One hundred years ago, the needs were different for the newly formed Community Welfare League. Heating oil. Hay for the horses of struggling farmers.
“And while what we’re doing is different, the spirit is the same,” said Community Services League President and CEO Doug Cowan.
He spoke Friday evening at a gathering at the Truman Library, part of the group’s ongoing centennial celebration and, on this night, a moment to single out one of the 24 Independence women who founded the group, Bess Truman.
Those women were part of an ecumenical Bible study that had been reading the Book of James in the New Testament, which famously declares that faith without works is dead.
“And so they said we must put our faith into action,” Cowan said.
Today the group has 10 locations in Eastern Jackson County, with food shelves, housing assistance, work-readiness and other programs.
In its front lobby, the Truman Library has on display several items related to Bess Truman’s connection to the Community Services League, showing her close involvement from the group’s founding before she married Harry up until the time he became president in 1945.
“She actually served in an executive role all the way up to the day she moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” Cowan said.
The library will have those on display through the spring. The library’s director, Kurt Graham, said the library, which is looking at ideas to update its exhibits, hears from people that they would like to hear more of Bess’s story, and he suggested that’s likely.
Graham said the public perception of Bess Truman sometimes is a little off.
“You know, Harry Truman was a joiner. … He was a very social person, a people person,” he said. The image of Bess is often the opposite, and he said that’s not right. Bess was “especially very, very committed to helping community.”
He said the degree to which both Trumans took the time to talk with and listen to individuals was remarkable.
“The thing that’s amazing about Harry and Bess Truman is the investment they made in people,” Graham said.
He added, “It is amazing to me to think the impact that couple had on the world.”
The Community Services League also presented awards to nine organizations that have supported it over the years, most of which, Cowan said, have given or helped secure more than $1 million over the years,
• The city of Independence.
• The Community of Christ. Cowan said that support has raised from individuals within the church to congregations to the Central Mission Center and even the national and world levels of the church, which is based in Independence.
• Commerce Trust Company.
• The Greater Kansas City Community Foundation.
• The Hall Family Foundation, which has given the group’s two largest private gifts, including $200,000 to double the size of the Work Express program, which helps people get ready for and find employment.
• Jackson County.
• The Missouri Housing Development Corporation.
• The Truman Heartland Community Foundation.
• The United Way of Greater Kansas City.