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A History of Family & Children Services

September, 2020

Chapter 05: The Kalamazoo Civic Improvement League Operates in a Changing Landscape, 1924‑1931

Family & Children Services Timeline

Family & Children Services Timeline

A History of Family & Children Services - Chapter 5 Audio


Note: In Chapter 4 of Family & Children Services’ history (published in the December 2019 newsletter), it was incorrectly stated that the Associated Charities of Kalamazoo was an outgrowth of Kalamazoo Civic Improvement League coordinating efforts. In fact, Associated Charities, a separate Kalamazoo organization, had been in operation since at least the late 1880s (and was thus organized before the Women’s Civic Improvement League in 1903).

In 1904, the Women’s Civic Improvement League absorbed the Associated Charities, and a plan was put in place “to keep a complete record of all cases of applicants or recipients of charity in this city... The idea was to keep the information available to all organizations and persons dispensing charity,” thereby enabling the League to “act as a clearinghouse for all charity offered in the city.”1 At present it is unclear if or when Associated Charities began to operate independently of the Kalamazoo Civic Improvement League. The origins of Associated Charities and the nature of its relationship with the Women’s Civic Improvement League (and later, the Kalamazoo Civic Improvement League) will be explored in full in the complete, book-length version of Family & Children Services’ history (expected 2023).



Cooperation Magnifies Impact

As the Kalamazoo Civic Improvement League concluded its twentieth year of service in 1923, “cooperation” remained the organization’s watchword. Work carried out by the League’s staff, volunteers, and board of directors was magnified through meaningful partnerships with the city government and other like-minded social service organizations. Toward the decade’s end, when the onset of the Great Depression translated into ever-growing calls for Civic League services, these relationships and others would become increasingly vital to ensuring the health and wellbeing of the Kalamazoo community.


In December 1923, the Kalamazoo Gazette characterized the Civic League as “the center of charitable work in Kalamazoo,” adding that the organization “acts as the administrative and advisory organization of the various welfare and charitable bodies” in the city.2 In the same article, respected Kalamazoo Judge and chairman of the Civic League’s standing committee on Civics, Samuel Van Horn, described the League as “the superintendent of poor for the city of Kalamazoo.”3 By 1925, the League was administering the city’s Taxpayer’s Fund, also known as the Poor Fund, and “filing its reports with the city health and welfare department.”4 Close relationships with key local entities were becoming a sort of hallmark of the Civic League’s identity.

The League’s headquarters on South Burdick Street continued to house partner organizations such as the Kalamazoo branch of the Michigan Children’s Aid Society, the Child Welfare League, the Anti-Tuberculosis Society, and the Girl Scouts. The League’s use of the space was flexible and responsive; when tuberculosis cases increased during the mid-1920s, headquarters were remodeled to provide the Anti-Tuberculosis Society with more room.

In addition to sharing physical space at its headquarters, the Kalamazoo Civic Improvement League, through an arrangement with Associated Charities, shared a significant portion of its budget. As had been the practice for a number of years, in November 1924, the League, along with the six other organizations that comprised the Associated Charities - Children’s Aid Society, Douglass Community House, Child Welfare League, Foundling Home at Borgess Hospital, Cribside Society, and the Whatsoever Free Bed Association - participated in a joint annual fundraiser to benefit the Associated Charities Budget.

On November 13, 1924, the Associated Charities of Kalamazoo ran a full-page advertisement in the Kalamazoo Gazette declaring, “400 MEN AND WOMEN - Representative of Kalamazoo’s Best Citizenship, Go Forth Tomorrow as One Big Sales Force to Secure the Associated Charities Budget for 1925. MAKE IT EASY FOR THEM.”5 The total funds sought for 1925 were slightly over $40,000.

