My blog features a number of stories that deal with good works by faith-based organizations, and this is another one. Northeast Omaha’s largely African-American community suffers disproportionately in terms of poverty, low educational achievement, underemployment and unemployment, health problems, crime, et cetera. These challenges and disparities by no means characterize the entire community there, but the distress affects many and is persistent across generations in many households. All manner of social services operate in that community trying to address the issues, and the subject of the following story, Hope Center for Kids, is among those. I filed the story for Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com) and I came away impressed that the people behind this effort are genuinely knowledgable about the needs there and are committed to doing what they can to reach out to youth in the neighborhoods surrounding the center.
Where Hope Lives, Hope Center for Kids in North Omaha
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)
Northeast Omaha’s largely poor, African-American community is a mosaic where despair coexists with hope. A stretch of North 20th Street is an example. Rows of nice, newly built homes line both sides of the one-way road — from Binney to Grace Streets. Working class families with upwardly mobile aspirations live there.
Yet, vacant lots and homes in disrepair are within view. God-fearing working stiffs may live next door to gang bangers. To be sure, the good citizens far outnumber the thugs but a few bad apples can spoil things for the rest.
Endemic inner city problems of poverty, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, gun violence, unemployment, school dropouts and broken homes put a drag on the district. Church, school and social service institutions do what they can to stabilize an unstable area. Meanwhile, the booming downtown cityscape to the south offers a vista of larger, brighter possibilities.
One anchor addressing the needs is the faith-based nonprofit Hope Center for Kids. Housed in the former Gene Eppley Boys Club at 2209 Binney, the center just celebrated its 10th anniversary. An $800,000 renovation replaced the roof and filled in the pool to create more programming space. Four years ago the organization opened Hope Skate, an attached multi-use roller rink/gymnasium that gives a community short on recreational amenities a fun, safe haven.
In the last year Hope’s received grants from the Kellogg Foundation, the Millard Foundation and Mutual of Omaha to expand its life skills and educational support services. Additional staff and more structured programs have “taken us to a whole new level,” said founder/executive director Rev. Ty Schenzel.
Clearly, the 50,000 square foot, $1.2 million-budgeted center is there for the long haul. Hope serves 400 members, ages 7 to 19. Most come from single parent homes. Eight in 10 qualify for free or reduced price lunch at school. Hope collaborates with such community partners as nearby Conestoga Magnet Center and Jesuit Middle Schools, whose ranks include Hope members. University of Nebraska at Omaha students are engaged in a service learning project to build an employability curriculum. Creighton med students conduct health screenings. Volunteers tutor and mentor. Bible studies and worship services are available.
Some Hope members work paid part-time jobs at the center. Members who keep up their grades earn points they can spend at an on-site store.
Per its name, Hope tries raising expectations amid limited horizons. It all began a decade ago when two Omaha businessmen bought the abandoned boys club and handed it over to Schenzel, a white Fremont, Neb. native and suburbanite called to do urban ministry. He was then-youth pastor at Trinity Interdenominational Church., a major supporter of Hope.
He first came down to The Hood doing outreach for Trinity in the mid-’90s. He and volunteers held vacation bible studies and other activities for children at an infamous apartment complex, Strehlow, nicknamed New Jack City for all its crime. He met gang members. One by the street name of Rock asked what would happen to the kids once the do-gooders left. That convinced Pastor Ty, as Schenzel’s called, to have a permanent presence there. In a sea of hopelessness he and his workers try to stem the tide.
“What we believe is at the root of the shootings, the gang activity, the 15-year-old moms, the generation after generation economic and educational despair is hopelessness,” he said. “If you don’t think anything is going to change and you don’t care about the consequences then you lose all motivation. You have nothing to lose because you’ve lost everything.
“Our vision is we want to bring tangible hope with the belief that when the kids experience hope they’ll be motivated to make right choices. They’ll start to believe.”
Schenzel said what “differentiates Hope is that the at-risk kids that come to us probably wouldn’t fit in other programs. The faith component makes us different. The economic development-jobs creation aspect. The roller rink.”
He said former Hope member Jimmie Ventry is a measure of the challenge kids present. Older brother Robert Ventry went on a drug-filled rampage that ended in him being shot and killed. Jimmie, who’s been in and out of trouble with the law, had a run in with cops and ended up doing jail time. Schenzel said, “One day I asked Jimmie, ‘How do I reach you? What do I do to break through?’ And the spirit of what Jimmie said was, Don’t give up on me. Don’t stop trying.” Hope hasn’t.
Schenzel said results take time. “I tell people we’re running a marathon, not a sprint, which I think is what Jimmie was saying. We’re now in our 10th year and in many ways it feels like we’re still starting.” Hope Youth Development Director Pastor Edward King said kids can only be pointed in the right direction. Where they go is their own decision.
“It’s one thing when they come here and we’re throwing them the love and it’s another thing when they go back to their environment and the drug dealers are telling them not to go to work,” he said. “We’re here telling them: You do have options; you can make honest money without the guilt and having to look over your shoulder; you don’t have to go to prison, you can graduate from school — you can go to college.
“We provide hope but the battle is theirs really. When you don’t believe you can, when everything around you is hopelessness, it takes a strong person to want to make the right choices.”
Chris Morris was given up as a lost cause by the public schools system. Hope rallied behind him. It meant long hours of counseling, prodding, praying. The efforts paid off when he graduated high school.
“The Hope Center helped me in a positive way. Just having them around gave me hope,” said Morris.
King said several kids who’ve thought of dropping out or been tagged as failures have gone on to get their diploma with the help of Hope’s intervention.
“It took a lot of hard work for people to stay on them and to push them through,” said King. “We’re so proud of them.”
The kids that make it invariably invite Hope teachers and administrators to attend their graduation. That’s affirmation enough for King. “It’s the thing that keeps me coming back,” he said. “When I hear a guy talk about how coming here keeps him out of trouble or makes him feel safe or that he enjoys hanging out with my family at our house, that lets me know we’re doing the right thing.”
For many kids the first time they see a traditional nuclear family is at a Hope staffer’s home. It’s a revelation. Staff become like Big Brothers-Big Sisters or surrogate parents. They go out of their way to provide support.
“Our staff go to kids’ games, they connect with them on the weekend, they’re involved in the lives of the kids. Pastor King’s house should probably be reclassified a dormitory,” Schenzel said.
King comes from the very hard streets he ministers to now. Like many of these kids he grew up fatherless. He relates to the anger and chaos they feel.
“It breaks my heart to see the killings going on. I couldn’t sit back on the sidelines and not do anything. I feel like it’s my responsibility to be here. I know what it’s like to have resentment for not having a dad around. A lot of the young men don’t have a positive male role model at home to be there for them, to discipline them.”
Hope educators work a lot on discipline with kids. Positive behavior is emphasized –from accepting criticism to following instructions. Hope slogans are printed on banners and posters throughout the center.
There, kids can channel their energies in art, education, recreation activities that, at least temporarily, remove them from bad influences. A Kids Cafe serves hot meals. King supervises Hope’s sports programs. “If we can get them involved in our rec leagues, then it’s less time they can be doing the negative things,” he said. “There’s nothing like the discipline of sports to keep a guy in line. We get a chance to teach life skills to the guys. “
Ken and Rachelle Johnson coordinate Hope’s early ed programs. An expression of the couple’s commitment is the home they bought and live in across the street.
