and the Chattanooga Theater Center. She is currently employed as a commercial banking officer at Atlantic Capital in Warehouse Row.

“I was just having this conversation with one of my coworkers,” she explains. “It doesn’t matter what you get your degree in anymore. Life is going to throw you some curve balls and take you in a lot of different directions. I just really wanted to learn the finance piece of business and understand that because, hopefully, one day I’ll open my own company or foundation.”

A different League

One of the first things Walker did when she returned to Chattanooga was transfer her Junior League membership here. Not one to watch from the sidelines, she jumped in headfirst as vice president of fund development, overseeing the club’s fundraising projects and events, which include the “Seasoned to Taste’’ cookbook and Designer Showhouse.

Six hundred active and sustaining members of all races, religions and national origins also award mini-grants to Hamilton County teachers, teach students about healthy lifestyles and assemble packages for disadvantaged residents at the Chattanooga Area Food Bank.

Since the birth of the Junior League of Chattanooga in 1917, its members have, among other things, raised money to build the Nature Center at Reflection Riding, donated more than $2 million to Chambliss Center for Children and other non-profits and worked to combat domestic violence and sex trafficking.

Candidates are no longer required to obtain referrals from existing members. Most members now hold fulltime jobs and memberships are transferrable, a plus for women in their 20s and 30s who are likely to relocate for a job, get married and undergo other changes in a short time.

And, unlike the outdated image of mostly-white, high-society Junior Leaguers, explains Walker, “We have a very, very diverse group of women from all different backgrounds and walks of life, which is exactly what you want. … I love to say that we replaced our white party gloves with working gloves years ago.”

‘Fight for what matters’

Misconceptions still linger. “We haven’t done a great job at selling ourselves, letting people know what we’re about,” Walker admits. “We’re trying.”

For one thing, the chapter has stepped up its use of social media as a way to stay relevant and keep members informed of community, regional and national issues affecting women.

Nationally, the Junior League is at the forefront of issues like transgender rights, Walker adds. “If you look at our history, you have women like Eleanor Roosevelt who were League members that are not afraid to ruffle some feathers and really just fight for women and children, fight for what matters.”

Her fellow millennials, she points out, “really want to get involved and they want to do really good work, but they need to see the value added, and they need to really grasp why it’s important and what they’re going to get out of it. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. That’s been something that’s been really interesting – to try to verbalize very quickly why what we do is so important.”

Friendships for life

On the flip side, one of the most satisfying aspects of Walker’s tenure has been working with her mom’s friends – women who watched her grow up – and her former teachers from GPS.

Walker volunteered to be Junior League president partly because of the encouragement from other women in the club and beyond. But there’s more to it than that, she says.

“I thought I only had one shot at it, just because I’m young and I don’t have a family. I mean, every president that I’ve seen is married and has children, and I don’t see how they do it. I really don’t. So, I knew I wanted to give my everything to this, and this was the year it was going to happen.”

She laughs out loud when asked if she deliberately set out to serve as League president during this milestone year. “It’s actually funny, because when I first applied to be president, I thought I was going to be the president before the centennial,” she explains.

“I thought I was going to be teeing up the person [who would lead the organization during the 100th anniversary]. And then very quickly, I went, ‘Oh. 1917, 2017.’

“So, I had to kind of pivot very quickly. But it was the journey of a lifetime and such a humbling and rewarding experience. It sounds cliché, but I have really met friends and partners for life in this – old, young and everywhere in between.”

Helping women and children

Although much of the 100th anniversary media fanfare has subsided, the League’s big birthday bash is still going strong. Members are reconnecting with the organization’s past partners, from Erlanger Children’s Hospital to Orange Grove Center to the Girls’ Club of Chattanooga, via hands-on “Done in a Day” work stints in which they paint, pull weeds and help women and children in various ways.

They’re also partnering with the Food Bank to help ease the impact of “food deserts” on low-income families. And this fall, they’ll be assisting with various activities for students at East Lake Elementary and other inner-city schools.

“It has been so great to be part of this centennial and kind of piecing together the history of Chattanooga and really connecting with our sustainers,” says Walker, who feels a great responsibility to educate the community about the role of the Junior League.

“The history of what this organization has done for the city over the last 100 years has been pretty remarkable.”

A history buff, Walker has enjoyed starting an archive of Junior League photographs ­– there are hundreds of thousands of them – taken over the decades. She especially loves working on projects involving children, although, she acknowledges, “The arts is where my heart and soul lie.”

Cheerleading for leaders

Walker serves on other boards, too, from Rotaract (the younger version of Rotary Club) to Little Miss Mag Early Learning Center and Chambliss Center for Children. “I try to get my hands involved in as many projects as possible in the city,” she points out.

“I just love people. I love seeing different people’s talents and skills and the strategy behind finding that right fit for them.

“A lot of people might not raise money, but a lot want to get their hands dirty and roll up their sleeves and get involved in different projects.”

In the not-too-distant future, Walker hopes to “get back on the stage,” not professionally but as a hobby. In the meantime, she dances when possible, immerses herself in the city’s music scene and loves to travel, and she recently took up golf. Wherever her career takes her, she adds, she wants to continue being a cheerleader for women in leadership roles.

“I’ve really learned that you can’t do it alone,” Walker says. “I think that we, as women and especially Southern women, want to be all things to all people all the time. And when you do that, you’re going to fail and you’re going to fail horribly. And I’ve learned that my failures become my successes. I think the more vulnerable and open we can be, and honest with each other, the more powerful it is long-term.”

The past year, she says, has been fascinating. “This organization is just so much bigger than all of us. I love working with the other women and empowering them to be the best version of themselves.

“I can’t wait to see where the future lies for this organization, and I’m excited to see what the next chapter holds for me.”