By November 1926, the annual fundraiser had grown to represent 19 member organizations and set a fundraising goal of $122,000. The biggest change to the fundraiser since 1924, however, was that it would now benefit a new entity: the Community Fund., Inc.6 (Before officially changing its name to the Community Chest in 1933, the Community Fund spent the years 1929 through 1933 known as the Welfare Federation of Kalamazoo.7)

According to a 1943 history of the Community Chest, Inc. of Kalamazoo (which later evolved into United Way), “the success of the Associated Charities was marred somewhat because there were many other agencies appealing to the public for funds with individual campaigns.”8 Recognizing this challenge, as well as the need to coordinate the fundraising efforts of all “health and social welfare agencies” in the city, in November 1924 the Kalamazoo Chamber of Commerce organized a “Committee on Community Chest.”9 Ultimately, this committee, led by President of Western State Normal School Dr. Dwight B. Waldo, recommended to the Chamber of Commerce that an additional committee be established “to create a permanent organization and conduct the first financial campaign.”10 Thus, in January 1926, the Community Chest was officially incorporated (as the Community Fund). In February, the Community Fund commenced its first campaign, in which $109,505 were raised for distribution among sixteen local organizations, among them the Civic Improvement League and the Kalamazoo branch of the Michigan Children’s Aid Society.11 Though the campaign fell short of its $110,000 goal, it boasted an impressive 6,600 donors.


The other major development of the 1920s that forever changed the philanthropic and social services landscape in Kalamazoo was the establishment of the Kalamazoo Foundation, which occurred simultaneously with the organization of the Community Chest. In 1924, the Kalamazoo Chamber of Commerce organized - at the behest of Civic League member and local businessman Dr. W. E. Upjohn12 - a community trust committee “to provide a means whereby persons desiring to bequeath a portion of their estates for philanthropic purposes in the community might place them in trust.”13 The following year, on August 24, 1925, the full board of the Chamber of Commerce voted to adopt a resolution establishing the Kalamazoo Foundation (known today as the Kalamazoo Community Foundation).14

It would be five years before the Kalamazoo Foundation made its first grant: $250 awarded to the Kalamazoo Board of Education.15 The funds were used to supply needy children with eyeglasses, thereby enabling their success in school. This early Kalamazoo Foundation initiative is in some ways reminiscent of the Women’s Civic Improvement League’s successful 1910 campaign to install a nurse in the public schools; the nurse, in turn, addressed both immediate concerns - skinned knees, runny noses, fevers - as well as the much larger goal of identifying to the League families who were in need of their services, and perhaps the services of partner organizations. Both campaigns demonstrate appreciation for the value of early intervention and the preservation of human potential.

Despite shared concerns, the missions of the Kalamazoo Foundation and the Kalamazoo Civic Improvement League differed in that the former was primarily a grantmaking body - one that pledged “to use the funds in its trust for the future, rather than to relieve the present day from bearing its ordinary burdens” - while the latter, the League, was a social services organization, prepared to allocate funds for the purpose of addressing “ordinary burdens”16 - such as those posed to a family whose home had burned down - at the same time that it was designing and implementing programs aimed at alleviating the suffering caused by chronic social problems such as poverty and joblessness. Complementary approaches to these same giant social woes made the Kalamazoo Foundation and the Kalamazoo Civic Improvement League very effective partners in their shared effort to improve quality of life for all people in Kalamazoo.


Addressing Everyday Concerns

Every January, the Kalamazoo Gazette reported on the annual meeting of the Kalamazoo Civic Improvement League, the differences in details highlighted from year to year offering some insights as to how League services adapted to the needs of the community. For example, increased immigration was reflected in discussions on how best to serve the needs of “foreigners” and encourage assimilation.

During this time when intense xenophobia was seeping into many areas of American life, newspaper coverage of Civic League activities suggests that League members demonstrated relative open mindedness and compassion toward recent immigrants. At the January 1925 annual meeting, the League’s executive secretary, Mrs. E. S. Gilfillan, reported that “28 of our families were helped because the men of the house were in jail for bootlegging.” She goes on to explain that, “Most of these men were foreigners who had not yet been made to understand the prohibition law, and I feel we have some responsibility toward them.” Mrs. Gilfillan effectively expresses the League’s responsibility to encourage recent immigrants’ assimilation into American society by providing them with an education on how to do so - a notion that would have been quite popular as the Progressive Era was coming to a close.

A recurring theme underlying League work for these years is the necessity of encouraging self-sufficiency and independence, rather than simply providing relief. Hired by the League in 1924, Visiting Housekeeper Mrs. Adelaide R. Flaherty provided practical educational services that met the unique needs of the community, from hosting cooking classes, to advising mothers about appropriate clothing for their school-aged children.17

In November 1925, it was announced in the Kalamazoo Gazette that an advanced sociology class from Kalamazoo College would be working in cooperation with the League to study “the problems of families.”18 Leading the students was Dr. Ernest Harper, a young professor at the college and a director of the Civic League.