“For me personally it’s not a job, it’s a ministry it’s a lifestyle, it’s our life.” Rachelle said. “We love being around the kids in the neighborhood. The kids deal with a lot of abandonment-neglect issues. They all have their own story. We wanted to say, Here, we’re committed, we’re not going anywhere, because it takes a long time to build relationships.”
Relationship building is key for Hope. Staff work with families and schools to try and keep kids on track academically. Programs help kids identify their strengths and dreams. To encourage big dreams teens meeting certain goals go on college tours.
“Increasingly we want to create this culture of connecting our kids to higher education,” Schenzel said.
Optional worship services are offered but all members get exposed to faith lessons through interactions with staff, who model and communicate scripture.
“Here’s our mantra,” Schenzel said: “You can only educate and recreate so long but unless there’s a heart change through a relationship with the Lord it’s putting a Band Aid on wet skin.”
Hope strives to have about 100 kids in the building at any given time. “Much more than that feels a little bit like a daycare. We don’t want to be a daycare. We want to do some transformation,” he said.
Schenzel sees “little buds of tangible hope going on” in what he terms Omaha’s Ninth Ward. He and residents wonder why “there’s seemingly an unholy bubble over north Omaha” preventing it from “getting in on the growth” happening downtown and midtown.” Those frustrations don’t stop him from dreaming.
“We would love to do mini-Hope satellites in the community, maybe in collaboration with churches, as well as Hope Centers in other cities. We envision an internship program for college students who want something to give their hearts to. We could then exponentially impact more kids. We want to create cottage industries that generate jobs and revenue streams. Some day we want to do Hope High School.”
Keep hope alive, Pastor Ty, keep hope alive.
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Omaha is known as an unusually philanthropic community and the following story for Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com) charts how a venerable childcare institution found support for a badly needed new building from a circle of dedicated divers and why these well-heeled individuals contributed to the project. The result is that the drab, old and cramped institutional-looking structure was remade into a gleaming, new and expansive showcase. What a difference a few million dollars can make.
The new, redesigned Child Saving Institute
The Joy of Giving Sets Omaha‘s Child Saving Institute on Solid Ground for the Future
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)
The Child Saving Institute has a brand spanking new home for its mission of “responding to the cry of a child.” CSI dedicated the new digs at 4545 Dodge St. in March, turning the next chapter in the organization’s 106-year history. The social service agency addresses the needs of at-risk children, youth and families.
The project was made possible by donors who saw the need for a larger, more dynamic, more kidscentric space that better reflected the organization’s expanded services and more comfortably accommodated staff and clients. A $10.7 million campaign secured funds for a complete makeover of the old building, which was stripped to its steel beams, redesigned and enlarged. An endowment was created.
The goal was soon surpassed and by the time the three-year campaign concluded, $12.2 million was raised.
Upon inheriting the former Safeway offices site in 1982 CSI officials knew it was a poor fit for the child care, emergency shelter and adoption programs then constituting the nonprofit’s services. The mostly windowless building was a drab, dreary bunker, its utilitarian interiors devoid of color, light, whimsy, fun.
The two-story structure was sound but lacked such basic amenities as an elevator. The day care and early childhood education classrooms lacked their own restrooms. Limited space forced staff to share offices. Inadequate conference rooms made it difficult for the board of directors and the guild to meet.
The drab, old Child Saving Institute
There were not enough dedicated facilities for counseling/therapeutic sessions. As CSI’s services have broadened to address youth, parenting and family issues, with an emphasis on preventive and early interventive help, more clients come through the doors.
Additionally, the organization’s outdoor playground was cramped and outmoded. Limited parking inconvenienced staff and clients alike.
“We were dissatisfied with the building,” CEO Judy Kay said. “It had at least been 10 years prior even to the decision to build that we knew we needed a different space.” She said CSI once explored new building options but “gave up, because, honestly, we all became so frustrated and we didn’t have the funds to do it.”
Enter philanthropists Dick and Mary Holland. The late Mary Holland was a CSI board member with a passion for the agency and its mission. At his wife’s urging Dick Holland toured the place Mary spoke so glowingly about. Two things happened. His big heart ached when he saw the children craving affection and his bad knees screamed from all the stairs he had to climb.
Holland pestered CSI to install an elevator. One day he and Mary summoned then-CEO Donna Tubach Davis and development director Wanda Gottschalk to a special meeting. “And at that meeting he said, ‘Ladies, it’s time to have an elevator. We’re going to get started on this project,’ and he handed us a very large check. It was for just under $3 million,” Gottschalk recalled.
He wasn’t done giving. After Mary passed CSI remembered her at a board luncheon. Upon accepting a plaque in her memory daughter Amy surprised CSI with a million dollar check from her father.
“I don’t think anybody in the city could hear anything more meaningful to them then to have Dick Holland say I will help you,” said Gottschalk.
Mary and Dick Holland
The CSI campus is named after Mary Holland. Dick didn’t want his name anywhere but conceded to the elevator being dubbed, “Dick’s Lift.” RDG Schutte Wilscam Birge’s redesign more than doubled the square footage, opened up the interior to create bright, spacious work areas, added multiple meeting rooms and provided vibrant colors and active play centers. The large lobby is awash in art and light.
CSI can now serve twice the number of children in its day care.
The Hollands’ generous donations launched the building-endowment campaign. A committee of past board presidents set about raising the remaining funds.
“We were very blessed with their help.” Gottschalk said. “These past board presidents obviously also had invested a lot in CSI and cared very deeply about it.”
She said donors become “total advocates” and ambassadors for CSI. As a result, she said, “we were able to raise the $12.2 million with about 30 people.” None of it may have happened, she said, had Holland not taken the trouble to see for himself why his wife was so moved.
“Mary had become an important participant and she got me interested in it,” he said. “Together we began to do whatever we could for the Child Saving Institute. It just became one of the loves of our life. It was a pleasure to work with them and we got all kinds of things done. We saw opportunities to do more things, bigger things, and in a decent environment.”
“He was truly then invested in child saving and what we do here,” Gottschalk said. “The passion that he has for kids just keeps coming through.”
The Hollands’ enthusiasm won over others.
“We got some of our friends interested in it,” he said.
Such links can pay big dividends.
“I think it’s always about the relationships,” Gottschalk said. “It’s a one-on-one relationship. It can be with any one of us on staff. A lot of times those relationships are through board members.”
CSI was delighted when Holland offered to loosen some well-heeled friends’ purse strings. Gottschalk accompanied him. “He’s very powerful. It’s very hard to say no to Dick,” she said. Sometimes the Hollands worked on their own.
“One of the donors asked to meet with just Dick and Mary,” she said. “They walked out of this gentleman’s house with a million dollar check.”
One friend the Hollands turned onto CSI was the late Tom Keogh. The retired architect volunteered there nurturing babies.
“He rocked, he cuddled, he wiped noses. He’d eat with the kids. He was phenomenal,” said CSI Developmental Child Care Director Kathleen Feller.
“It made Tom’s retirement very meaningful,” his wife Rae said.
When a weak immune system dictated Tom avoid the child care area he helped in other ways — filing, stuffing envelopes and serving on the board of directors.
