When a non-profit social services agency enjoys the longevity of over 140 years it must be because it’s doing something right—especially when it has evolved into the organization we are to today. And, although the operations and processes have changed, our goals and purposes are still the same as in 1879—“to assist people in need and to strengthen families under stress”. In our work, we are “Provide Hope, Improve Lives and Strengthen Community”. Knowing that history informs both the present and our futures, it is worthwhile to examine where we have been.
In November 1879, the Reverend A. Edward Lawrence, Jr., the Congregational minister in Poughkeepsie, called the first meeting of the Charity Organization Society whose goal was to help the poor. According to Reverend Lawrence, “Promiscuous alms giving is the most inefficient and harmful method of giving. Whenever you make a beggar, you destroy a man. At the basis of this new movement is cooperation. To give employment to those who need it is the true bases of charitable relief. Personal visitation can accomplish more than anything else…Absolute distress should be relieved and limited financial aid given where it is honestly needed. Children of vicious parents should be cared for, but there is no longer any reason for that thoughtless and indiscriminate giving of doles at the door, which creates so much more misery than it relieves…The aims are to expect permanent results in character, to counteract the spirit of pauperism, and raise the needy above the need of relief. There can be no more difficult, yet no more sacred work.”
In the minutes of the meetings of the Charitable Organization in 1879 it was noted that cash donations by Board members, sometimes totaling as much as $2.00, were collected at each meeting to provide funds for disbursements to the poor. A little money went a long way in those days!
The Charity Organization Society was succeeded in 1893 by a group called Associated Charities. Among its organizers were some of the best known residents of Poughkeepsie such as Henry V. Pelton, a carpet manufacturer; William Bancroft Hill, Professor of Religion at Vassar College; Edward Ellsworth, a former mayor; Edmund Platt of Luckey, Platt and Company; Herbert Mills, Professor of Economics at Vassar; Robert Wilkinson, a local attorney and C.C. Cox. City residents paid a membership fee of $1.00 to join the society.
Another charitable organization, the House of Industry, had been organized after the Civil War to provide work for the widows of deceased war veterans, and gradually expanded to provide work for any needy women. The work consisted of sewing garments and carpet rags, mending gloves, and turning collars. In 1910 Miss Elizabeth Schermerhorn suggested that a Bureau of Information for City Charities be established to provide information about persons who applied to various clergymen and charity organizations for assistance. With this information she carried out her work at the House of Industry three mornings a week, giving this information to those who “wished to help the needy intelligently”.
In 1912, the Bureau of Information for City Charities evolved into a new and independent organization, the Associated Charities of the City of Poughkeepsie, with offices in the old Chamber of Commerce Building just north of the Armory. At this time the Associated Charities became a charter member of the Family Services Association of America.
Between 1912 and 1930, the agency became involved in a number of activities which included nursing victims of the 1918 influenza epidemic, establishing a Social Services Exchange, a confidential index of persons known to any agency in the county, and working to provide employment to local residents during the Great Depression. In 1931 the agency, being more family oriented, changed the name again, this time to Family Welfare Association.
An important person connected to this work was Miss Dorothy Jennings (Mrs. Joseph Mastroianni), a Vassar College graduate who had attended classes at New York School of Social Work. She continued to be involved for many years until her retirement in 1963.
The agency continued to deal with people from many walks of life. During these years there were modifications to the function of the agency, and to its philosophy. It was determined that it would be a place for professional counseling, for dealing with family problems and quarrels, illnesses and crises of other sorts. For several years the agency did the processing of admissions for the Poughkeepsie Day Nursery and cooperated with the Children’s Court by screening applicants who desired to operate non-secure detention homes for children who were in trouble with the law.
In 1955, the name was changed again—to Family Service Association of Poughkeepsie. It was noted that the types of people the agency dealt with had begun to change noticeably. In the early years it was the poor, the dispossessed, the derelicts and downtrodden, welfare clients and those in need of charity. It now became a place to come to for professional counseling, problems related to marriage, family quarrels, illness, personality adjustment, and crises of all sorts. During Mrs. Mastroianni’s regime, the agency began to increasingly deal with people from all walks of life and there came the realization that there was a need for a broad range of counseling services.
As time passed, funding for the agency was provided by others such as the United Way and its predecessor, the Community Chest. One area of considerable activity was that of caring for senior citizens so they were able to stay in their own homes. In 1972, a Homemaker—Home Health Aide Service was established.
Although the concept of “advocacy” has roots in the evolution of social welfare in the United States, as a program it arose in the 1960’s out of the growing social and political ferment in the cities. In 1971, Family Services adopted its own advocacy program covering areas of activity such as Problems of Aging, Legislation, Housing, Problems of Youth, Child Protection, Revenue Sharing, Budget Counseling and Education. And in its Strategic Plan of 2001, the Board recommitted to this mission of advocacy by declaring as one of its goals “to establish a broad based advocacy program focusing on increased capacity for families”. (Much of the above information was prepared by Dr. Paul Pfuetze for the observance of the 100thanniversary of Family Services in 1979.)