In 1926, the Civic League opened a home at 235 E Lovell Street for the purpose of providing temporary relief to women and girls in transient situations. The home offered “a helping hand to girls and women in need” - a place for “girls who are in need of a good home and friends.”19 In yet another instance of the Civic League and its clients benefitting from the expertise of a local institution, Dr. Harper and his sociology students oversaw operation of the house for at least the first year of its existence. In 1934 Dr. Harper would resign his position at the college in order to become the Kalamazoo County Relief Administrator.20

During a June 1927 “Look Well Drive” sponsored by the League, barbers gave haircuts to children and adults in need. An article in the Kalamazoo Gazette advertising the event explained that, “Kiddies and grown-ups who go around with straggly locks this week will do so only from choice, and not by lack of funds,” adding that the “the well-groomed man, woman, and child has a better chance to make good in life.”21 By hosting events such as the “Look Well Drive,” the League was actively working toward restoring the dignity of those receiving its services.

Throughout the 1920s, the League frequently sponsored public classes and events aimed at strengthening the family unit. Programming on subjects such as housekeeping, personal hygiene, and even happiness, were offered with the goal of remodeling families and family life in order to avoid the root causes of dependency. Between 1924 and 1927, League representatives identified the chief causes of distress in Kalamazoo as illness, unemployment, and poor housekeeping.22

The League helped families in any number of ways during the 1920s. These included finding employment, both temporary and permanent, facilitating “extension of credit” to a number of families struggling to pay their bills, encouraging thrift, providing physical examinations for entire families, facilitating the receipt of state benefits to mothers, searching for deserting husbands, securing legal aid to those in need, strengthening family and church relationships, moving families into better homes, arranging the distribution of Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets, and selecting children for Christmas parties and summertime attendance at Pretty Lake camp.

Braving the Great Depression

Well before the historic stock market crash of October 1929, a growing need for social services was being felt in Kalamazoo. In July 1928, Civic League President Walter Blinks reported to the Kalamazoo Gazette that requests for help “for the first six months of 1928 were 50 percent heavier than in the previous year.”23 Six months later, in January 1929, it was reported that the League’s caseload for 1928 was twice what it was in 1927 and four times what it was in 1926, making 1928 the busiest year yet in the League’s history.

Much of what we know about Kalamazoo Civic Improvement League activities for the years 1927 through 1931 comes from a Kalamazoo College thesis - “A Comparative Analysis of the Caseload of the Kalamazoo Civic League Two Years Before and After November 1929” - researched and written by social work student Winifred DeYoung in 1932. Perhaps DeYoung’s most valuable observation is that the Civic Improvement League’s caseload doubled after November 1929. DeYoung approached her research with the same sympathies routinely evinced by the Civic League, writing, “If society has failed to provide for basic needs of persons, why not, since the individual or family cannot control such conditions, study the problem ... to develop ways and means of tackling the problem.”24 As DeYoung explained in her thesis, the Great Depression affected “men regardless of their abilities,” and variables such as race, age, and family size mattered little.

While the first half of DeYoung’s thesis is mostly demographic data about those who sought aid from the Civic League, the second half is devoted to the new programs carried out by the League in order to sustain the increased needs of the community. DeYoung highlights the League’s innovative solution to counter the effects of the Depression; the solution, which she calls “the new program,” not only foresaw future President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal in name, but also in method.

In order to address the increasing calls for relief, the League, through “the new program,” put individuals to work in the community, the amount of aid doled out to individuals corresponding to the amount of work they had performed in a day. The program, which was formally adopted by the city commission in October 1930 and then carried out by the League, was designed with the goal of “remov[ing] the bugaboo of pride which hinders charity and welfare work.”25 DeYoung noted that “city work done by Civic League Clients is payable with groceries for the first day’s work, coal for the second day, and rent for the third day’s work.”26 The employed workers were “given jobs in various branches of city improvements, some beautifying the city cemeteries, some in park development, and others cleaning streets and sidewalks.” In effect, everyone benefitted, some from gainful employment and others from a beautified city.