“He also brought with him his architect’s mind,” said Kay, noting that Keogh shared with staff a book he read that urged connecting children to the outdoors. His enthusiasm set in motion a nature playground.
“Tom was very instrumental in helping develop that,” Kay said. “He worked with a young man he had mentored who helped design it.”
The playground became his sweet challenge.
“He solicited in-kind donations from nurseries, irrigation companies sod companies, stone companies,” Rae said.
He didn’t stop there. “Tom went out and raised a lot of money and contributed himself,” Gottschalk said.
Rae said her husband rarely approached others to support his causes but in the case of CSI he did. “It had to be something that he was truly interested in before he would ask anybody else to contribute,” she said.
That same passion got Rae involved, too. Since Tom’s death she’s continued the family’s support.
She said before donating to an organization it’s vital “you get to know what their beliefs are and how they handle things. There’s no replacement for that personal contact.” CSI won the Keoghs over. “We got to know the staff and the operation,” she said. “We were very impressed by how they treated the children. They’re very careful with the care they give. It’s a very warm environment.”
For her, as it was for Tom, giving’s return on investment is priceless: “It’s very simple,” she said, “I think you gain more than you give. The personal joy I receive in giving is important to me.”
Former CSI board member Charles Heider, who contributed to the building-endowment, was long ago sold on the agency. “I saw the mission and how they were carrying out their good work,” he said. “I was impressed by their good management. It’s a very good organization.” When the building campaign got underway he didn’t hesitate.
“I was quick to respond when they asked if I wanted to be involved financially.”
It’s gratifying for him to see CSI realize its building and endowment goals.
“The satisfaction is that they are obviously moving forward. If they weren’t they wouldn’t have the new building,” he said. “The enthusiasm they have with this new facility is very evident. They built a very attractive building.”
Heider said behind the gleaming facade is a track record of substance and service.
“Buildings by themselves don’t satisfy the mission,” he said. “CSI has a marvelous record of assisting young people. My wife and I have enjoyed giving to it.”
The Paul and Oscar Giger Foundation that Janet Acker and her two siblings administer has long supported CSI.
“We’re just a little foundation,” Acker said. “We can’t support everything. We have to pick and choose and do little projects. We fund a lot of programs that affect kids and music. We’ve given pianos away all over Omaha.”
For CSI’s nature playground the foundation donated an outdoor xylophone in memory of Acker’s late aunt, Ruth Musil Giger. The instrument belonged to Giger, who was a piano/organ instructor. “This was a real match with Aunt Ruth’s interests in music,” Acker said.
Previously the foundation supported CSI’s emergency respite center and adoption program. While the foundation’s support can’t compare to the mega gifts of others, Acker said, “You need a lot of little donors to pull off a big project.”
Gottschalk said CSI depends on contributions from “our bread and butter donors” to help fund daily operations. Donors who give a few hundred dollars or even at the $25 or $10 levels are vital, she said, as major funds are often restricted for certain uses. If CSI’s to remain sustainable, she said, a safety net must secure donations of all sizes, from diverse funding streams, year-round.
Everyone has their own reason for giving. What’s the joy of giving for Dick Holland? “Results,” he said. In CSI he sees an organization helping undo the damage some children suffer and an agency needing a new space to further its mission. “We were in a position to put up enough funds to make some of the ideas a reality,” he said. “It’s always great to have ideas but somehow or other somebody has to pay, and pay big, in order to get something done.”
He said he makes his donations public because “I’ve learned I actually influence a few people. I’m sure if somebody hears I’m into a thing big they say, ‘Well, he’s not just playing around.’ I hope it’s true.”
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Spend even a little while with Evie Zysman, as I did, and she will leave an impression on you with her intelligence and passion and commitment. I wrote this story for the New Horizons, a publication of the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. We profile dynamic seniors in its pages, and if there’s ever been anyone to overturn outmoded ideas of older individuals being out of touch or all used up, Evie is the one. She is more vital than most people half or a third her age. I believe you will be as struck by her and her story as I was, and as I continue to be.
A Force of Nature Named Evie: Still a Maverick Social Justice Advocate at 100
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
When 100-year-old maverick social activist, children’s advocate and force of nature Evelyn “Evie” Adler Zysman recalls her early years as a social worker back East, she remembers, “as if it were yesterday,” coming upon a foster care nightmare.
It was the 1930s, and the former Evie Adler was pursuing her graduate degree from Columbia University’s New York School of Social Work. As part of her training, Zysman, a Jew, handled Jewish family cases.
“I went to a very nice little home in Queens,” she said from her art-filled Dundee neighborhood residence. “A woman came to the door with a 6-year-old boy. She said, ‘Would you like to see his room?’ and I said, ‘I’d love to.’ We go in, and it’s a nice little room with no bed. Then the woman excuses herself for a minute, and the kid says to me, ‘Would you like to see where I sleep?’ I said, ‘Sure, honey.’ He took me to the head of the basement stairs. There was no light. We walked down in the dark and over in a corner was an old cot. He said, ‘This is where I sleep.’ Then he held out his hand and says, ‘A bee could sting me, and I wouldn’t cry.’
“I knew right then no child should be born into a living hell. We got him out of that house very fast and got her off the list of foster mothers. That was one of the experiences that said to me: Kids are important, their lives are important, they need our help.”
Imbued with an undying zeal to make a difference in people’s lives, especially children’s lives, Evie threw herself into her work. Even now, at an age when most of her contemporaries are dead or retired, she remains committed to doing good works and supporting good causes.
Consistent with her belief that children need protection, she spent much of her first 50 years as a licensed social worker, making the rounds among welfare, foster care and single-parent families. True to her conviction that all laborers deserve a decent wage and safe work spaces, she fought for workers’ rights as an organized union leader. Acting on her belief in early childhood education, she helped start a project that opened day care centers in low income areas long before Head Start got off the ground; and she co-founded, with her late husband, Jack Zysman, Playtime Equipment Co., which sold quality early childhood education supplies.
Evie developed her keen social consciousness during one of the greatest eras of need in this country — the Great Depression. The youngest of eight children born to Jacob and Lizzie Adler, she grew up in a caring family that encouraged her to heed her own mind and go her own way but to always have an open heart.
“Mama raised seven daughters as different as night and day and as close as you could possibly get,” she said. “Mama said to us, ‘Each of you is pretty good, but together you are much better. Remember girls: Shoulder to shoulder.’ That was our slogan. And then, to each one of us she would say, ‘Don’t look to your sister — be yourself.’ It was taken for granted each one of us would be ourselves and do something. We loved each other and accepted the fact each one of us had our own lives to live. That was great.”
Even though her European immigrant parents had limited formal education, they encouraged their offspring to appreciate the finer things, including music and reading.
“Papa was a scholar in the Talmud and the Torah. People would come and consult him. My mother couldn’t read or write English but she had a profound respect for education. She would put us girls on the streetcar to go to the library. How can you live without books? Our home was filled with music, too. My sister Bessie played the piano and played it very well. My sister Marie played the violin, something she did professionally at the Loyal Hotel. My sister Mamie sang. We would always be having these concerts in our house and my father would run around opening the windows so the neighbors could also enjoy.”
