Wellspring Archives: Evelyn Gail Gardiner

  • By Deborah Townsend
  • Posted 5/07/2012
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10090
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This People's History is based on the early records of Wellspring Family Services, a private, non-profit organization helping families and children in Seattle and King County overcome life’s challenges. Founded in 1892 as the Bureau of Associated Charities, Wellspring Family Services has operated under a succession of names. At the time of the events described in this essay, it was called the Seattle Social Welfare League. This essay documents the work of Evelyn Gail Gardiner, who led the organization during a period of growth and rebuilding. The organization's services have changed over the years, but have always centered on a commitment to a stronger, healthier community. Wellspring’s archives illuminate the development of social work as a profession, the growth of the non-profit sector, and the relationship between private non-profits and governmental agencies. This is one of a series entitled "Out of the Archives," and appeared in December 2010 in Wellspring's monthly internal newsletter, The Fiddlehead. It was written by Wellspring Family Services executive assistant Deborah Townsend.

Evelyn Gail Gardiner

In July 1930, the Seattle Social Welfare League, as we were then called, published a small booklet titled Eleven Years. The occasion was Evelyn Gail Gardiner’s retirement after 11 years as Executive Secretary (= executive director) of the agency. This booklet provides an amazing look into that formative period of our history.

In 1919, when Gardiner arrived, our agency was 27 years old and was still essentially a registration bureau and charity clearinghouse. It had been through several name changes and reorganizations. The World War I years had been particularly difficult. The introduction to the booklet, by Honorary President Reginald H. Parsons, admits that the organization had been pretty disorganized before she  came. There had been no executive secretary for a year and more, and many community needs were going unmet. “It was quite apparent,” Parsons wrote, “that the old agency had sunk to ashes.”

The agency clearly needed someone with vision and strong organizational skills. Evelyn Gail Gardiner clearly filled that need. She had earned a master’s degree at a time when it was still fairly rare for women to go to college at all, and had an impressive resume in social service administration in Michigan and Washington, D.C. before she came to Seattle. We can count her among the pioneers of the then-new profession called “social work.”

In 1919, our organization had only two paid employees apart from Gardiner: one office worker, one social worker. Most work with clients was done by trained volunteers. In contrast, in 1930 there were two administrators, eight clerical employees, and 30 caseworkers with a reputation as “an exceedingly well trained and efficient group of women.” Parsons has nothing but praise for Gardiner herself: “as an executive and organizer she has few equals.”

In 1918, before Gardiner arrived, the agency’s annual budget was about $8,000. (Sounds tiny, but a dollar went farther then! In that year’s Board minutes we see a stenographer’s salary approved at $50/month.) Within a few years it was steady at about $150,000. In 1921, with her leadership, the Social Welfare League helped organize the Community Fund of Seattle -- forerunner of the United Way of King County -- which helped coordinate services and stabilize funding for member agencies. Gardiner was apparently a leader in the social-services community statewide, too: for example, she was president of the Washington State Conference of Social Work in 1923. By the time she left our agency in 1930, she had presided over major changes that strengthened the agency and -- although she can’t have foreseen all that was coming -- prepared it to survive the Great Depression.

During this period, and largely as a result of Evelyn Gail Gardiner’s vision, the agency shifted away from direct short-term aid and toward what we now recognize as professional social work and counseling, with a broad mission of improving society as a whole. In her own words on the back panel of Eleven Years, “The League does not merely ‘distribute relief.’ It is not a clearing house for your charitable dollars. It is a focus for the expression of your love of your fellow men and your devotion to the principles of justice for all.” Social service, she says, has the goal of

“promoting economic independence and potential abilities, helping maladjusted individuals to readjust to society, reconstructing unstable families, and giving opportunity to the inherent good that is in all men for self-expression. The corollary of this, which social service can not neglect, is the study of social and economic causes of misfortunes and the stimulation of citizens from all walks of life to take part in social betterment and economic progress.”

In his introductory remarks in Eleven Years, Parsons proudly describes the agency’s “intelligent, constructive effort for the rehabilitation of the family.” We describe it differently today, but that’s still central to our work at Wellspring Family Services.

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