That’s how Franklin D. Roosevelt described University Settlement House www.universitysettlement.org during his Presidency, and for good reason. Started in 1886 by three progressive reformers in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, University Settlement served thousands of immigrants, struggling to survive in their newly adopted American home.
The settlement ideal was to provide a community center where immigrants could take courses in politics, learn English, play basketball, or simply escape the rigors of urban poverty. University Settlement has a long history of progressive firsts: establishing the first public bath, first kindergarten, and first Head Start program. It also has an illustrious roster of alumni and staff, including the Gershwin brothers, a former mayor, senator and governor, the founder of the NAACP, a Pulitzer Prize winner, New Yorker columnist, founder of the New Republic, and tangentially, the entire Schall family (which I luckily married into).
In fact, a member of my husband’s family has served on the board of University Settlement for the last 40 years. The love affair began back in 1966, when first Ellen, then Richard, Larry (my husband) and Steve Schall spent the summers of their teenage and young adult years as counselors at University Settlement’s summer camp, located at the bucolic foot of Mount Beacon, 60 miles north of New York. For generations of inner-city children since 1910, the camp provided the first ecstatic experience of nature and open space, as well as teaching messages of hope, tolerance and community.
During my husband’s time, the campers were an incredible mix of kids of diverse incomes, races and ethnicities, living in what was still a 100-year idealist experiment in community living, and Pete Seeger, who lives in Beacon, always dropped in for a visit and sing-along. The experience and idealism represented by the University Settlement camp profoundly affected and shaped the Schalls, and decades later, all three of Larry’s kids also spent their summers in Beacon as campers and counselors. Unfortunately, the camp was forced to close this decade due to financial pressures, but happily the sale of land to the New York State Parks & Recreation Department allowed University Settlement in Manhattan to flourish.
A pioneer in social services for almost 125 years, it continues to serve 20,000 people in its diverse community with programs in child care, pre-school, housing assistance, mental health, college and career prep, crisis intervention, seniors and the arts, as well as innovative new partnerships with the YMCA at the new Houston Street Center and The Door, one of New York’s leading youth development agencies.
University Settlement was particularly beloved by my mother-in-law Rhoda who passed away in October, 2009, and a fund was created in her memory. My $100 today goes to Rhoda Schall’s favorite cause, the first and best University Settlement in America.