Then there was the example set by her parents. Jacob brought home crates filled with produce from the wholesale fruit and vegetable stand he ran in the Old Market and often shared the bounty with neighbors. One wintry day Lizzie was about to fetch Evie’s older siblings from school, lest they be lost in a mounting snowstorm, when, according to Evie, the family’s black maid intervened, saying, “You’re not going — you’re staying right here. I’ll bring the children.’ Mama said, ‘You can go, but my coat around you,’ and draped her coat over her. You see, we cared about things. We grew up in a home in which it was taken for granted you had a responsibility for the world around you. There was no question about it.”
Along with the avowed obligation she felt to make the world a better place, came a profound sense of citizenship. She proudly recalls the first time she was old enough to exercise her voting right.
“I will always remember walking into that booth and writing on the ballot and feeling like I am making a difference. If only kids today could have that feeling when it comes to voting,” said Evie, a lifelong Democrat who was an ardent supporter of FDR and his New Deal. When it comes to politics, she’s more than a bystander — she actively campaigns for candidates. She’ll be happy with either Obama or Clinton in the White House.
When it came time to choose a career path, young Evie simply assumed it would be in an arena helping people.
“I was supposed to, somehow,” is how she sums it up all these years later. “I believed, and I still believe, that to take responsibility as a citizen, you must give. You must be active.”
For her, it was inconceivable one would not be socially or politically active in an era filled with defining human events — from millions losing their savings and jobs in the wake of the stock market crash to World War I veterans marching in the streets for relief to unions agitating for workers’ rights to a resurgence of Ku Klux Klan terror to America’s growing isolationism to the stirrings of Fascism at home and abroad. All of this, she said, “got me interested in politics and in keeping my eyes open to what was going on around me. It was a very telling time.”
Unless you were there, it’s difficult to grasp just how devastating the Depression was to countless people’s pocketbooks and psyches.
“It’s so hard for you younger generations to understand” she told a young visitor to her house. “You have never lived in a time of need in this country.” Unfortunately, she added, the disparity “between rich and poor” in America only seems to widen as the years go by.
With her feisty I-want-to-change-the-world spirit, Evie, an Omaha Central High School graduate, would not be deterred from furthering her formal education and, despite meager finances, became the first member of her family to attend college. Because her family could not afford to send her there, she found other means of support via scholarships from the League of Women Voters and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where the Phi Betta Kappa earned her bachelor’s degree.
“I knew that for me to go to college, I had to find a way to go. I had to find work, I had to find scholarships. Nothing came easy economically.”
To help pay her own way, she held a job in the stocking department at Gold’s Department store in downtown Lincoln. An incident she overhead there brought into sharp relief for her the classism that divides America. “
One day, a woman with a little poodle under her arm came over to a water fountain in the back of the store and let her dog drink from it. Well, the floorwalker came running over and said, ‘Madam, that fountain is for people,’ and the woman said, ‘I’m so sorry, I thought it was for the employees.’ That’s an absolutely true story and it tells you where my politics come from and why I care about the world around me and I want to do something about it.”
Her undergraduate studies focused on economics. “I was concerned I should understand how to make a living,” she said. “That was important.” Her understanding of hard times was not just of the at-arms-length, ivory-tower variety. She got a taste of what it was like to struggle when, while still an undergrad, she was befriended by the Lincoln YWCA’s then-director who arranged for Evie to participate in internships that offered a glimpse into how “the other half lived.” Evie worked in blue collar jobs marked by hot, dark, close work spaces.
“She thought it was important for me to have these kind of experiences and so she got me to go do these projects. One, when I was a sophomore, took me in the summer to Chicago, where I worked as a folder in a laundry and lived in a working girls’ rooming house. There was no air conditioning in that factory. And then, between my junior and senior years, I went to New York City, where I worked in a garment factory. I was supposed to be the ‘do-it’ girl — get somebody coffee if they wanted it or give them thread if they needed it, and so forth.
“The workers in our factory were making some rich woman a beautiful dress. They asked me to get a certain thread. And being already socially conscious, I thought, ‘I’ll fix her,’ and I gave them the wrong thread,” a laughing Evie recalled, still delighted at the thought of tweaking the nose of that unknown social maven.
Upon graduating with honors from UNL she set her sights on a master’s degree. First, however, she confronted misogyny and bigotry in the figure of the economics department chairman.
“He said to me, ‘Well, Evelyn, you’re entitled to a graduate fellowship at Berkeley but, you know, you’re a woman and you are a Jew, so what would you possibly do with your graduate degree when you complete it?’ Well, today, you’d sue him if he ever dared say that.”
Instead of letting discrimination stop her, the indomitable Evie carried-on and searched for a fellowship from another source. She found it, too, from the Jewish School of Social Work in New York.
“It was a lot of money, so I took it,” she said. “I had my ethic courses with the Jewish School and my technical courses with Columbia,” where she completed her master’s in 1932.
As her thesis subject she chose the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, one of whose New York factories she worked in. There was a strike on at the time and she interviewed scores of unemployed union members who told her just how difficult it was feeding a family on the dole and how agonizing it was waking-up each morning only to wonder — How are we going to get by? and When am I ever going to work again?
As a social worker she saw many disturbing things — from bad working conditions to child endangerment cases to families struggling to survive on scarce resources. She witnessed enough misery, she said, “that I became free choice long before there was such a phrase.”
Her passion for the job was great but as she became “deeply involved” in the United Social Service Employees Union, she put her first career aside to assume the presidency of the New York chapter.
“I could do even more for people, like getting them decent wages, than I could in social work.” Among the union’s accomplishments during her tenure as president, she said, was helping “guarantee social workers were qualified and paid fairly. You had to pay enough in order to get qualified people. We felt if you, as social workers, were going to make decisions impacting people’s lives, you better be qualified to do it.”
Feeling she’d done all she could as union head, she returned to the social work field. While working for a Jewish Federation agency in New York, she was given the task of interviewing Jewish refugees who had escaped growing Nazi persecution in Germany and neighboring countries. Her job was to place new arrivals with the appropriate state social service departments that could best meet their needs. Her conversations with emigres revealed a sense of relief for having escaped but an even greater worry for their loved ones back home.
“They expressed deep, deep concern and deep, deep sadness and fear about what was going on over there,” she said, “and anxiety about what would happen to their family members that remained over there. They worried too about themselves — about how they would make it here in this country.”
A desire to help others was not the only passion stoked in Evie during those ”wonderful” New York years. She met her future husband there while still a grad student. Dashing Jack Zysman, an athletic New York native, had recently completed his master’s in American history from New York University. One day, Evie went to some office to retrieve data she needed on the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, when she met Jack, who was doing research in the very same office. Sharing similar interests and backgrounds, the two struck up a dialogue and before long they were chums.
The only hitch was that Evie was engaged to “a nice Jewish boy in Omaha.” During a break from her studies, she returned home to sort things out. One day, she was playing tennis at Miller Park when she looked across the green and there stood Jack. “He drove from New York to tell me I was definitely coming back and that I was not to marry anybody but him.” Swept off her feet, she broke off her engagement and promised Jack she would be his.
After their marriage, the couple worked and resided in New York, where she pursued union and social work activities and he taught and coached at a high school. Their only child, John, today a political science professor at Cal-Berkeley, was born in New York. Evie has two grandchildren by John and his wife.
