The Social Service League of Lawrence may or may not be 150 years old, depending on your source.
While the date of its founding may be in dispute, what's not in contention is that Lawrence's oldest continuously running service organization has done a lot of good for a lot of people over the past … century-plus.
The Social Service League is dedicated to helping the needy, whether they live in Lawrence or are passing through. At its downtown thrift store, people can purchase used, low-cost items to get them through tough times. Money raised at the store is used to provide eye exams and glasses for children and adults, shoes for children and clothing and bedding for the needy.
Local lore has it that the Social Service League originated after residents came together to provide aid to victims of Quantrill's Raid, in 1863. In a 1940 speech before the league's board of directors, then-store manager Bessie Taylor said the group started from a single idea: assisting friends and neighbors.
That effort supposedly spawned, in 1871, the Lawrence Civic Club, which, Taylor said, was "formed for the benefit of relieving acute suffering, the care of the needy, transcients (sic), and any who may need special care or attention," "to beautify the town" and to look after "delinquent children" and supervise playground activity in town.
The Social Service League actually celebrated its 125th anniversary in 1996; even then, the organization's age was in dispute. The league went as far as to hire two researchers to write an official report on the group's history. The pair came to the conclusion that the league likely started in 1888 as the Associated Charities of Lawrence, a coalition of about 25 churches and civic organizations.
"The general truth of the legend is still true," one of the researchers, Jim Dewey, told the Journal-World in 1996. "The people who were involved in responses to crises, who provided the efforts for the charitable work in Lawrence in the 1870s and probably earlier, were also involved in charitable work after the Associated Charities formed."
The Associated Charities gave way to the Social Service League in 1910. The league outlined its lofty goals in its 1911 charter: "eliminating poverty," "providing industrial training," helping people secure employment, and "providing loans to needy persons at reasonable rates." According to the book "The Annals of Kansas," one of the league's perhaps less important projects was a 1912 campaign to "expurgate Lawrence of its bad influences," including the Turkey Trot and Grizzly Bear dances.
According to the official history of the Social Service League, it operated a charity health clinic out of its offices at 546 Vermont St. between 1910 and 1917, and later played a role in the founding of Lawrence Memorial Hospital. Its thrift store has been around since 1999, operating for a time out of both City Hall and the city jail before moving into a converted home at Ninth and Rhode Island streets, where it remains to this day (it has moved temporarily into the old Allen Press building at 11th and New Hampshire streets while it is being renovated).
The Social Service League reportedly also played a big role in helping get Lawrence through the Great Depression. During that time period, the organization established a sewing room for crafting garments to be sold in its store, as well as a canning facility.