Philanthropic Endeavors and Social Reform
Helen was involved in a wide variety of charitable activities during her life ranging from settlement work to land conservation. Helen’s initial focus was on children’s charities, beginning with the playground movement. Distressed by the number of children being killed and injured in accidents while playing in the streets, Boston philanthropists began constructing playgrounds. It was also hoped that if the children had a proper place to play, rather than congregating in the streets, they would be less likely to become involved in gang-related criminal activities.
The North End of Boston during the late 19th century was an impoverished, over-crowded, filthy, disease ridden area, reminiscent of the London slums depicted by Dickens. The ward suffered from the highest infant mortality rates, child mortality rates, and homicide rates, in Boston. Many affluent Bostonians blamed conditions in the North End on the residents themselves, immigrants, who were predominately Jewish and Italian. Massachusetts state legislator Edward C. Chandler voiced the opinion of many in Boston when he stated that “the personal habits of the tenants are largely responsible for such conditions…Undoubtedly many a suitable tenement house is turned into a place of misery by the ignorance and vice of its occupants.”
Helen agreed that further education was necessary, and should be encouraged in immigrant communities, but she rejected the notion that immigrants were inherently inferior, and disliked the condescension shown by many of her peers toward immigrants. She took a genuine interest in the women and children of the North End, joining the North Bennet Street Industrial School’s board of managers in 1898, and serving as secretary of the institution. The school was founded in 1885 by Pauline Agassiz Shaw. The daughter of scientist and Harvard professor, Louis Agassiz, Shaw pioneered the kindergarten movement in the United States. The school provided classes in printing, pottery, stone carving, woodwork, woodcarving, woodturning, cement work, sewing and dressmaking; there was also an athletic club, a debating club, a drama club, music lessons, reading rooms, a kindergarten, and a nursery for infants belonging to working mothers.
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