Along the way, Evie became a New Yorker at heart. “I loved that city,” she said. Her small family “lived all over the place,” including the Village, Chelsea and Harlem. As painful as it was to leave, the Zysmans decided Omaha was better suited for raising John and, so, the family moved here shortly after World War II.
Soon the couple began Playtime Equipment, their early childhood education supply company. The genesis for Playtime grew out of Evie’s own curiosity and concern about the educational value of play materials she found at the day care John attended. When the day care’s staff asked her to “help us know what to do,” she rolled up her sleeves and went to work.
She called on experts in New York, including children’s authors, day care managers and educators. When she sought a play equipment manufacturer’s advice, she got a surprise when the rep said, “Why don’t you start a company and supply kids with the right stuff?” It was not what she planned, but she and Jack ran with the idea, forming and operating Playtime right from their home. The company distributed everything from books, games and puzzles to blocks and tinker toys to arts and crafts to playground apparatus to teaching aids. The Zysmans’ main customers were schools and day cares, but parents also sought them out.
“I helped raise half the kids in Omaha,” Evie said.
The Zysman residence became a magnet for state and public education officials, who came to rely on Evie as an early childhood education proponent and catalyst. She began forming coalitions among social service, education and legislative leaders to address the early childhood education gap. A major initiative in that effort was Project AID, a program she helped organize that set-up preschools at black churches in Omaha to boost impoverished children’s development. She said the success of the project helped convince state legislators to make kindergarten a legal requirement and played a role in Nebraska being selected as one of the first states to receive the federal government’s Head Start program.
Gay McTate, an Omaha social worker and close friend of Zysman’s, said, “Evie’s genius lay in her willingness to do something about problems and her capacity to bring together and inspire people who could make a difference.”
Evie immersed herself in many more efforts to improve the lives of children, including helping form the Council for Children’s Services and the Coordinated Childcare Project, clearinghouses geared to meeting at-risk children’s needs.
The welfare of children remains such a passion of hers that she still gets mad when she thinks about the “miserable salaries” early childhood educators make and how state budget cuts adversely impact kids’ programs.
“Everybody agrees today the future of our country depends on educating our children. So, what do we do about it? We cut the budgets. Don’t get me started…” she said, visibly upset at the idea.
Besides children, she has worked with such organizations as the United Way, the Urban League, the League of Women Voters, the Jewish Council of Women, Hadassah and the local social action group Omaha Together One Community.
In her nearly century of living, she’s seen America make “lots of progress” in the area of social justice, but feels “we have a long way to go. I worry about the future of this country.”
Calling herself “a good secular Jew,” she eschews attending services and instead trusts her conscience to “tell me what’s right and wrong. I don’t see how you can call yourself a good Jew and not be a social activist.” Even today, she continues working for a better community by participating in Benchmark, a National Council of Jewish Women initiative to raise awareness and discussion about court appointments and by organizing a Temple Israel Synagogue Mitzvah (Hebrew, for good deed) that staffs library summer reading programs with volunteers.
Her good deeds have won her numerous awards, most recently the D.J.’s Hero Award from the Salvation Army and Temple Israel’s Tikkun Olam (Hebrew, for repairing the world) Social Justice Award.
She’s outlived Jack and her siblings, yet her days remain rich in love and life. “I play bridge. I get my New York Times every day. I have my books (she is a regular at the Sorenson Library branch). I’ve got friends. I have my son and daughter-in-law. I have my grandchild. What else do you need? It’s been a very full life.”
As she nears a century of living Evie knows the fight for social justice is a never-ending struggle she can still shine a light on.
“How would I define social justice?” she said at an Omaha event honoring her. “You know, it’s silly to try to put a name to realizing that everybody should have the same rights as you. There is no name for it. It’s just being human…it’s being Jewish. There’s no name for it. Give a name to my mother who couldn’t read or write but thought that you should do for each other.”
- Alberta foster care system under scrutiny (calgaryherald.com)
- Leading article: The care system needs a drastic overhaul (independent.co.uk)
- Feds share blame for child welfare system ‘chaos’ (cbc.ca)
John Sorensen and His Abbott Sisters Project: One Man’s Magnificent Obsession Shines Light on Extraordinary Nebraska Women
John Sorensen with bronze bust of Grace Abbott
This is a story that attracted me as soon as I learned about the lengths to which its subject, John Sorensen, was going to in order to promote the legacy of two long dead women he never knew. I am drawn to stories of passion and obsession, and I dare say John is someone consumed by a mission he’s on with his Abbott Sisters Project to honor the work of early 20th century social workers and educators Grace and Edith Abbott of Nebraska.
The following story was published in the June 2009 New Horizons newspaper. The layout and photographs and article all worked harmoniously together to create a great spread. I post the story here because I think it makes a good read and it introduces you to an interesting personality in the figure of Sorensen and to the remarkable accomplishments of two women I certainly never heard of before working on this story. I think you’ll find, as I did, that Sorensen and the Abbotts make a fitting troika of unbridled passion.
NOTE: John has worked closely over the years with Ann Coyne from the University of Nebraska at Omaha‘s School of Social Work, which was recently renamed the Grace Abbott School of Social Work. Coyne’s a great champion of the work of the Abbott sisters, particularly Grace Abbott, and drew on Sorensen’s work to make the case to university officials to rededicate the school in honor of Grace Abbott. John is also nearing completion on a documentary film that ties together the legacy of the Abbotts and their concern for immigrant women, children, and families and a story quilt project he organized that involved Sudanese girls living in Grand Island telling the stories of their families’ homeland and their new home in America through quilting.
My new story about John Sorensen and his magnificent obsession with the Abbotts is now posted, and in it you can learn more about his now completed documentary, which is being screened this fall.
John Sorensen and His Abbott Sisters Project: One Man’s Magnificent Obsession Shines Light on Extraordinary Nebraska Women
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Grace and Edith Abbott may be the most extraordinary Nebraskans you’ve never heard of. John Sorensen aims to change that.
Born and reared on Grand Island’s prairie outskirts in the last quarter of the 19th century, when Indians still roamed the land, the Abbott sisters graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. After teaching in Grand Island they felt called to a secular ministry — the then emerging field of social work in Chicago. They earned advanced degrees at the University of Chicago, where they later taught.
No ivory tower dwellers, the sisters worked with Hull House founder Jane Addams at her famous social settlement. There, amid miserable, overcrowded tenement slums, they set a progressive course for the fair treatment of immigrants, women and children that still has traction today. The sisters’ trailblazing paths followed the lead of their abolitionist father, an early Nebraska politico, and Quaker mother, whose family worked the Underground Railroad. The parents were avid suffragists.
The sisters exerted wide influence: Grace as a federal administrator charged with children and family affairs; Edith as a university educator. They were outspoken advocates-muckrakers-reformers-advisers who helped to set rigorous protocols for social work and to craft public policies and laws protecting marginalized groups. Each attained many firsts for women. Both valued their Nebraska roots.
They were feted in their lifetimes but never gained the fame of Nobel Prize-winner colleague Jane Addams. Working in a neglected arena so long ago resulted in the Abbotts receding to the fringes of history. Grace died in 1939. Edith in 1957. Neither married nor bore children, so no descendent was left to carry the torch.
