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I’m a member of the Junior League of Chicago, which has been a fun way to meet great people, learn new skills, and contribute to the community. Over my years in the League, in Chicago and in San Francisco before that, I’ve had the chance to be part of a lot of really interesting and unusual projects.

Right now, for example, I am part of the Centennial Celebration committee for Chicago.  It was founded in 1912, so next year is the biggie. One of the projects that I am working on is an exhibit to tell the League’s history. It’s been great fun, and it’s been very different from the writing I usually do.

We’ve had an unexpected challenge thanks to the book and movie The Help. One of the main characters in that story is the president of her local Junior League, and she launches a project to provide rest rooms for maids so that household employees don’t use the family facilities. One of the first projects taken on by the Junior League of Chicago in 1912 was to provide locations on the Chicago Loop for working women to take a break, learn new skills, and escape the harassment of pimps (who recruited new employees from all the women who surged into Chicago in this era, as readers of Sister Carrie, Devil in the White City, or Sin in the Second City know).

The problem? These centers were known as the Junior League Rest Rooms. In order to avoid any unfortunate association with fiction, we are referring to them as the Junior League Resting Rooms in the exhibit.

I’ve learned some interesting things while working on this exhibit. For example, one of the women who advised the League members on the Resting Room (nee Rest Room) project was Louise DeKoven Bowen. She was born into a wealthy family and took action against the problems in the city at the time. She also  wrote several books and pamphlets on urban issues; they are on my Sony Reader, and I’ll get to them one of these days.

By the way, I am a huge fan of volunteer work as a way for freelancers to keep busy, build a portfolio, and make connections – all while supporting something important to the world. There are fifty million people out there who will want you to write for free or ridiculously low rates while making plenty of money for themselves. That bugs me.

I’m not a purist on this. I don’t get paid to write for Popdose, but it’s a lot of fun and generates more page views than this blog does. Also, Popdose’s ad revenue  just about covers the server costs. The site owner is not living in a mansion and bragging about his success on national televisions.  I’m also happy to write blog posts for other people if they help promote my books. But I won’t write for free for anyone. There has to be something in it for me or for the community at large. Helping AOL and Arianna Huffington make more money doesn’t fit either criterion.