A History of Family & Children Services
In 2023, Family & Children Services will celebrate its 120th anniversary. In each newsletter between now and then we will feature an installment exploring some aspect of our history. Ultimately, these installments and others will be compiled in an institutional history book featuring photographs, newspaper clippings, and other archival materials.
Preserving the history of our organization’s founding and evolution is a cause that has been adopted by many over the years. First to adopt the cause were the League’s earliest general secretaries, who faithfully recorded meeting minutes by hand in large ledgers. As we advance through the twentieth century and then enter the twenty-first, we will attempt to recognize the historians before us whose efforts have enabled this work.
The primary resource thus far in Family & Children Services’ ongoing history project are internal records, which offer thorough accounts of happenings dating back to 1903 but are marred here and there by gaps of several years. So far research for each chapter has been bolstered by the rich resources of Western Michigan University’s Zhang Legacy Collections Center and the extensive knowledge of its staff.
Research for Chapter 1: Caroline Julia Bartlett Crane & the Women’s Civic Improvement League benefited hugely from the work of Kalamazoo College student Dolores Matheny, who in 1951 wrote a paper titled, “History of The Women’s Civic Improvement League, 1903-1912.” Matheny’s original paper is available via the College’s digital archive.
The second installment of our history drew on a number of resources, but none more heavily than the 1914 “History of the Civic League,” written by Mrs. Lydia G. Wood. A Women’s Civic Improvement League board member since 1904, Mrs. Wood remained on the board through the 1912 reorganization of the League and its rebranding as the Kalamazoo Civic Improvement League. After more than 25 years of service, Mrs. Wood resigned from the board in 1930.
Chapter 3: Gaining Momentum, 1917-1920 drew on Kalamazoo Gazette articles and accounts of Kalamazoo institutions published by the Kalamazoo Public Library on their local history page.
And this fourth installment, which extends our history through 1923 and recaps the first twenty years in timeline form, made use of League scrapbooks in which relevant Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper clippings were clipped and pasted. Sometimes it was not immediately apparent why particular articles were saved.
Name changes, mergers, and reorganization are all as central to our organization’s history as they are complicated and confusing. Understanding these origins is essential to fully appreciating the myriad influences that have impacted our development over the last 120 years.
In 1948, the League changed its name to Family Service Center. Some 23 years later, in 1971, Family Service Center was destined to merge with the Kalamazoo branch of the Michigan Children’s Aid Society (MCAS), an organization with which they had cooperated since establishment of the latter in 1920. As many readers will remember, it was at this time that the merged organization became known as Family & Children Services (F&CS).
In 1996, recently-retired longtime F&CS board member Nancy Frost compiled an institutional history as “an anniversary gift commemorating twenty-five years of service to the community as ‘Family & Children Services.’” Frost was aided significantly in her 1996 history by now-retired F&CS CEO Rosemary Gardiner. The history they produced includes invaluable timelines which have served as the basis for the partial timeline included at the beginning of Chapter 4.
With each installment of our organization’s history, we will extend the timeline. Our decision to include a timeline at the beginning of each installment was based on a question about our origins that emerged in response to the first installment.
Please continue to share your feedback. The history of Family & Children Services is your history, and we value your interest in it and contributions to it.
One of our hopes for this updated version of Family & Children Services’ history is that by releasing it in installments through our quarterly newsletter, we will be able to make corrections and/or expand on missed topics before finalizing the institutional history in the form of a book.
We aspire to make this history accessible to as many readers as possible, and so beginning with this installment, each chapter will be made available online as an audio recording.
By 1920, Kalamazoo was a city of nearly 50,000 residents, and as the population grew, so too did the need for social services. An economic downturn swept the country from 1920 to 1921, in which approximately a fifth of the labor force found itself unemployed.1 Poverty rose to the top of the Kalamazoo Civic Improvement League’s long list of concerns. Inadequate housing was a particularly major issue, especially for poor families, many of which were led by single parents and/or composed of large numbers of children.
In January 1920, the Kalamazoo Gazette reported that “Kalamazoo, with its attractive homes, well-to-do citizens, and substantial business establishments, has numbers of families within its gates who are starving, who are without homes, who are living under the most wretched conditions of squalor and neglect.” Not only were families of six and eight children being confined by their finances to one- and two-room apartments, many smaller families were cohabitating with other smaller families in equally cramped quarters. With the concept of propriety being what it was in 1920, the majority of Kalamazooans would have deemed it improper - shameful, even - for a woman, especially a young woman, to reside with any man other than her husband, sons, father, or brothers.
League General Secretary Miriam Fasold was quoted explaining how a good number of the city’s poor families were without access to city water and were thus forced to use wells that had been condemned by the health department - forced because the alternative would have been to fetch water from city wells that were simply too far from their homes.
In her role as League General Secretary, Miss Fasold highlighted for the Kalamazoo Gazette readership the impracticality of the city’s current arrangement and the dire need for solutions. In her public address we are reminded of the fact that the work of the League was driven by everyday Kalamazoo residents who recognized need among their neighbors and then mobilized around creating positive change.
By December of 1920, Miss Fasold had further simplified her message: “The family is the unit of operation in Civic League work,” she said to a Kalamazoo Gazette reporter.2 “The league looks after at least four phases of family life, the social, economic, education and domestic phases. When a family fails to maintain a normal status in any one of these phases, it becomes the duty of the Civic League to step in and render assistance.”3
League workers helped people with any and all problems presented. As reported in the Gazette, “They come with almost every problem known, and the workers use all their ability to inform the enquirer, gathering this information from every source in the city in an effort to help them to help themselves.”