Enter John Sorensen. While it’s true few outside social work circles know the Abbotts, more will if Sorensen, a Grand Island native, has his way. For 17 years the New York-based writer-director has spearheaded the Abbott Sisters Living Legacy Project. The multi-media effort is the vehicle for his magnificent obsession with shining a light on the women and their significant achievements. Why an expatriate Nebraskan living in Greenwich Village is drawn to a pair of largely forgotten Great Plains women can be answered by the affection and affinity he feels for them.
“I simply love the sisters and this love somehow leads to the work I do,” said Sorensen. “I also admire their work for children and women and immigrants, and I feel a family-like connection and perhaps responsibility to them from sharing a hometown. I could no more turn my back on them, their legacy and their story than I could my own family. That love, that sense of faith is unconquerable.”
Just as the Abbotts were mavericks Sorensen goes against the grain. In an era when women were denied the right to vote, excluded from most jobs and treated as chattel, the Abbotts defied convention as working women and social activists who protested injustice. Sorensen’s not an activist per se but a liberal humanist whose youthful interests in film, music and art made him a misfit in rough-hewn Grand Island. His dogged commitment to perpetuate the Abbott story, often in the face of indifference, underscores a determination to do his own thing.
“I do have a high degree of identification with them,” he said. “I empathize with them. In the same way I choose a play to direct or a script to write I look for a character I identify with or something in their story, like in Grace’s story, that is me. There is some part of her that is me.
“The one term that maybe comes up most frequently in Edith Abbott’s memoir about her sister and her family is this word ‘different.’ She said people just looked at the Abbotts as being different — ‘We weren’t like the people in town.’”
Sorensen’s own family stands apart because his parents, who still live in town, are pillars of the community. He feels keenly the expectations that come with that.
Then there’s the whole sibling parallel. “In Grace’s relationship with Edith, two years her elder, I found many things in common with my relationship with my brother (Jeff), who’s four years older,” said Sorensen. “There’s things the younger sibling learned from the older one, felt challenged by, felt threatened by, but all of those things made them develop in very positive ways.”
The parental factor strikes home, too. “The way Grace and Edith’s parents nurtured and encouraged and challenged them as kids I certainly felt growing up through my mother,” said Sorensen, whose mom worked for Northwestern Bell and served on the board of G.I.’s Edith Abbott Memorial Library.
“So there were a lot of things I could identify with,” he said, “but I would say the deeper I dug into the Abbott story, into their childhoods, I felt a particular attraction to Grace. I found Grace was a very clever, very kind, but very naughty little girl basically. Edith writes that Grace was constantly in trouble at school. She remembered a moment where the teacher stopped Grace and said, ‘I’m going to have to call your mother, I don’t know what to do with you,’ and Grace immediately responded, ‘But Mother doesn’t know what to do with me either. Sometimes I don’t know what to do with myself.’ It’s funny but also very moving.”
That disconnection resonates with Sorensen, who said he had trouble fitting in because he was “strange.” “Being interested in the arts only made my weirdness seem more weird in that town in that time. School didn’t make any sense to me. I just didn’t like it.” He dropped out of college, never earning a degree. “Me and school don’t get along too well,” he said.
Just as it took Grace awhile to figure out where she belonged, it took Sorensen a long time to find his way.
“Like Grace, I stayed in town well after my high school graduation,” he said. “She stayed until she was 29, and I stayed until I was 26. Those challenging, waiting, searching years are something else that I feel I share with her.”
Then there’s the mission work the Abbotts felt compelled to do and “a kind of destiny” that’s led Sorensen to the Abbott story. The more he invests himself in their tale the more duty-bound he feels to be true to it.
“Again, that is where the love and the faith comes into things,” he said.
With great love comes great responsibility to get it right.
“This becomes the obligation. If you don’t know what you’re talking about and if you’re not willing to pay the price in terms of the study, the research, the heavy lifting,” he said, “it’s not enough that you care about it deeply.”
Despite his lack of formal training Sorensen’s assembled an Abbott Sisters project that cuts across academic disciplines and partners with scholars and educators. An outgrowth is a recently published book he edited with historian Judith Selander, The Grace Abbott Reader (University of Nebraska Press). This anthology of writings by and about Grace is the first in a series of planned Abbott books.
He’s nearing completion of a video documentary, The Quilted Conscience, that explores how the sisters’ concern for immigrants resonates today in places like Grand Island. Sorensen and his cameras followed a group of Sudanese refugee girls there who worked with renowned quilt artist Peggie Hartwell in making a mural story-quilt with images representing the girls’ memories of their homeland and the dreams they hold for their future in America.
“For many of the girls it has been a life changing experience,” said Tracy Morrow, a Grand Island teacher who works with the newcomers. “They feel better about themselves. They have the ability to stand in front of a group and tell their stories. It was very emotional for the girls. They put so much work into it. I feel like John’s doing what the Abbott sisters did by educating the Grand Island community about the Sudanese and educating the Sudanese about Grand Island and America.”
University of Nebraska at Omaha School of Social Work professor Ann Coyne said the sisters “really are a living legacy because we’re now dealing with some of the same problems related to children, maternal health and immigrants they dealt with” in the early 20th century. She said most striking is the parallel between the 1910s through Great Depression period with today, two eras marked by war, economic crisis, immigration debates and childhood-maternal issues. Coyne said reading the sisters’ words today reveals how “very contemporary” their philosophies remain.
Coyne said the Abbotts’ focus on immigrants echoes the yearly trip UNO social work students make to Nicaragua to live in family homes, visit orphanages and clinics and the biyearly trip students make to China. Students also work with refugee families in Nebraska. She said UNO social work graduate student Amy Panning “is living the legacy of Nebraska’s most famous social worker, Grace Abbott,” as the new head of international adoptions for Adoption Links Worldwide.
The storyteller in Sorensen knows a good tale when he sees one. In the Abbotts he’s hit upon a saga of women with backbone, compassion and vision engaged in social action. These early independent feminists from pioneer stock were part of the progressive wave that sought to reform the Industrial Age’s myriad social ills. He tells facets of their story in film, video, radio, stage and print. He makes presentations. He organizes special programs that pay tribute to their rich legacy.
He’s not alone in seeing the Abbotts as historic do-gooders whose work deserves more attention and greater appreciation. Coyne holds Grace Abbott in the highest regard. “She is the outstanding social worker in American history, so the fact she came from Nebraska just makes it better,” said Coyne, who’s convinced Abbott would he a household name today if she’d been a man.. “What I admire her for is that she knew how to work the political system in Washington to make sure laws got passed to ensure children really were protected and weren’t just left to the whims of individuals. She was savvy. She got things done. Children were guaranteed a number of things for their care and concern that weren’t in place before.”
Edith and Grace Abbott
Though Sorensen shares the same hometown as the Abbotts it took years before he learned anything about them. His first inkling came not at home but back East. Growing up he was aware a G.I. park and library bore the Abbott name, but he didn’t know the stories of the women behind these monuments and inscriptions.
His work has helped the town and state rediscover two of their greatest gifts to the world. Working with Grand Island public officials, Sorensen promotes community-school events that celebrate the sisters. All part of a pilgrimage he makes to this place where the sisters were born and are buried. Call it fate or karma, but this less than stellar former student now gives Abbott talks before G.I. schoolchildren, making sure they know what he didn’t at their age.