DeYoung concluded her study with a series of recommendations on how the League could adapt to the increased demand for its services. In doing so, the young social worker spoke to the core of the League’s commitment to providing services with empathy and in such a way that preserves self-respect. In particular, she was concerned that the rise in cases made it so that “They are hurried through inquisitorial interviews, herded in crowded waiting rooms, considered as a mass irrespective of class, abilities, or personality,” forecasting that such treatment only led to “humiliation” and the “thwarting of initiative” - the antithesis of League values.27


Funding Relief

On January 31, 1930, the Kalamazoo Gazette announced that, “The Civic Improvement League...officially was given the position of the city’s foremost welfare and social agency, when Mayor S. R. Light and City Manager Albert Ten Busschen… accepted the organization into the government of the municipality.”28 The League - now regarded as “a regular city department” - was awarded $10,000 from the city’s budget to cover the cost of administrative duties. The financial boost, however helpful, did little to mitigate the steadily increasing need for relief.

A January 1931 article in the Kalamazoo Gazette sought to clarify the limitations of Civic League’s services and to explain its funding mechanisms. By this time, the League was responsible for administering aid through two funds: the Welfare Federation Fund (formerly the Community Fund) and the city Taxpayer’s Fund.

The Welfare Federation Fund was replenished by an annual campaign in which the Welfare Federation of Kalamazoo solicited donations for distribution among its member organizations. Because these dollars were gifts, there were no limitations on how the funds could be used; the League generally used these funds to address emergency situations and to serve the needs of people living outside city limits. People living outside city limits were not eligible for funds from the city Taxpayers Fund. The city Taxpayers Fund “totals many thousands of dollars” and comprised the bulk of the League’s operating budget.29

In addition to these two funds, the League was bolstered through individual donations by Kalamazooans, many of whom were also supporters of the Welfare Federation’s annual fundraiser. In April 1931, it was announced that because these “private funds” were “extremely low...a meeting of the ways and means committee would be held within a few days to determine how finances may be adjusted to meet the organization’s needs.”30 At the end of year, it would be noted that 1931 had eclipsed 1928 as the year for which calls for relief were at their peak.

As demands on the Civic League grew, so did its ties to the community. Both ideologically and financially, the League became more and more deeply intertwined in the community during the latter half of the 1920s, from its partnerships with local social service organizations and city government, to its relationships with local institutions of higher education. Twenty-eight years old in 1931, the Kalamazoo Civic Improvement League had officially established itself as an essential part of the city and county’s burgeoning social services infrastructure. With no end in sight to the Great Depression, the Civic League was left little choice but to operate as though the increased volume of calls for relief was its “new normal.”



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 mbcorcoran@gmail.com or 917-617-2422.



1 Matheny, Dolores
2 “Civic League Given $6,000 by City Dads”
3 “Civic League Given $6,000 by City Dads”
4 “Civic League Handling All City Charity”
5 [Advertisement]
6 “It’s Our Job”
7 United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region
8 “The Beginning of a Story”
9 “The Beginning of a Story”
10 “The Beginning of a Story”
11 “The Beginning of a Story”
12 “The Early Years: From $1,000 to 38 Millions”
13 Dunbar, Willis F.
14 “The Early Years: From $1,000 to 38 Millions”
15 Dunbar, Willis F.
16 “Future Incorporated”
17 “New Visiting Housekeeper Aid to Many”
18 “Civic League’s Temporary Home for Women Opens”
19 “Civic League’s Temporary Home for Women Opens”
20 “Dr. Ernest Bouldin Harper: An Example of the Kalamazoo College Tradition,” 25.
21 “Master barbers Offering Free Haircuts in Look-Well Drive”
22 “Civic League Board Hears Summer Report”; “New Civic League Official to Advise Young Married Couples”
23 “Add $2500 To The Fund”
24 DeYoung, Winifred E.
25 DeYoung, Winifred E.
26 DeYoung, Winifred E.
27 DeYoung, Winifred E.
28 “City Officials Attend Meeting of Civic League”
29 “Administration of Relief by Civic League Here Often Misunderstood”
30 “Aid for Indigent Declines in March.” Kalamazoo Gazette. 9 April 1931.