Increasingly the League was performing two high-level roles in the community: first, identifying need - needy families, needed services; and second, connecting those in need with organizations dedicated to providing the needed services.
Perhaps the greatest lesson of the League’s first two decades is the incredible power of cooperation among social service agencies. In Kalamazoo, the federation of social service agencies was referred to as the “Associated Charities.” Among the member organizations was the Kalamazoo Civic Improvement League, the Child Welfare League, Douglass Community House (present-day Douglas Community Association), the St. Agnes Foundling Home (associated with Borgess Hospital), and the Kalamazoo branch of the Michigan Children’s Aid Society (MCAS).
Throughout the early 1920s both the Child Welfare League and the Children’s Aid Society operated offices and clinics out of the Civic League headquarters on South Burdick Street. Significantly, the Civic League nurse “has complete charge of all clinics connected with the various organizations.” From the outset, cooperation between the Kalamazoo Civic Improvement League and the Kalamazoo branch of the Michigan Children’s Aid Society was full and earnest. In fact, a 1921 Kalamazoo Gazette article reported that the local branch of the Michigan Children’s Aid Society “was organized at the official request of the directors of the Civic League to give special care to the dependent and neglected children involved in many of the family cases coming to the attention of the league.”4
Over the course of 1922 the Civic League served nearly 500 Kalamazoo families in countless ways, from helping individuals find employment and create household budgets, to facilitating the care and adoption of babies at the Foundling Home. The League provided the following statistics to the Kalamazoo Gazette regarding the issues addressed followed by the number of cases for each issue:
Tuberculosis, 8; unemployment, 18; under-employment, 14; venereal disease, 5; insanity, 3; feeble-mindedness, 4; desertion or non support, 14; begging tendency, 2; juvenile neglect, 6; insufficient earnings, 3; sickness, 25; widowhood, 2; old age, 11; marriage of minors, 1; imprisonment, 8; interference of relatives, 1; blindness, 3; vagrancy, 1; immorality, 2; extravagance, 1; intemperance, 1; death of parents, 1; recent imprisonment, 1; deaf mutes, 1.
Clearly the League sought to provide help to whomever needed it - young or old, single or with a family, moral or “immoral.” The primary - often sole - qualification for receiving help from the League was, very simply, needing it.
At Thanksgiving 1922 the League facilitated delivery of food baskets to 139 needy families, and at Christmas the League repeated these efforts, delivering baskets to 177 families. Remarkably, the Kalamazoo Gazette reported that, “Not one needy family known of by the league was overlooked on either holiday.”
Reporting in the Kalamazoo Gazette on the League’s January 1923 annual meeting reveals the true breadth of League functions, quite notably framing them simply as a “kindness.” The Gazette reported that:
...a phone call may send a worker to a home where the family is without food or fuel. There, perhaps, is found a very sick baby and several undernourished children. The Civic League worker gets food and fuel to this home. She notifies the Cribside Society of the sick baby, and he is taken to the hospital and a physician and nurse put in charge. The children are taken to clinics, where they are given a thorough examination, and if tonsils and adenoids should be removed, the operation is performed without expense to the family. Proper diet is prescribed. Warm clothing and bedding is supplied for these people from articles that have been donated to the Civic League. If the father is out of work, he is found a job. And by the time the League has finished providing the necessities of life and given this family proper physical attention, they are better citizens and will no doubt prove worthy of the kindness administered.
The League investigated each and every case brought to its attention, and League members were proud of the policy they had implemented to provide relief immediately and conduct a thorough investigation only after immediate needs had been met. It was the responsibility of the League to “investigate family circumstances, but the work of investigation is done in a friendly manner, and with the use of tact. They do not come to their conclusions hastily, but relief is given at once.” Such a policy betrays the compassion and humanity of the policymakers.
Compassion and humanity aside, the League’s willingness and ability to help to Kalamazooans in need was not always enough to ensure that those needs were being met.
“One of the most difficult situations that faces the league in its rehabilitation program is the unwillingness of the heads of families to be helped by a welfare or charity agency,” Mrs. Gilfillan said. “It is often harder to give to needy families than it is to raise the funds with which to give. Heads of families, especially when the head is the husband and the father, sometimes possess what they like to call a great deal of pride, which make them hostile toward any agency showing inclination to aid them until conditions in the families are improved.”5
As Americans entered the mid-1920s unknowingly on the eve of the Great Depression, few accepted the idea that the government would ever or should ever perform the role of social safety net - a reality that made the work of the Kalamazoo Civic Improvement League and other Associated Charities member organizations all the more vital to health and wellbeing of the entire Kalamazoo community.
You are invited to share your own F&CS stories and experiences, and we welcome your ideas about which aspects of our history warrant special attention. Please contact F&CS volunteer and project lead Mary Brigid Corcoran at firstname.lastname@example.org or 917-617-2422.
2 KG (12/29/1920) “Civic League’s Work Outlined” (subtitle: “Entire Family, Not Individuals, Basis of Social Welfare Duties It Performs”)
3 KG (12/29/1920) “Civic League’s Work Outlined” (subtitle: “Entire Family, Not Individuals, Basis of Social Welfare Duties It Performs”)
4 KG 07/31/1921 “Children’s Aid Society Cares for Average of 400”
5 KG “Civic Improvement League Does Much to Assist Needy Families” Oct 1929.