Morrow said, “We really didn’t know the Abbott sisters before John.”
“What started as an idea to call attention to the Abbotts has really morphed into something much larger and much more powerful and that’s a tribute to John,” said Grand Island Public Schools superintendent Steve Joel. “He’s got people working on this thing that I think are stretched far and wide — not only in Nebraska but New York and other parts of the country.”
None of this was on Sorensen’s mind 23 years ago. Ironically, the young man who “never felt at home in Grand Island” often now returns to share his passion for the Abbotts. He left home in ‘86 to study cinema at the California Institute of the Arts, where he ended up a protege of British director Alexander MacKendrick (The Sweet Smell of Success). By the early ‘90s Sorensen did film and theater work in New York. He assisted producer Lewis Allen and his wife, playwright/screenwriter Jay Presson Allen, on Broadway (Tru) and TV (Hothouse) projects.
Sorensen founded a theater troupe in Manhattan and began making short films. The very first book he wrote, Our Show Houses, got published. It explores the unusual history of Grand Island’s Golden Age movie theaters and proprietors, including an “in” the town’s leading theater owner enjoyed with Hollywood royalty that brought unexpected aspects of Tinsel Town glamour there.
S.N. Wolbach, a prominent G. I. businessman in the Roaring Twenties, was a friend of Universal Pictures head Carl Laemmle from their days as New York merchants. The association led Laemmle to send Universal contract stars such as Barbara Stanwyck to appear in the small Midwest town at Wolbach’s Grand Theatre and a studio crew to shoot a silent newsreel of the town. Laemmle also convinced top movie palace architect John Eberson, who designed the Roxy in New York, to design Wolbach’s Capital Theatre, where Lillian Gish and Louis Calhern performed live on-stage in The Student Prince and Sig Romburg led his orchestra.
When in the course of research Sorensen discovered the Universal footage of G.I. he recut it with snippets from other vintage moving pictures of the town for a new film he entitled Hometown Movies. It’s shown on Nebraska Educational Television.
In doing these projects Sorensen was following an edict from his mentor. “MacKendrick was very big on writing things that you knew about or that were unique to your experience,” he said.
“Around ‘91 or ‘92 I started looking for other things connected to Grand Island. About that time I was working on a project for the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights in New York,” said Sorensen. “I was editing an anthology of speeches that Bobby Kennedy had given. While doing that I came across a copy of the book A Nation of Immigrants that President (John F.) Kennedy had written and that Bobby Kennedy had written the preface to, and the first name in the bibliography was Edith Abbott. It just kind of threw me. I knew the name, my mother had been on the Edith Abbott library board when I was growing up here.But I had no idea who she was or what she’d done.
“I kind of thought, ‘Oh, that’s interesting, I’ll look up something about those women.’ I went to a library in New York, looked in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and there was no entry for Edith but a very interesting article about Grace, and I thought, ‘Oh, maybe there’s a story here.’ It’s something I do — always keeping my eye out for something unique that hasn’t been covered before.”
His interest peaked, Sorensen continued his quest for Abbott information.
“So I guess the next trip out here to Nebraska I went to the Stuhr Museum (Grand Island) to go through their files on the family. They don’t have a lot but they have some interesting things and among them was a copy of a letter that President Franklin Roosevelt had written to Grace. It was so impressive.”
Sorensen used the letter as a preface to a chapter in The Grace Abbott Reader. Here’s an excerpt from FDR’s 1934 note to Grace Abbott:
“My dear Miss Abbott you have rendered service of inestimable value to the children and mothers and fathers of the country, as well as to the federal and state governments…I have long followed your work and been in hearty accord with the policies and plans which you have developed.”
Coming upon JFK’s reference to one sister and FDR’s adulatory letter to the other proved an “Aha” moment for Sorensen, who also discovered Eleanor Roosevelt was an admirer of Grace Abbott. “At that moment I’m thinking, ‘There’s got to be some story here,’ and at that point I did just enough sniffing around to be certain in my heart there was something worth telling.”
Aptly, Sorensen’s search took him home — to the Abbott library. He later expanded his hunt to searching archives and conducting interviews in his roles as scholar, journalist, detective, documentarian, writer.
“So I was beginning to educate myself. At that point I raised just enough to have like a three-month research project. I went to the University of Chicago.”
He recorded interviews with Chicagoans who worked with or studied under the Abbotts. The more data he gathered the bigger the story grew.
John Sorensen working with Grand Island elementary school students as part of Abbott Sisters lesson
What Sorensen’s discovered about Grace Abbott alone comprises a wealth of achievements that seem too vast for any one person to have completed, especially in such a short lifetime. She died at age 60.
A select list of Grace’s early feats:
•Directed Immigrants Protective League in Chicago
•Wrote “Within the City Gates” weekly articles for the Chicago Evening Post
•Worked with the Women’s Trade Union LeagueTraveled to Central Europe to study emigrant working-living conditions
•Testified before Congress
•Served on Mayor’s Commission on Unemployment in Chicago
•Chaired national Special Committee on Penal and Correctional Institutions
•Served as delegate to Women’s Peace Conference at the Hague
•Organized and chaired Conference of Oppressed Nationalities in nation’s capital
•Named director of Child Labor Division with the U.S. Children’s Bureau in D.C.
•Authored book, The Immigrant and the Community
•At President Woodrow Wilson’s behest served as secretary to the White House Conference on Child Welfare
•Served as consultant to War Labor Policies Board
•Represented Children’s Bureau at conferences in Europe
All this by 1919. Amazingly, she’d only begun her social work career in 1908. Others saw her potential early on and put her in key leadership positions she excelled in. Her phenomenal rise was partly being in the right place at the right time but clearly she was a highly capable doer who impressed those around her.
In 1921 President Warren G. Harding named her Children’s Bureau chief. In her 13- year reign she helped ensure the health, safety, education of the most vulnerable among us. Using every tool at her disposal Abbott spread the word about the pressing needs for child labor reform, improved maternal and childcare, et cetera.
A sample of what Grace did the last 18 years of her life:
•Hosted NBC radio series, produced films, published literature on children’s issues
•Worked for U.S. Constitutional “Children’s Amendment” to regulate child labor
•Administered Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act, the first system of federal aid for social welfare in U.S. history.
•Named president of National Conference of Social Workers
•Helped pen League of Nations Committee “Declaration of the Rights of the Child”
•First woman in U.S. history nominated to Presidential cabinet post
•Awarded National Institute of Social Sciences Gold Medal
•Good Housekeeping named her one of America’s 12 “Most Distinguished Women”
•Appointed adviser to U.S. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins
•Served as managing editor of the Social Service Review
•Contributed to drafting and passage of the Social Security Act
•Served on FDR’s Council on Economic Security
•Chaired U.S. delegation to International Labor Organization Conference in Geneva
•Chaired U.S. delegation to Pan American Conference in Mexico City
•Authored book, The Child and the State
Her noteworthy credits would be longer had ill health not forced her to decline opportunities, such as succeeding Jane Addams as Hull House director. A case of tuberculosis slowed Abbott in the 1920s. After rebounding, her health declined again in the 1930s, by which time she’d resigned from the Children’s Bureau and returned to teach at the University of Chicago, where she rejoined her sister.
