Former First Lady of the United States, Bess (Wallace) Truman
was one of the original founders of CSL in 1916
Reprinted from The Kansas City Star, June 12, 2011
By Trudy Galblum
In 1916, a women’s Bible study group in Independence, which happened to include future First Lady of the United States Bess Wallace Truman, was inspired by the verse, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Like so many founders of not-for-profit organizations across the country, they saw a need and stepped up to fill it.
The Community Welfare League was first housed in a log cabin near Independence Square that had earlier been the first courthouse in Jackson County in 1827. Then, as now, the agency depended on volunteers and the community for support, working closely with the City of Independence, the Junior Service League, faith-based organizations and the United Way to promote self-sufficiency and provide resources to those in need.
It’s not much different today. To help people keep warm, the agency used to provide coal. Today, it provides utility assistance. To protect children, it used to place children in foster homes and adoptions. Today, it helps parents feed, clothe and provide their children with school supplies and other necessities. It used to help people help themselves by finding work for them on farms and in factories. Today, it shows them how to write résumés, research job openings, prepare for interviews and be successful with jobs in hospitality, health care and other industries.
Community Welfare League weathered tough times during the Great Depression. The Federal government saved the agency from shutting down by making it in charge of a cannery, sewing center, daycare center and even a “cow hotel,” where animals that survived the Dust Bowl awaited new homes on farms.
By 1963, the agency operated eight offices in Eastern Jackson County and in 1976 changed its name to Community Services League to reflect its mission focus on self-sufficiency.
CSL was housed on the second floor of the Jackson County Courthouse building in 1977 when Dorace Wilson, a former board member, became the executive director.
“The Food Stamp Act had just passed, so we had many meetings about how the program would affect our work,” she said. “We also had big discussions about paying for utilities, which led to the creation of the I-Share Utility Assistance program in partnership with the City of Independence.”
Today, Independence Power & Light matches donations up to $35,000 a year to help low-income families and seniors pay their utility bills.
During the 1970s and 80s, CSL explored new ways to provide needed assistance and build support for the organization.
The Child Abuse Prevention Association (CAPA), founded by Junior Service League, launched its crisis and information hotline in CSL’s offices in 1975. CSL’s 100 percent volunteer-run Christmas Store, which last year served nearly 5,000 people, started in the late 1970s. The first Mayor’s Christmas Concert, held annually in the Community of Christ Auditorium, features Independence School District fourth graders singing Christmas carols. Proceeds have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for CSL since 1985. The Community of Christ, which operated a social services center, realized it could serve more people in need by transferring this function to CSL.
All this was accomplished despite less than optimal physical environments. Wilson recalls storing donated cheese under the benches in Harry Truman’s old courtroom.
“CSL was housed in different locations, depending on what was available,” said Jean Brookens, who joined the staff in 1982 to assist in the creation of a nutrition education program and stays involved as a board member. “At one time, we were housed in a doctor’s office on Maple Avenue. Another time we were in the old Independence Examiner building on the corner of Lexington and Spring, and then in the Whetstone Medical Building on the corner of Spring and Truman Road. Eventually, the board approved the purchase of our first permanent home in the old Western Auto Building at 300 West Maple.”
Satellite offices faced similar challenges. “We moved the Oak Grove office several times,” said Sharon Petkoff, former Oak Grove and Buckner Site Manager. “The community got together and said, ‘We have to do something.’ They held fundraisers to purchase building materials. The land was donated along with 98 percent of the labor.”
More than 4,000 people received help at the Oak Grove office in 2010. Blue Springs, CSL’s fastest growing satellite office, moved to its current location in a donated building in 2000. CSL also operates offices in Buckner and Grain Valley and, in addition to the new Central Resources Building, two outreach centers in Independence.
Bev Sheldon joined CSL as executive director in 1991, right after the move to 300 West Maple. Plans were underway and money being raised to renovate apartments above the office, which continued to provide a stream of income for CSL until their former location was sold earlier this year.
Sheldon brought a new focus on management and administration. “My challenge,” she said, “was to introduce computers and ensure we had proper accounting systems.”
“We were awarded HUD funds to hire a housing counselor and we also brought on our first volunteer coordinator,” said Sheldon. “CSL couldn’t exist without volunteers, and we finally had someone who could maximize their potential and make sure they were properly recognized.”
Sheldon also focused on raising community awareness. “We developed strong relationships with local newspapers and started a speaker’s bureau and newsletter that reached 4,000 people by the time I left in 2001. We also diversified our board to make sure we had members representing all of the communities we serve, as well as business interests.”
Other significant developments in the 1990s included:
Establishment of the Welfare to Work program, now known as Work Express.
Becoming a MAACLink agency, enabling CSL to share and receive information on service use and eligibility across geographic and political boundaries, eliminating unnecessary duplication and meeting unmet needs.
Creation of a Clothes Closet to provide business attire for job seekers and workers.
Launched the Outpouring of Hope Food & Drink Festival and an annual Fall Gala, which today raises more than $160,000 annually.
A New Century
CSL was and is an agency created by and for the citizens of Eastern Jackson County. Covering an area of some 400 square miles served by seven satellite offices, CSL helped more than 50,000 individuals in 2010 – and all-time high – obtain life-sustaining resources and become more self-sufficient.
“I’m extremely honored,” said (former) Executive Director Michael Levine, “to have the responsibility of taking a 95-year old organization with one of the strongest commitments to the poor and lead it into the next century.”