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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

The Children's Home and The Home Association

When I wrote about the new Riverwalk statues recently, I said I would return to one of the 2014 honorees, Bena Maas, who was president of the Children’s Home for twenty-five years. I want to thank the home’s executive director, Irene Rickus, for preserving and sharing the documents on which this is based.

The Children’s Home began in 1892 as a result of abandoned babies in an era when unwed mothers – some as young as thirteen – left infants at churches or on doorsteps. Initially the orphanage, the only one in Tampa, was a project of the Methodist Church’s Women’s Home Missionary Society, but its supporters soon expanded to non-Methodists and even non-Christians such as Bena Maas, who was Jewish.

It began in a house at Washington and Marion Streets donated by Mary Helen Clarke, and by 1899, included a day-care service for working mothers. The orphanage lost children to disease, though, and was described as “filthy” by a new matron hired late in 1895. Board meeting minutes in the early twentieth century, before Bena Maas began her long tenure as president, indicate Tampa’s poverty – and its unwillingness to invest in children.

May 1906: Dr. Adamson appeared before the board on behalf of the sick children and pleaded for a cow to be bought.

July 1906: It was decided not to buy a cow at present.

March 1908: It was decided that the children should have three meals a day.

As in other cities in that era, some orphanage residents were not true orphans. Instead, they were simply the children of widowed or deserted mothers who earned too little to keep their youngsters at home. Nor was there much sympathy for these women, as records for December 1915 indicate that they had to provide their own celebratory food: “The Board let the mothers of the children bring their dinner and enjoy Christmas dinner together with their children.”

By 1919, Maas had taken over as board president and the first reform that she introduced was securing a source of milk: The board voted to buy two cows, and the children named one of them for her. The next year truly tested her mettle, as the home was destroyed by fire. Maas appealed to the public, and a Tribune headline soon read: “Nearly $3,000 is Raised for Tots Burned out of Refuge.”

At the same time, she made clear her outrage that many Tampans thought that orphans deserved no more than rags. She showed a reporter a pile of donated garments that were useless, literally worn to shreds. Having often taken new clothing off the racks at Maas Brothers for the orphans, she declared: “Our tots are not ragamuffins, even if they are homeless. Just because they are fatherless and motherless does not mean that they are without pride or a sense of neatness. And really, they do have some self-respect; we try to inculcate it in them.”

The Children’s Home moved from downtown to what then was a rural area on North Florida Avenue; its two-story white building still can be seen there. In 1924, Bena Maas expanded to a broader methodology of addressing community needs. Under her leadership, the Children’s Home joined with four other charities to create the Community Chest. The others were the Milk Fund, which has dissipated with modern dairy practices, the longtime Salvation Army, and the Old People’s Home, which is still extant in Ybor City as The Home Association (more on that later). The Community Chest was a new idea in philanthropy: instead of competing with each other, charities united in asking businesses and residents for a single annual donation, with an experienced board dividing the proceeds according to organizational needs and records of responsibility. The Community Chest that Bena Maas co-founded led to today’s United Way.

After North Florida became a street too busy for children, the home moved to sixty acres at the end of Memorial Highway, where it remains a major success today. With vastly improved health for young adults, few children are true orphans today, and because of a safety net provided by government, mothers can afford (barely) to keep their children at home. Instead of the nineteenth century situation, The Children’s Home’s website says that today’s residents are “victims of abuse, neglect, and abandonment.” When I visited there to read the documents on Maas, I saw kids of all ages both playing outdoors and learning indoors, in a big room with many tools for self-improvement. The home offers regular tours for potential supporters both in the daytime and evenings. Call them at 855-4435 and make a difference in someone’s life.

* * *

I mentioned The Home Association above. It rivals The Children’s Home in age, having begun organizing on November 8, 1899. Its formal name was “Kadesh Barnea,” meaning a place to rest – but most people simply called it the “Old People’s Home.” As usual with such necessary civic institutions, it was voteless women who founded it. A year later, in December 1900, they reported: “We hope in the near future to be able to say that Tampa has a home for the aged that any mother or grandmother can enter and not feel that they are in a poor house or an asylum.”

