The Atlantic Street Center is a nonprofit social service agency that has been operating for 100 years in the Central and Southeast areas of Seattle. Its mission has been to help families and communities raise healthy, successful children and youth. Although program emphasis today is on communities of color, Atlantic Street’s beginnings centered on the city’s Italian community.
On February 11, 1910, the Deaconess Settlement was founded by two Methodist deaconesses, Jesse Gasser, a teacher, and Mary Jane Hepburn, a nurse. The two women had noticed that many needs were not being met among the Italian immigrants moving to Rainier Valley. By 1910 such immigrants numbered 3,454 in Seattle. Italian immigrants in Washington state made up 1 percent of all Italians living in the United States. Most were unskilled laborers, and some were illiterate. During the early years of the twentieth century, the area between Massachusetts and Atlantic streets was home to Seattle’s largest Italian enclaves.
The settlement house was located at 1519 Rainier Avenue S. Charlotte Howland, one of the deaconesses, served as superintendent for 20 years. Ella Swift began as a deaconess worker in 1912 and served for 30 years. The settlement house was supported financially by the Methodist church, and in 1922, additional funds were obtained from the newly formed Community Chest. The deaconesses sponsored well-baby clinics, a nutrition clinic, and a night school for teaching English to the Italian men. They also made home visitations.
By 1927, the rented facilities on Rainier Avenue S were being changed to commercial property, so the Deaconess Home Association Board appointed the Reverend J. H. Berringer to secure funds for a new building. In 1928, the new, sturdy, brick building at 2103 Atlantic was dedicated and became a settlement house as well as a place of worship.
Major changes began on March 17, 1950. These included renaming the facility The Seattle Atlantic Street Center, transferring church services and the Sunday school, broadening the program’s focus, and hiring qualified staff for group work, recreation, and social work. Six months later, on September 1, Richard Ortmeyer, who had received training at the YMCA, was hired as director, and Eunice Allen was brought on as a deaconess girls’ worker.
Tsuguo Ikeda (b. 1924) was hired as director in 1953. Two years later, he became the first Asian American executive director of a nonprofit in the United States. Ikeda was also one of the first graduates of color from the University of Washington School of Social Work.
During the first six years of his tenure, Atlantic Street Center’s programs included cooperative pre-school, outreach to Rainier Housing Project, creative arts for senior citizens, and a special project for troubled youth. But all of them, Ikeda has said, resulted in quantity, rather than quality, of service.
For Troubled Youth
In 1960, the center changed its focus to concentrate on services for troubled youth, launching the Special 21 Services for Youth Project. Social workers from Seattle Children’s Home, King County Youth Center, and Seattle Urban League were brought on to work part time, along with faculty from the University of Washington School of Social Work. Backed by funding from the National Institute of Mental Health, the Center developed the first computerized recording system for case records in the United States.
After seven years of research, “Effectiveness of Social Work with Acting Out Youth” was ranked among the top 10 studies of its kind in the nation. The success of this project led to several other research contracts with Seattle Public Schools and the Seattle Model Cities Program.
During the 1970s, staff was reduced, and mini projects involving youth, women, and minorities were given to the School of Social Work students assigned to the Center for training. The Black Panther Party of Self Defense started a successful breakfast program at the center, and the members were so conscientious and reliable, Ikeda hired some of the university students to work in the two group homes for troubled youth. When the Federal Bureau of Investigation began investigating the Panthers, the members voluntarily left, refusing the one month’s severance pay that was offered, because they did not want the enter to lose its federal grant. Ikeda said he was very touched by their act, in part because he knew the students needed the money, but also because they were so considerate of his and the agency’s welfare.
In 1981, the center changed its policy for those coming for counseling and instituted a fee for this service based on ability to pay. Also, the agency’s name was shortened to Atlantic Street Center. During the 1980s, services included therapy, advocacy, and consultation. A Black Women Support Group was developed, family therapy for parents who abuse and neglect their children was offered, and the center welcomed and gave technical assistance to Asian groups who were attempting to develop their own organizations.
Tsuguo Ikeda retired in 1986, and Joe Garcia took over as administrator. After Garcia’s departure in 1989, Edith Chambers became interim administrator for several months until David Okimoto assumed the leadership. He moved the center from the traditional model of treatment and counseling to an asset development model in the 1990s. This model is based on the assumption that the best strategy is not to wait until problems surface to begin providing service. Family Centers were opened at Holly Park and Beacon Hill to extend the agency’s reach in strengthening families and working with young people.
In 1998, Franklin Raines (b. 1949), CEO of the Federal National Mortgage Association -- commonly known as Fannie Mae -- donated $250,000 to the Atlantic Street Center as a tribute to the agency for its support of him as a youngster growing up in the neighborhood. Raines came from a poor family and loved to hang out at the center, where games and activities were offered after school. He said the experience opened his eyes to new horizons. After graduating from Franklin High School, he went to Harvard and on to Harvard Law School, and he became a Rhodes Scholar. As an executive with Fannie Mae, Raines earned $2 million a year, but he left to become President Bill Clinton’s budget director. Returning to Fannie Mae, he became the CEO.
The contribution made it possible for the center to build a modern brick building next door to the original building in 1999. The building is named the Franklin Raines Building, and it houses the counseling services and offices for the early learning activities staff. At the same time, the original building was named the Charlotte Howland Building, after the first deaconess superintendent.
The Twenty-first Century
After a national search that produced 119 candidates, Edith Chambers Elion was appointed administrator in 2002. A member of the Atlantic Street staff for 34 years, Elion considers the center’s 100 years of service to the community a magnificent accomplishment. She is proud of the work of the four-faceted program -- education, counseling, youth development, family support -- each with its own history, and all contributing to the family.
A 54-person staff now serves more than 3,000 people, with positive outcomes. The parent-child program teaches parents how to enhance literacy for 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds; it is the first such program in Western Washington. The counseling service gives aid to youth and families in stressful and difficult situations. The Family Support program operates in the two southeast Seattle locations, Rainier Beach and New Holly, where the many free classes and services include parent education, English language instruction, preparation for citizenship exams, personalized support to individuals, physical fitness activities, and life skills classes. The Youth Development Program, located in the Rainier Beach building, is one of the agency’s oldest programs, dating from the 1950s.
In 2010 the Rainier Beach building is to be razed and the program will be moved to Zion Preparatory Academy.
The Atlantic Street Center is governed by a 12-member board. It’s composed of one-third representatives from the United Methodist Church, which owns the buildings and the property, one-third members at large, and one-third members from the community served.
On September 25, 2010, a fund-raising gala celebrating Atlantic Street Center’s 100th anniversary had 300 people in attendance and raised a net total of $136,000. About 65 percent of other funding comes from the State of Washington, King County, and the City of Seattle; 9 percent comes from the United Way; and the rest comes from donors and foundations.