During the presidential election we were endlessly confronted with partisan battles over big versus small government and “self-reliance” versus the “safety net.”
By Paul Hicks
During the presidential election we were endlessly confronted with partisan battles over big versus small government and “self-reliance” versus the “safety net.” Seldom was there any acknowledgment of the important role played by non-profit organizations all over the country, especially during the current period of service cutbacks and unemployment.
The contributions made by non-profits to the development of small-town America are well represented in the history of Rye, at least since the late nineteenth century. From its founding in 1660, to the Revolution, Rye, along with other colonial communities, relied mainly on the churches to provide for orphans, the homeless, and others in need of assistance.
According to Charles Baird’s “The History of Rye”, “After the War, the care of the poor devolved in this county as elsewhere upon the county officials. In 1784, the board of supervisors had ‘a settlement with the late Church wardens for the arrears due for supporting the poor.’”
Even though the local houses of worship have long been freed from the legal requirement to provide for the welfare of the community, they have continued to make assisting those in need an important goal of their missions. The Rye Presbyterian Church states on its website that it allocates at least 10 percent of its annual operating budget to mission giving, of which half generally goes to support projects within the community.
The Church of the Resurrection website notes that its Outreach Committee “seeks out and supports ways to protect and promote the dignity of life of all people by helping them to receive the basic necessities: food, clothing, shelter, healthcare and education.”
In addition to the community’s houses of worship, Rye has benefitted from numerous other non-profit organizations, some of which have been operating for more than fifty years, while many others are much newer. The longest functioning of them all is the Rye Free Reading Room, which was founded in 1884 as an outgrowth of a Young Men’s Association of Christ’s Church. It moved into its present building in 1913, thanks to substantial gifts of land and building funds by Mrs. William H. Parsons, George D. Barron, and other generous residents.
During the more than 100 years that it operated (1913-2005) United Hospital received wide support from the community in both funds and volunteers. It traced its origins to 1889 when a group of fourteen women in Port Chester formed an organization called the Ladies Hospital Association. The name was changed in 1910 to the United Hospital of Port Chester, Rye, and Harrison.
A year later, women in Rye started groups called the “Twigs” to support the hospital, which opened in 1913. Over the years, the amount of money raised by the Twigs through its annual fairs, golf tournaments, and other activities, as Rye historian Marcia Dalphin wrote, “staggers the imagination.” The Twig organization, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2011, still provides important support for the Port Chester-Rye-Rye Brook EMS and other health-related causes.
Although a branch of the YMCA had been started earlier, it began to expand its membership in 1916 under a new director and moved into a building it shared with the Boy Scouts troop on Purchase Street. In 1924, the “Y” moved to its present location on Locust Avenue and became, in the words of Marcia Dalphin, “the center for multifarious activities and a Mecca for boys and young men of the Village.”
Some of the oldest organizations have evolved in mission and changed names over time, such as the Women’s Loyal League. It was founded in 1895 to deal with a variety of social problems, including poverty, unemployment, and youth delinquency. In 1907, its name was changed to the League of Social Service, and its mission shifted more to vocational training.
The League’s mission changed again in the 1920s, focusing more on nutrition and well-baby training as well as promoting employment of nurses the schools. It ultimately evolved into the Visiting Nurses Association. As Marcia Dalphin wrote in her book, “Fifty Years of Rye”, “The public spirited women who made up the membership of the League were obviously the pioneers in many humanitarian movements in Rye.”
Among these “movements” was the Rye Garden Club, which was formed in 1915 and has continued to expand its activities into environmental education and beautification projects along with the Little Garden and Ceres clubs. Other organizations that were led primarily by women included the local Girl Scouts troops, which date to 1930 and are still going strong as well as the Woman’s Club that has been operating since 1933.
Not all of the organizing of non-profits in the early part of the last century was done by women. The American Legion Post was started in 1919 by men returning from service in World War I, and the Rye Lions Club was formed by business and professional men in 1927. It was joined in 1962 by Rye’s Rotary Club, which is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year.
Growth in the population of Rye and the surrounding area led to expansion of local businesses and the creation in 1934 of the Rye Board of Trade, later renamed the Chamber of Commerce. The efforts of its members over many decades in maintaining the appeal of the downtown shopping area has helped Rye retain a small town spirit in the community.
Another organization that helped to unify the community for many years was the Community Chest, which started in 1933 and changed its name to the United Way in the 1960s. It now operates on a regional rather than local basis, but in its first year, the beneficiaries of its funding were limited to the United Hospital, the YMCA, the Red Cross, the League for Social Services, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.
In more recent years, Rye has been enriched by the addition of a number of cultural and educational organizations. The Rye Arts Center was founded in 1960 by five local families and in 1972 moved into current home at 51 Milton Road. It is now the largest multi-arts center in Westchester.
The Rye Historical Society was formed by a group of local residents in 1964, initially to preserve the Square House. It has since become an accredited Museum and important resource for local history, including its archives at the Knapp House, Westchester’s oldest surviving house.
Wainwright House, which was given to a foundation in 1951 describes itself as “the oldest non-profit, non-sectarian holistic learning center in the United States.” In addition to its own programs and activities, it is frequently used for lectures, concerts and receptions by other nonprofit organizations.
The Jay Heritage Center (JHC) is a non-profit organization established in 1993 and chartered by the State Board of regents to preserve the Peter Augustus Jay House and manage the site as an educational center. Through its restoration of the home and expansion of programs it has become an increasingly important resource for residents of the community and beyond.
Adjacent to the JHC is Marshlands Conservancy, which along with Edith Read Sanctuary and the Rye Nature Center provides precious open space, woodland and shore habitats that enrich the community. Each of these preserves is supported by a non-profit organization, the most active of which is the Friends of the Rye Nature Center.
There are numerous other local benevolent and volunteer organizations that support various causes, such as the Rye Youth Council, which was established in 1963, to SPRYE, established in 2011, which helps older residents remain comfortably in their homes and active in the community.
Alexis de Tocqueville, a French civil servant, visited the U.S. in 1831-32 and wrote of his observations in “Democracy in America.” One passage from his book well describes the success of non-profits: “In the United States, as soon as several inhabitants have taken an opinion or an idea they wish to promote in society, they seek each other out and unite together once they have made contact. From that moment, they are no longer isolated but have become a power seen from afar whose activities serve as an example and whose words are heeded.”