Organized charities were somewhat of a rare commodity in the Santa Barbara of the late-19th century. In the first hundred years of the city’s history, those in need largely looked to the Catholic Church or their extended family for aid. By the 1890s, however, a growing need was perceived for an organization that would facilitate and coordinate charitable efforts in Santa Barbara. The result was the founding of Associated Charities in 1899 (the organization officially became Family Service Agency in 1953).
This first social-service organization in Santa Barbara County elected Mrs. E.C. Tallant as its first president. The group was to help those in financial distress to help themselves; it would not simply throw money at the problem of pauperism. The agency always first investigated a family’s need. Money was rarely given; more often, food, clothing, or wood to be used for fuel were the types of items dispensed. One example of an early program was the Family Milk Fund. This program was more than just about getting milk to children in poor families; it also gave advice on proper diet and family budgeting, tools that families could use to help pull themselves out of their difficulties.
Local charitable work was further coordinated when Associated Charities moved its headquarters to the Arellanes adobe at 800 Santa Barbara Street in 1910. Joining it there was the Neighborhood House Association, which aimed to curb juvenile delinquency, primarily through recreational activities. The work of Associated Charities continued to expand; six families had received aid in 1899; in 1920, 345 families were assisted.
Education played an ever larger role in the agency’s programs in the 1920s. Sewing classes were held, and the clothes sold in the agency shop. Cooking classes and such mundane subjects as proper housecleaning were also offered, as were English classes, all aimed to allow families to better cope. Many of the classes were run through Santa Barbara State Teachers College. Affordable housing was addressed by the agency’s Building Fund, which offered low-interest home loans.
The Depression of the 1930s posed serious challenges for social service organizations. Associated Charities attempted to address both unemployment and want by hiring men to cut wood, repair shoes, and grow vegetables, all of which were then delivered to needy families. The fruits of the sewing classes were now distributed by the agency’s Clothing Bureau, which in 1933 passed out some 57,000 garments. As government agencies began to move into employment programs and relief, Associated Charities returned to education with programs such as Mother-Child Workshops, which taught the elements of good parenting.
Family Service Agency is still a major force in social service today. Its programs offer a wide variety of assistance, and it continues to play an important role in the coordination of aid to the needy and troubled of Santa Barbara County.