The History of San Diego’s Oldest Children’s Nonprofit
A Proud Legacy
February, 1887 – The Women’s Home Association is founded, Downtown San Diego
Due to a “land boom” from 1885 to 1887, the population in San Diego multiplied by 7x in those two years alone. Our city had the dubious distinction of hosting 200+ saloons and brothels in the region and city government was very overwhelmed with providing law enforcement and public services. Many women were abandoned, widowed, poverty-stricken and living under horrible conditions.
With concern and care for destitute and helpless women, as well as working women not making ends meet, The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, San Diego Chapter, invested $1000 in a home on the current intersection of 7th & F Streets in Downtown’s Gaslamp District.
At the very inception of the San Diego Center for Children were charitable community leaders wanting to provide to those less fortunate what government and social services could or would not do.
The founders were philanthropic women in the community, many wives of prominent businessmen, who wanted to give of their skills, time and money. Among them were
- Mrs. W. W. Stewart (First President of Association)
- Mrs. Anna Lee (George) Marston (Secretary)
- Mrs. Elisha Babcock (Treasurer; daughter-in-law of Coronado developer and the famous Hotel Del Coronado)
- Mrs. Hazel Waterman (architect)
- Kate Sessions (city’s first horticulturist and independent businesswoman)
- Charlotte Baker (doctor)
- Bessie Peery (doctor)
- Mrs. Carl S. Murray
- Miss E.M. Chapin
September, 1888 – A Nursery is added and children are helped
The community being to realize a need for children’s care whether for working mothers or for widowed businessmen, given the mortality rate of mothers during childbirth at this time. Local businessmen offered the Association $25,000 to begin a nursery and the Association accepted. It opened under the direction of 24 directors in a small house on the current intersection of 1st and Cedar Streets.
Due to the land bubble “burst,” many parents were unable to provide a home for their children or were out of work and could not take children when looking for new positions, the Nursery quickly became a place that people left children in the care of the organization.
1889 – The community steps in and a merger on the horizon
At this time, the County was utilizing the Nursery for children’s services. And even as the Home began to realize the great need for children’s care, the financial stress of adding multiple programs, increasing overhead expenses such as rent, led the directors to asking the community for help. Kate Sessions led the inaugural Flower Festival, raising close to $1,500 – a huge success over 100 years ago!
San Diego businessman and philanthropist, Byrant Howard, proposed a union of the Woman’s Home and Day Nursery and his Children’s Industrial Home which was an organization he founded to serve the needs of homeless, abused, and delinquent children in San Diego. The Home and Day Nursery accepted the proposal which qualified the establishment for state aid for the care of orphans. This was a tough decision in that now the Home would officially become an orphanage and need to comply with state and county regulations. Dedicated members of the Association, however, could not turn away from the need.
1890 – Funds are raised for a building in Balboa Park
While community fundraising efforts are engaged, the Association was in a position to look to the County for financial support to complete the construction of a 3-story building in the new Balboa Park site. The County provided the Home $3,290 for the building and the negotiation allowed the County a 10-year contract of placing children in the care of the Home.
Throughout the 1890’s, the Association bemoaned the public’s perception that the organization was rich, a view which made it decidedly more difficult to raise contributions in support of its programs. Perhaps this was due to the social strata of the people associated with it – the Marstons, Howards, Seftons and Scripps – or because the children were well fed, well clothed, well mannered, and well educated. Whatever the reason, the result was that the 90’s were a quiet period for the home and one of slow growth.
1898 – Name officially changed to the Women and Children’s Home of San Diego
The Association finally altered the name of the home from the Woman’s Home and Day Nursery to the Women and Children’s Home. The sponsoring Woman’s Home Association, however, would maintain its original name for another six years.
1904 – Name changed once more to the San Diego Children’s Home Association
1909 – The first Charity Ball and children’s infirmary in San Diego
Mr. and Mrs. J.W. Sefton presented the Home with funds to construct a clinic known as the Holly Sefton Memorial Hospital in memory of their son. It was designed by San Diego’s well known architect, Irving Gill.
Mrs. Sefton also promoted the first Charity Ball held at the Hotel Robinson with all proceeds – $1,570 – going to the Children’s Home . The Ball became an annual affair, moving in 1914 to the Hotel Del Coronado and by that time, selling over 2,000 tickets.
1959 – A move from Balboa Park to Kearny Mesa
In an agreement with the City in the 1950s, the Home received a nine-acre building site in Kearny Mesa and $160,500 in cash in exchange for its property in Balboa Park – which would be bisected by construction for the new 163 Highway. An additional $130,000 was raised through a fundraising campaign for the new Home, and on January 9, 1959, construction began of the Home at its present location on 3002 Armstrong Street in Kearny Mesa.
The new Home consisted of three child care cottages, a classroom, a utility building, and a treatment building, which also housed administration offices. The classroom, called the Cosgrove School, was the Home’s first on-grounds classroom with a capacity for nine children at a time.
In just over 70 years, the Center took in approximately 6,000 homeless and neglected children at the Home.
1975 – Name changed to the San Diego Center for Children.
At this time, the Center is San Diego’s oldest accredited non-profit organization for children and depended largely on the support from the San Diego community for funding.
1979 – Iris Auxiliary founded
This dedicated women’s auxiliary to the Center was founded by passionate community leader and special education professional, Jean Pohl. After hearing a representative from the Center speak at her Del Cerro Jr. Women’s Club meeting, Pohl found herself uttering what has become a signature line of hers. She asked, “What can we do for you?”
“The Center was 92 years old then and had never had a women’s auxiliary” commented Pohl. The Auxiliary’s first fundraiser was held at a Point Loma home and $350 was raised. Today the Iris Auxiliary has raised more than $1 million for the Center’s children and Mrs. Pohl continues to serve its Board of Directors after more than 40 years of service.
Today…A Continued Mission to Help Children and Families
Many women were involved in the prosperity of the Center beginning with founders Mrs. George Marston, Mrs. E.S. Babcock, Mrs. W.W. Stewart, Mrs. Carl S. Murray, and Miss E.M. Chapin. Women who served as presidents included Mrs. H.P. Davison, Mrs. M.H. Lesem, Mrs. Julius Wangenheim, Mrs. B.J. O’Neill, and Bernice Cosgrove. Another woman, Mrs. Winifred Lee Percival, served as Superintendent. It is also noted that George Horne served as Superintendent and Executive Director for some time.
Throughout its history, the Center was known to provide care, affection, and understanding for children and it was never considered a “disciplinary institution.” In its early years, the Home provided temporary or permanent housing for orphans, half-orphans, and abandoned children. Children were also taken in, in the case of sickness or an emergency in the family. During that period, the ages of children ranged from a few weeks to 14 years old.
In the 1950s and with a new relocation to its current site in Kearny Mesa, the San Diego Center for Children was able to transform its mission to focus on children from 3 to 21 years of age, to become an accredited center for therapeutic, education and foster care and continues to serve San Diego’s most vulnerable children suffering from behavior and emotional health struggles.
Today, with 8 program sites and community-based services within hundreds of homes and schools across San Diego County, the Center empowers over 1,000 people every day.
On May 4, 2017, the San Diego Center for Children held its annual gala to celebrate its 130th birthday anniversary, its accomplishments and support from the community. It was a milestone event where hundreds of guests enjoyed an evening of entertainment and special memories. Held at the Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina, a special presentation on the Center’s history brought guests down “memory lane” and reminded the community of the extraordinary contribution made by our community’s founding families and civic leaders who stepped into their role as champions and guardians of San Diego’s vulnerable children.
And the legacy continues today.
Photo Credit: San Diego History Center