The managers nonetheless referred to their residents as “inmates,” and some were not elderly. One example is a 27-old-year old who needed “Christian protection while she procured a divorce from her husband.” Another woman in her thirties came “on account of her husband’s dissipation.” Soon seven women lived in a 75-year-old structure called “the old Ferris home.” Eliza Morris Ferris had come to Tampa from Arkansas in 1842. She and her husband William built the town’s first non-military store, which sold clothes, cigars, and – “for medicinal purposes only” – a dozen kinds of liquor, including champagne. She bore eight children, and five-year-old Delia Ferris was one of the first people buried at Oaklawn Cemetery.

Daughter Kate was active in community work during the next generation, and it probably was she who was most responsible for the donation of the house. Kate was the organist at St. Andrews Episcopal Church and a founder, in 1902, of the Friday Morning Musicale in Hyde Park. Thus the downtown Ferris house, at 507 Washington Street, became the town’s first refuge for women. When I wrote about this for Real Women of Tampa and Hillsborough County, which was commissioned by the Athena Society and published by the University of Tampa in 2004, I titled the sidebar “Kadesh Barnea to The Home Association: Organizational Evolution.” It says:

Organizational theory is a modern field, but its practice (almost of necessity) preceded it. Kadesh Barnea is an excellent example of how an organization survives and evolves – in its case, to the direct benefit of thousands of people over more than one hundred years.

A grassroots project to shelter the homeless – long before that term was used – it began without any official support or even many models. Among the members of the first board of managers were Rachel Allen, Sara Green, Sara McCampbell, Pinkie Norris, and Mrs. O.G. Sexton. Although the community need was obvious, most soon lost their enthusiasm due to both “internal friction” and a continued shortage of funds. “One by one [they] gave up the effort until at the close of the second year there was but one member left to represent the board, carry on the work, and pay off the debt of one hundred dollars.” The incredibly dedicated Sara McCampbell -- who also had been “matron” of The Children’s Home – became both board president and the working superintendent. With an anonymous “generous donation,” the shelter got through this “period of distress.”

In addition to hardworking people and liberal donors, networking is vital to organizational success – something that McCampbell discovered when she traveled to Nashville to meet with similar organizations. Doubtless she was encouraged to find that other communities had comparable problems, for her report championed the efforts of other devoted women. “Nearly all benevolent and charitable institutions,” she wrote, “had their origin in the united efforts of a few…women who were financially helpless, and yet what an influence they had!”

In 1906, Louise Long donated her home to the cause, and Kadesh Barnea moved to the old Fort Brooke area: a 1910 city directory said it was on Garrison Street between Florida and Morgan. Tampa Electric Company, William Brorein’s phone company, and other businesses helped out, and perhaps as a result, a male board of trustees was added that functioned in association with the female board of managers. It soon disappeared from the records, however.

Lura Bird, president from 1910-15, further systematized the operation. Under her leadership, the home became solely a shelter for the elderly, and younger women were sent elsewhere. The question of whether or not to admit elderly men was hotly debated, especially when several love affairs developed after men became residents. Ultimately, the home admitted the elderly of both genders, and the “inmates” also supplemented revenue with the sales of handiwork.

When Mrs. J. D. Sinclair became president in 1915, the institution was free of debt, but had only $3.76 in the bank. The next five years saw an amazing transformation: In 1920, Mr. And Mrs. Peter O. Knight donated four acres at 22nd Avenue and 12th Street in Ybor City, where the stately building that stands today opened with a ceremony in August, 1924.” It cost $100,000 and still offers refuge to those in need. The association continues to have an all-female board of directors, demonstrating that women can quietly and frugally manage fiscally sound institutions that meet great community need. You can send your check made out to The Home Association, 301 W. Platt St., Suite 324, Tampa 33606.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.

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