“The Beginning of a Story.” 1926 to 1942 with the Community Chest, Inc. of Kalamazoo (prepared for the seventeenth annual meeting, January 19, 1943). Undated (ca. Jan 1943). Reference Department / Local History, Kalamazoo Public Library (Central), Kalamazoo, MI.

“Add $2,500 To The Fund,” The Kalamazoo Gazette. 3 Jul 1928. Accessed 15 Aug 2020 via America’s Historical Newspapers database, Newsbank, 2004.

[Advertisement], The Kalamazoo Gazette. 13 Nov 1924. Accessed 18 Aug 2020 via America’s Historical Newspapers database, Newsbank, 2004.

“Aid for Indigent Declines in March,” The Kalamazoo Gazette. 9 Apr 1931. Family & Children Services Archives. Kalamazoo, MI.

“Administration of Relief by Civic League Here Often Misunderstood,” The Kalamazoo Gazette. 5 Jan 1931. Family & Children Services Archives. Kalamazoo, MI.

“City Officials Attend Meeting of Civic League,” The Kalamazoo Gazette. 31 Jan 1930. Family & Children Services Archives. Kalamazoo, MI.

“Civic League Board Hears Summer Report,” The Kalamazoo Gazette. 5 Sep 1924. Accessed 18 Aug 2020 via America’s Historical Newspapers database, Newsbank, 2004.

“Civic League Given 6,000 by City Dads,” The Kalamazoo Gazette. 21 Dec 1923. Family & Children Services Archives. Kalamazoo, MI.

“Civic League Handling All City Charity,” The Kalamazoo Gazette. 18 Oct 1925. Family & Children Services Archives. Kalamazoo, MI.

“Civic League’s Temporary Home For Women Opens,” The Kalamazoo Gazette. 26 Jan 1926. Accessed 12 Aug 2020 via America’s Historical Newspapers database, Newsbank, 2004.

DeYoung, Winifred E. “A Comparative Analysis of the Case Load of The Kalamazoo Civic Improvement League Two Years Before And Two Years After November 1929: A Causal Study.” Thesis submitted to the faculty of Kalamazoo College in Candidacy for the Degree of Master of Arts. Jun 1932. Local History, Kalamazoo Public Library (Central), Kalamazoo, MI.

Dunbar, Willis F. Kalamazoo and How it Grew. Western Michigan University, 1959.

“The Early Years: From $1,000 to 38 Millions,” Encore. Oct 1983.

“Future Incorporated: Review of Grants, 1930-1947.” The Kalamazoo Foundation. 1947. Local History, Kalamazoo Public Library (Central), Kalamazoo, MI.

Hegg, Eric L. “Dr. Ernest Bouldin Harper: An Example of the Kalamazoo College Tradition.” 1991 (accessed Aug 2020). History Department Local History Seminar Papers, 1947-1991. RG 29/6.3.1 #91. Cache, Kalamazoo College Digital Archive.

“It’s Our Job,” The Kalamazoo Gazette. 18 Nov 1926. Accessed 12 Aug 2020 via America’s Historical Newspapers database, Newsbank, 2004.

Kohrman, David. “Douglass Community Association.” Kalamazoo Public Library. 2011 (accessed 30 Aug 2020).

Matheny, Dolores. “History of The Women’s Civic Improvement League, 1903-1912.” 1951 (accessed Aug 2020). History Department Local History Seminar Papers, 1947-1991. RG 29/6.3.1 #36. Cache, Kalamazoo College Digital Archive.

“Master Barbers Offering Free Haircuts in Look-Well Drive,” The Kalamazoo Gazette. 11 June 1928. Accessed 13 Aug 2020 via America’s Historical Newspapers database, Newsbank, 2004.

“New Visiting Housekeeper Aid to Many,” The Kalamazoo Gazette. 07 Oct 1924. Family & Children Services Archives. Kalamazoo, MI.

“New Civic League Official to Advise Young Married Couples,” The Kalamazoo Gazette. 10 Jan 1924. Accessed 18 Aug 2020 via America’s Historical Newspapers database, Newsbank, 2004.

“United Way of Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region. State of Michigan Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. Accessed 03 Sep 2020.