East Boston Social Centers Celebrates 100 Years in the Community

In 1918 the East Boston Social Centers was founded during the Settlement House movement. The Settlement House movement was a reformist social movement that tried to bridge the gap between the upper and middle class and poor immigrants living in urban areas.

“The Social Centers was born during that era,” said EBSC’s Executive Director Justin Pasquariello. “The most famous Settlement House was founded in Chicago by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in the late 1880s. The idea was to bring upper and middle-class social workers into urban areas to live while providing social service needs and public health to the poor living in the city.”

This year, EBSC will celebrate 100 years in the community and Pasquariello said EBSC staff is planning to celebrate this millstone in style.

“We’ve hired a historian, Kyle Ingrid Johnson, who has been amazing in researching the Social Centers’ history and roots in the Settlement House movement, but we also want to hear from the community and want residents to share their stories of the Social Centers,” said Pasquariello.

Pasquariello said he and his staff are planning a 100th Anniversary Gala some time in mid-November and wants to be able to take the historian’s findings, as well as personal stories from residents, and share them with the community through lectures and film.

“We are really excited,” he said. “The more stories we get and the more information we find will help make the celebration that much better.”

Kyle Ingrid Johnson, a Boston-area writer and genealogical researcher with many years of nonprofit experience, has always been fascinated by the settlement-house history.

“Settlement houses were founded to do many things for many people,” said Johnson. “Most nonprofits are started with a single goal in mind–think American Cancer Society or the MSPCA–but settlement houses, although defining their population within a small geographic area, always performed – and continue to perform – many different kinds of programs and services. These changed with the coming and going of local residents and their specific needs and interests.”

For the past six months Johnson has been immersed in the archives of EBSC playing first “Nancy Drew” and then “Sherlock Holmes” as she tries to track down what happened where – and when – between 1918 and now.

“I love history, “ said Johnson, “And I love East Boston more and more with each document I read, every person I talk with, and each new revelation I uncover.”

The goal of her project is to complete a short written history of EBSC, as well as to compile a timeline with dates corresponding to major agency changes and events.

“EBSC was incorporated 100 years ago in 1918, its beginnings growing from the Goodwill House located then at 177-179 Webster Street,” said Johnson. “The Goodwill House (alternately known as the House of Good Will) was originally funded by the Massachusetts Home Missionary Society, an organization founded in 1807 showing us a longtime historical trend of people helping others in Massachusetts.”

Johnson said over the years, EBSC took in Trinity House at 406 Meridian St. and had many neighborhood centers and scattered sites catering to various activities.

“Its first well-known Executive Director was S. Max Nelson, recruited from a New York Settlement house by the Hyams sisters whose family money started the Hyams Foundation, a primary funder of EBSC for many years,” said Johnson.

In her research Johnson found that Nelson was a well-educated, thoughtful man who lived at 110 White Street with his wife and various EBSC staff members.

“He was strong on empowerment and leadership and insisted on staff being well-trained and well-prepared for their mission,” said Johnson. “He was also the only head of EBSC who left behind many of his writings. His tenure lasted almost thirty years from the mid-’30s to the mid-’60s. He was followed by John Forbes who served the agency for approximately eighteen years. Both Mr. and Mrs. Forbes worked at the agency, and many neighborhood residents may have played with or remember their nine children. John Kelly took over in 1983 and just retired his position as Executive Director last year in 2017. Justin Pasquariello, a local resident, now holds the title of Executive Director of EBSC.”

The summer camps run by the organization at the urging of the Hyams sisters were well known and ran for seventy years between 1937 and 2007. EBSC was just one of many settlement houses in the Boston area that ran off-site summer camps in rural parts of Massachusetts or New Hampshire.

“It was considered almost a necessity at that time, to get the children out of the city during the summer.” said Johnson.

Her research has turned up various health charts tracking children’s weight.

“In the 1930s, during the Depression, most of the children were underweight,” she said. “The goal was to give them a healthy summer in the fresh air, a time to remember, and send them home with extra pounds. Today’s parents might not be thrilled to find their children returning home with added weight, but East Boston parents during the 1930s were simply happy to have their children be taken care of in a safe environment that guaranteed them a nutritional diet.”

However, Johnson points out the diet for the children at the East Boston Camps in the 1930s might not go over well with most of today’s children.

“Meat was expensive and scarce, and camp cooks had to work with what they had,” she said. “Breakfast was prunes, scrambled eggs, toast, cocoa and milk. Dinner, served at midday, consisted of corn chowder, vegetable salad, fruit jello, bread and butter, cup cakes and milk. The evening meal, or supper, was lettuce and tomato sandwich, rice custard pudding with raisins and milk.”

Food is a subject that arises again and again in the archives, Johnson said.

“There was a Mother and Children’s Camp that was separate from the regular camps,” she found. “This was for East Boston mothers who wanted to get out of the city for a week in the summer with their children. To arrange for staff and cooks to be present for a week at the camp and to provide for transportation to and from Westford, where the East Boston Camps were located, the mothers worked hard all year to raise funds. They held a ravioli supper, these were quite popular, a rummage sale, a dance, a neighborhood fair, and yes – more ravioli suppers. Their goal during the Depression was to raise $300, a hefty sum. The mothers succeeded. Despite the fundraising, no mother could attend camp with her child or children without contributing, 2 pounds of prunes, 2 pounds of apricots, 2 pounds of granulated sugar, 2 cans of evaporated milk, 1 box of cornflakes, 1 box of oatmeal, 1 pound of rice, 1 package of raisins, 1 pound of cornmeal, 1 box of farina and a small bottle of olive oil.”

Johnson found a note was attached indicating that the olive oil was to treat sunburns during residents’ visit to the East Boston Camps.

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