Today’s Mission Neighborhood Centers, Inc. lives on because a dedicated group of San Francisco’s great-great-grandmothers organized at the turn of the 20th century to give their time, resources, intelligence and creativity towards improving the lives of poor, immigrant girls and young women.
At a time when San Francisco still had wooden sidewalks, Rachel (Rae) and Eva Wolfsohn established the first settlement house providing services to girls in Northern California. The Wolfsohn sisters, activists on women’s issues, were attracted to the settlement movement with its primary goal of alleviating poverty of poor urban areas through cultural programs and education.
The group of women who mobilized around these sisters was from leading families of the early 20th century, wives of San Francisco’s prominent businessmen. In joining this effort, some giving more than 40 years of their time and talent, they established a vibrant legacy of empowerment and support that has stood the test of time with its shifting generations of immigrants and working poor who followed.
On the threshold of another big step in Mission Neighborhood Centers evolution, we look back with deep appreciation to those dedicated and visionary women that set us on this journey with a determination for a better future for all San Francisco’s residents and we intend to do them proud!
1897 – 1942: GIRLS’ CLUB OF SAN FRANCISCO:
More than a decade before women could vote, Rae Wolfsohn gathered together a group of “managers” to establish the first Girls’ Club as a self-financed project, near 7th Street and Folsom. The list of these women reads like a Who’s Who of San Francisco’s philanthropic community today – they are the great-great grandmothers who blazed a path of civic engagement and concern for the less fortunate in their beloved City. After the great 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed their Club, the managers mobilized to raise funding to build the now historic 362 Capp Street Center in the burgeoning working-class Mission district, home to many immigrant families. These philanthropic women organized as the board of directors in 1910 when the organization was incorporated. They were generous and active in the life of the organization, looking out for its financial health, as well as sponsoring many cultural and social activities for the Center’s participants. In 1924, Mrs. I.W. Hellman purchased an adjacent parcel and had a gymnasium built as a memorial to I.W. Hellman, Jr. She served on the board, along with Mrs. Lilienthal from 1900 to 1937.
The Girls’ Club served as a safe and inspiring gathering place for girls of all ages and backgrounds, offering a variety of practical skills classes, a wide-range of cultural activities and establishing life-long friendships. When Rae Wolfsohn died of pancreatic cancer in 1914, her memorial was held at her beloved 362 Capp Street, with Mr. Mortimer Fleishhaker Sr. giving her eulogy. Her sister Eva took over the Club for the next 30 years. As late as 1948, a nephew Mark Wolfsohn was repairing the Capp Street site after a fire. This center transformed people’s lives, keeping their collective ideals alive while continuing to evolve to meet the changing times.
1942 – 1958: MISSION COMMUNITY CENTER
As the City grew, the philanthropic community organized the Community Chest, precursor to today’s United Way, to coordinate their fundraising for the growing number of service and cultural organizations working to improve opportunities for San Francisco residents. Funding for the Girls’ Club was folded into the annual giving through the Community Chest. Greater scrutiny and accountability for how funds were used became part of annual reporting. In 1942, the Community Chest recommended that the Girls’ Club expand its service mission and include programs for boys and services for families. The Community Chest felt the organization would increase its numbers by serving more people and thus better serve the changing community. And so, Mission Community Center was created with the Girls’ Club as one of its programs within their more expansive new structure and mission. It was a difficult transition in organizational culture, but steady hands steered the organization into this next phase. This period also saw the influx of Latinos and Chicanos into the Mission, as they came north to work in the war industries. As remembered by club members, it was a time when zoot suiters held their dances in the gymnasium, an example of how Mission Community Center responded to the needs of its changing constituencies and their needs.
1959 – Present: MISSION NEIGHBORHOOD CENTERS, INC.
After a study commissioned by the Community Chest regarding cost effectiveness, Mission Community Center was encouraged to merge with two other community centers in the neighborhood. In 1959, Mission Neighborhood Centers, Inc. was established when Mission Community Center, Precita Valley Community Center and Mission Family Center, at 24th and Harrison, consolidated their administration under a leadership housed at 362 Capp Street. This further expanded the scope and breadth of the organization, with multiple sites and properties to oversee.
Currently, Mission Neighborhood Centers operates programs at 12 facilities, of which it owns four. This includes nine Child Development Centers and three Youth Services Centers. Our senior, Healthy Aging program is co-located in our Administrative facility at 362 Capp Street. Our operating budget has grown over the past several years to 9 million dollars and we currently employ over 115 bilingual/multicultural and multidisciplinary staff to serve the distinct needs of our clients.
Mission Neighborhood Centers, Inc. is the product of the vibrant legacy from the personal philanthropic efforts of San Francisco’s leading families of the early 20th century and the visionary dedication of the Wolfsohn sisters. Today, well into the second decade of the 21st century, the opportunity exists to honor and rekindle this philanthropic and entrepreneurial spirit of our great-great-grandmothers whose efforts secured a strong foundation for our lively community center that today continues with their vision of empowerment and community building to help newcomer families and their children.
As we look forward, the changing demographics of our neighborhood direct us to think in terms of support for the new families moving in, building on our years of providing quality childcare, enriching in-school and after-school programs, restorative services for troubled youth, workforce development for a changing economy and providing our elders with activities and support that help them avoid isolation and depression. With our array of cultural programs and social services, we find ourselves very much in keeping with the original spirit that built 362 Capp and which keeps it alive with people, programs and purpose more than a century and a decade since it was first envisioned. We thank our great-great grandmothers for their wisdom and dedication!