Bailey retires after 43 years in social service in Independence

By Mike Genet
The Examiner

In a long career of social service work, Bruce Bailey has constantly met with all sorts of people in various forms of life crises.  

His office at the Community Service League’s headquarters in Independence provided the ideal antidote, with instrumental music in background, an electric wax melter for soothing scents and what he calls the “Wall of Dreams,” a collection of paper printout pictures from his family’s various vacations over the years. 

“Other people might complain it would put them to sleep, but it doesn’t,” he said. 

Bruce Bailey handles a call regarding the food pantry at the Community Services League during his last days of work before retirement after 43 years in social work.

Some of those pictures might be divvied up among colleagues, but Bailey will be able to produce plenty more pictures soon enough. 

Bailey, who started at CSL as a site manager and has served as vice president of income supports and a family stability coach, retired this week after 13 years at CSL, capping a 43-year career in social work mainly centered around Independence.  

By the end of the week, he and his wife Carolyn, having already sold the house and downsized possessions, will have started their ‘round-the-country travels in a new truck and camper trailer.    

“I’m ready to go back to those,” he said, gesturing at his vacation pictures. About to turn 65, Bailey and his wife want to travel while they still have good health. 

Doug Cowan, president/CEO of Community Services League, said Bailey has been a “walking encyclopedia of resources for families,” and while his institutional knowledge has been passed on to colleagues at the nonprofit and many others working in social services, Cowan acknowledges Bailey will leave behind big, beloved shoes to fill. 

“I’ve been at CSL a little bit over 11 years,” Cowan said, “and one of things I hear all the time out in the community is, ‘How is Bruce Bailey doing?’ People will talk with me, and they might go into a story about Bruce Bailey helped them years ago, or how caring he is. There are literally thousands of people he’s helped.” 

“There are things that people come to us for help with … It could be hundreds of things. Because of Bruce’s longevity in the field, I find myself almost every day saying, ‘Go ask Bruce.’ He just knows how to connect people.” 

Bruce Bailey, who retired this week after 43 years in social, is shown with Community Services League colleague Anita Aubuchon during an event at Sermon Community Center in Independence.

Cowan said Bailey’s “caring, calm demeanor” sets him apart, and he can relate to the relaxing feel of Bailey’s office. 

“It probably feels like you’re sitting on the sofa of a friend’s house,” Cowan said. “He puts you at ease and makes you feel like most important person in the world.” 

Bailey grew up on the Kansas side of the metro area, earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Kansas, but couldn’t land a job among a glut of new teachers at the time, he said. 

Instead, he landed at the first with the state family services department, working out of an Independence office near Main and Walnut streets.  

“My dad was a lay minister, so I grew up with him taking phone calls and connecting people,” Bailey said. “I’ve always loved the marriage between education and social work.”  

He later became director of social ministries for the Community of Christ Center Mission in Independence, and during that time started working with the food pantry service that later got handed off to CSL, where he again oversaw it. That operation, along with several other CSL services became amplified but also more difficult during the pandemic. 

“It threw a monkey wrench in all of it,” he said. “We had to figure out how to distribute food in a pandemic. We did the drive-thru, we came to perfect that and had to to move it (to the Community of Christ Auditorium parking lot) because it got so big.” 

Bailey drew on his education training to teach parenting classes with the Child Abuse Prevention Association, and he said it also hit home in learning how to deal with a troubled child. In his case it meant leaving one in jail a bit to keep them away from poor influences. 

“It’s easy to tell others what to do,” he said of parenting, “but it’s really hard to do it yourself. Parenting is full of hard choices.” 

Bailey said he’s grown accustomed to role of go-to person for answers around the office, and acknowledges it could be difficult to let that mentality go, but Cowan said Bailey’s legacy has already been passed on to the next generation of social workers, whether it be through colleagues or interns he’s worked with. 

“There was a time when Bruce had to be the keeper of all knowledge,” Cowan said. “In his 43 years, the social service industry has changed so much, as have all industries. It used to be about helping people through the day, and now we want to create deeper, more lasting relationships with folks. He adapted well to that change.” 

Bailey’s colleagues hosted a retirement open house Wednesday afternoon at BlendWell Community Cafe on U.S. 24 and created the Bruce Bailey Retirement Matching Challenge Fund. Funds raised will help clients who need to obtain a copy of their birth certificate, state ID/driver’s license, or Social Security card – an ID that can help employment opportunities or access to many support programs. 

“It’s been a pleasure to see families be able to go to bed and not have to worry about that next day’s meal or paying that bill or getting evicted,” Bailey said. “They can rest assured that life is OK.”