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The Transformative Power Of The Settlement House

by Mary walker baron

I once had a friend who came to this country from Eastern Europe. Her family settled in Chicago. My friend once told me that she used to sit on the steps of Hull House chatting with Jane Addams. Mildred remembered these visits as life changing. The Digital Public Library of America tells us "...that between the 1880s and 1920s, hundreds of settlement houses were established in American cities in response to an influx of European immigrants as well as the urban poverty brought about by industrialization and exploitative labor practices. Settlement houses were organizations that provided support services to the urban poor and European immigrants, often including education, health care, childcare, and employment resources. Many settlement houses established during this period are still thriving today." One of those still thriving settlement houses is the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side of New York City founded by a nurse named Lillian Wald. Ms. Wald was born into wealth. One day as she was teaching a home economics class for immigrants on the Lower East Side of Manhattan a girl rushed into the classroom and screamed that her mother was bleeding to death in childbirth and that the doctor had left because the family couldn't afford his fees. Ms. Wald rushed to help. She saved both the mother's and the baby's lives. After that defining moment, Ms. Wald moved to the Lower Side and established the Henry Street Settlement. Even before she established the Henry Street Settlement, Lillian Wald was an advocate for children. She created the first playground in New York City, pioneered special education, introduced the concept of free lunches and nurses in schools and fought against child labor. In the first year after establishing the Henry Street Settlement Ms. Wald hired 90 nurses of whom 10 lived with her on Henry Street. Her effort gave birth to the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. That organization continues to thrive as does the Henry Street Settlement. Today Henry Street serves 50,000 people a year. It runs 18 locations throughout the Lower East Side including four homeless shelters. It provides services from after school programs to job training. I became a social worker in large part because of the stories my friend Mildred told me of sitting on the steps of Hull House chatting with Jane Addams.

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