In 1989 a new Executive Director, Allan Thomas, was hired. To meet growing community needs, he and the Board immediately set out to diversify the offerings of services for families. Among these were classes such as Parent Education, Helping Children Cope with Divorce and Roller Coasters.
FSI also established Comprehensive Crime Victims Assistance Services, a Rape Crisis Center and created a Relapse Intervention for Sex Crimes Treatment Program. Next, Early Intervention Programs, Employee Assistance Programs and Elder Support Services were added.
During this time of enormous growth, Family Services’ operations were located at 50 North Hamilton Street in Poughkeepsie. Because of the growth of Poughkeepsie, and Dutchess County, the work of Family Services had grown to the point where it was essential to have more space in order to provide its increasingly necessary services.
An effort had begun to find more space when, in 1994, the Archdiocese of New York announced that Our Lady of Lourdes High School, across the street at 29 North Hamilton, was to be relocated to a larger space outside the city and the school would be up for sale.
The availability of this space at a time when Family Services had such a need was regarded by many as a plain and simple miracle and new efforts were begun to find the funding necessary to purchase the building.
The success and growth of many of the programs offered by Family Services are the results of the availability of this building and the efforts of many individuals, foundations, and governmental agencies at all levels to purchase it. The value of the building in providing of services to thousands of county residents cannot be overestimated.
This structure, large, strong and solid, with thick walls and long halls and large windows that let in light, and with many rooms of varying sizes has proven to be an ideal site for the many programs that are now offered. The auditorium, one of the largest in Dutchess County, has been the site of numerous meetings and programs over the years.
In an editorial on October 14, 1994 entitled “Social Agency’s Exciting Plan” the Poughkeepsie Journal stated that “On paper, the proposal to turn the Lourdes High School Building…into a multi-purpose community center is excitingly on the mark. It is an intelligent, far-reaching plan from a respected agency to reach the core of the city’s pressing social problems, ills that are manifested in crime and violence and drugs…the center, on the day of its opening would become the greatest one-stop community resource in the city…those who hand out the grants should realize that buildings such as Lourdes—so amendable to the needs of a full-service community center—do not come on the market often” .
Obviously, serendipity has been a factor in the preservation and restoration of this building. However, serendipity often tries and fails because no one notices and opportunities are missed. But in this case, the visions and foresight of the community, and the private and public funding provided, has given an example for communities all over the country.
The Family Partnership Center opened in 1997 and is now home to more than fifteen different programs and agencies, all working together on a daily basis, to provide a wide variety of much-needed services to hundreds of people every day.
Family Services, Inc. continued its original vision for the Family Partnership Center in 2003 when we completed an ambitious re-organization by spinning it off from our operations and allowing it to advance on its own as a separate not-for-profit organization. Both Family Services and the Family Partnership Center became subsidiaries of a new parent organization, Families First New York, a new piece of its restructuring.
The creation of Families First was a movement toward concentrating efforts on what Family Services and affiliates do best, providing direct services to those in need. The new parent handled all of the daily organizational management needs, from accounting to information technology to fundraising and marketing to enable talented, caring staff to focus entirely on helping clients. This arrangement significantly increased our service capacity and allowed the addition of two new programs, Mental Health Services (2003) and Battered Women’s Services (2004) in addition to expand our programming throughout the Mid-Hudson region.
Over the years, Poughkeepsie has been the butt of jokes. W.C. Fields said that he came up to Poughkeepsie one Saturday afternoon and it was closed! The spelling and pronunciation of the small, historic city’s name has always been a problem. In recent years, beset by suburban malls, the City has faced many challenges and has strived to revitalize its housing and businesses. And today, with Family Services’ many programs designed to help people help themselves, its conversion and preservation of a marvelous old building, and its commitment to working with others for the common good of all, Poughkeepsie once again like Reverend Lawrence did in his time sends a message to America of what can be done when people work together. We think Reverend Lawrence would be proud as we carry out his legacy.
In the face of changing times and an ever increasing set of fiscal challenges brought forth by numerous factors including the severe recession in 2008 and accompanying constraints on public and private funding, the Boards of the Families First, Family Services and affiliates decided to reimagine how best to serve our mission and what organizational structure would best propel us to continued service to mission.
After a two year process during which the agency was ably served by the leadership of Sue West and Carlton Mitchell, a newly reconstituted Board fused FFNY, FSI and FPC into one strong organization still committed to the ideals of its founders.
Family Services, once again, under the leadership of CEO Brian Doyle remains committed to building stronger, safer communities where everyone has the opportunity to lead their best lives.
*Our sincere thanks to past Family Services Board Member, Nancy Alden, for researching, writing and editing much of this history in 2008.