Family Service of Morris County: One of America’s first safety nets celebrates 200 years in Morristown
By Kevin Coughlin
To fall on hard times in 1813 was to fall very hard indeed.
“The safety net was your friends, your family, your neighbors. That was the only safety net that there was…and these were very traumatic times that people were going through,” Donna McNamara said at a special ceremony on Sunday.
Donna heads the bicentennial committee of the nonprofit Family Service of Morris County, which invited friends and volunteers to the Presbyterian Church in Morristown to mark the contributions of 17 church ladies whose good deeds two centuries ago reverberate to this day.
They called themselves the Female Charitable Society back then, and their aim was to help “the worthy poor” of Morristown–mainly, the families of soldiers fighting the War of 1812.
The society’s first directress, Alice Cogswell Fisher, was the minister’s wife. Members divided Morristown into sections, and met once a week to sew for struggling residents. Louisa Macculloch, matriarch of what is now the Macculloch Hall Historical Museum, was a guiding force for more than four decades. Clothing, food and charcoal for heating were dispensed to the needy by women volunteers.
Over the years, the organization’s name would change a number of times and its scope would broaden to encompass all of Morris County. The Central Bureau of Social Service, as it became known in 1913, bore the hallmarks of a modern social service agency.
“Shall we pauperize our poor, or help them become independent and self-respecting?” reads an entry from the minutes of a meeting.
Professionals were hired, and concerns were expressed for the prospects and privacy of the people they served. The Visiting Nurse Association, Morris County Tuberculosis Association and Social Service Exchange can trace their origins to this movement. The late Cornelia Kellogg, whose home now serves as Morristown’s Kellogg Club, led the bureau for much of the first half of the 20th century.
Family Service of Morris County, as it’s been called since 1947, now has modern offices at 62 Elm St. and a 100-person team providing a range of pre-school-, adult daycare and counseling services that touch 7,000 lives across Northern New Jersey.
War still creates needs, just as it did 200 years ago. Family Service offers financial planning for soldiers having trouble readjusting as they return from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“What happened 200 years ago really isn’t so different from what we do today,” said Executive Director Patrice Picard, who oversees a $3.6 million budget derived from fundraising, sliding-scale fees and government grants and contracts. The bicentennial celebration will continue on April 14 with a ball at the Short Hills Hilton, and a symposium for social services professionals later this year.
Patrice compared Family Service to a group of general practitioners.
“We help the whole family,”she said. “We’re not specializing in domestic violence. Our population is people who are working. Not the homeless or seriously mentally ill. Just people trying to make ends meet.”
Proclaiming Jan. 27, 2013, as “Family Service Day” in Morristown, Mayor Tim Dougherty pledged his support to a “wonderful organization” and urged it to “keep up the good work.”
The Rev. David Smazik, pastor of the Presbyterian Church, said his congregation was blessed to have 17 women respond to the community’s need in an era of limited resources. Incredibly, Family Service of Morris County carries on the tradition, he said.
“They continue to keep the passion and the energy going. I think we see organizations that ebb and flow, and unfortunately, sometimes they just lose that passion. But they’ve kept their passion for service going throughout that whole time.”
It’s quite a responsibility, said Patrice.
“While society has changed, and the organization has changed, the need for better lives and stronger communities remains,” she said. “As we celebrate our 200th anniversary, we are also planning for our third century of service. We can only hope that our vision will be as enduring as the vision of the founders and the volunteers who followed in their footsteps throughout history.”
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