Edith Abbott’s accomplishments were numerous, too. After Hull House she studied in London and upon returning to the U.S. helped establish the country’s first university-based school of social work at the University of Chicago in 1920. In 1924 she became dean, making her the first woman dean of a graduate school in an American university. The field work and training she mandated for social workers set professional standards. She launched the journal Social Service Review, serving as managing editor. She advised the U.S. government on federal aid relief during the Depression and the International Office of the League of Nations on problems of women in industry, child labor, immigration, legislation, et cetera.
The sisters remained close siblings and colleagues, often consulting each other.
“I think from an early age, the sisters recognized they were each somehow mysteriously ‘made whole’ by the other — that together they could learn things and experience things and do things impossible for either on her own,” said Sorensen.
An indication of how dear their roots remained was a habit of referring to themselves in interviews as “the Abbott sisters of Nebraska.” Grace was the star but instead of envy Edith expressed admiration for her younger sister. Their shared experience on the prairie, in academia, at Hull House and on the front lines of social work gave each a deep understanding of the other. If anyone could appreciate the mounting challenges Grace faced inside the Beltway it was Edith. No doubt Grace’s many run-ins with political foes, including President Wilson, and her tireless work around the world weakened her already compromised health.
Grace described public service as “the strenuous life” and dismissed critics with, “It is impossible for them to understand that to have had a part in the struggle, to have done what one could, is in itself the reward of effort and the comfort in defeat.” Her militant campaigning for human rights criticized America for neglecting its children and demanded the state care for its homeless, orphaned, sick, poor. Her strong stances elicited strong responses. She was called a socialist. She was an ardent humanitarian, a watchdog for the dispossessed, a voice for the voiceless.
Sudanese student participants in the story quilt project
Edith fought the same battles. Early social work was a perilous job not for the faint of heart. Sorensen said Edith writes about how “’sometimes you didn’t know if your next step was going to plunge you off the edge of a cliff or come down on a bridge to take you across the gap’. Many people literally or figuratively died in that process but what distinguished that generation is that they were like pioneers — they were willing to go and a lot of them were willing to die for it.”
Sorensen’s struck by how Grace used the wartime idiom of the day to describe the hard, uphill road of social work as “battle front service” fraught with “casualties.” She equated social workers with “shock troops.” Apt language for this warrior-protector of the underclass. She came by her fierce convictions via nature and nurture. As Sorensen put it in a recent Omaha address he gave about the Abbotts:
“The combative way was nothing new to Grace. It was the life into which she had been born…she had met and kept company with her family’s many unusual house guests, including suffragist heroines Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone. Before she had started school Grace had already given several years of childhood service to the new women’s suffrage movement of the Midwest, working alongside her remarkable mother and father, who were leading activists…”
Standing up for what’s right can take a heavy toll. By the end of her life, said Sorensen, “Grace was so physically debilitated by her work, it was so physically exhausting and she was so vilified, her body was falling apart.”
He’s mined insights about Grace from extensive notes Edith left behind for an intended but never finished biography of her sister. His first attempt at synthesizing Grace’s story was a three-hour radio series he wrote, My Sister and Comrade, that drew on Edith’s recollections. The series aired on Nebraska Public Radio in the mid-’90s. He then adapted the script for a short performance piece.
He always wanted to do a book and film about the Abbotts but found scant interest for projects whose subjects were obscure figures from the past. To build support he spoke about the Abbotts at schools, libraries and anywhere that would have him. His fledgling Abbott project became whatever he could cobble together.
“I just did whatever I could to keep transforming it and keeping it in people’s faces,” he said. “I could see I was having success in raising awareness — that people were slowly getting to know around the state who these women were. I shifted the focus of the project to what I call the living legacy work — to say, ‘Look, this is not just the study of people from a hundred years ago, this is the study about things that can help us to live better today, especially women, children, immigrants.’
“We started a series of projects, including restoration of the Grace Abbott Park. We raised the money to have properly cleaned up a bronze memorial plaque to Grace that was never completed. We also raised funds to have bronze busts of the sisters cast and placed in the Edith Abbott Library. Very beautiful.
“Around that time, too, through a series of lucky accidents I made a connection to the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation.”
Since 2003, the Lincoln-based Foundation has presented the annual Grace Abbott Award in recognition, said executive director Meg Johnson, of “those who have made a difference” in strengthening the lives of children and families “in the courageous spirit of Grace Abbott.” This year’s recipient is Doug Christensen, emeritus commissioner, Nebraska Department of Education.
The Foundation helped get then-Gov. Mike Johanns to proclaim an annual Abbott Sisters Day. Momentum for the Abbott Sisters Project gained steam. “I think it just legitimized things for people,” Sorensen said. “It got the word out more.”
Along the way Sorensen’s project has garnered funding from the Nebraska Humanities Council and other public and private supporters. Some Grand Islanders hope to capitalize on the Abbott name the way Red Cloud has with Willa Cather.
Like a Johnny Appleseed, Sorensen’s planted the kernels, tilled the ground, and now all things Abbott are sprouting. The Dreams and Memories story-quilt is touring the state until a permanent home is found. Sorensen hopes The Quilted Conscience documentary airs statewide, even nationally, on public television. The University of Nebraska Press is planning a sequel to the Abbott Reader with the 2010 publication of Edith Abbott’s memoir, A Sister’s Memories. Children of the Old Frontier, a book about the Abbott sisters with input from G.I. 4th graders, is part of the new Great Peoples of Nebraska children’s book series by the Press.
“One of the most thrilling aspects of this work for me is that over the years we’ve had children from all over the country, all girls by the way, develop Abbott projects for History Day competitions,” said Sorensen.
The Abbott sprouts don’t end there.
The Grand Island Independent has begun an Abbott scholarship for Hall county high school grads to study social work at UNO. Ann Coyne’s lobbying for the School of Social Work to be renamed for Grace Abbott. She said it’s “kind of like losing our heritage if we don’t keep her legacy alive and visible,” adding that if Nebraska doesn’t claim Abbott, Chicago will. An Omaha World-Herald editorial stated, “Society should remember and appreciate this remarkable, courageous Nebraskan.”
All of it is music to Sorensen’s ears. Affirmation that the odyssey of his magnificent obsession has been worth the wait now that the Abbotts’ story is getting out.
“There had been things written about the Abbotts before, very important things, but they were I think read by a very small scholarly audience,” he said.
That’s all changing thanks to Sorensen.
Steve Joel said anyone meeting Sorensen is struck by his “commitment and passion. He’s a hard person to say no to.” Tracy Morrow noted, “The Abbotts wanted a positive change in the world and I think that’s what John wants, too.”
Sorensen’s simply grateful his dream’s coming to fruition after 17 years.
“I started this as a project and it became a life choice. I mean, it’s become clear in the last three or four years that it has no end for me. It’s become so embedded in my existence that I can’t stop — also because now it’s actually starting to unfold.”
- Author Honored at the University of Nebraska-Omaha (nebraskapress.typepad.com)
- A Look at Women in History – Jane Addams (socyberty.com)
- John Sorensen’s Decades-Long Magnificent Obsession with the Abbott Sisters Bears Fruit in a Slew of New Works, Including ‘The Quilted Conscience’ Documentary at Film Streams (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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