Opening reception helps celebrate 125th year of Social Service League

Jean Ann Pike has noticed the slumping economy in a very tangible way.

Last year, the manager of the Social Service League Store gave away nearly 2,000 sacks of clothing to people in need in Lawrence.

"We've already doubled that this year," she said. "It's the economy. I have people coming in who, two years ago, had a decent job at Sprint."

Of course Sprint's Lawrence operation and several other large employers have closed within the past year, leaving more people in need of the services the League provides.

So although the 1930s and '40s have been declared the peak years for the League by local historians, the service organization that originated 125 years ago as the Associated Charities still plays a pivotal role in the community.

"It's pretty amazing for a volunteer organization in Lawrence to have made it that long," said Larry Northrop, president of the League's board.

The League provides free eye exams, glasses, shoes and coats to Lawrence children. Its Ready to Work program provides two free outfits for people doing job interviews or trying to conform to the dress code at an existing job. It also maintains a food pantry and gives away free sacks of clothing as reimbursement for coupons that are passed out at nearly 25 social service agencies around Lawrence.

Grants, donations and volunteers -- more than 200 of them -- fuel the organization and its store.

"Our bylaws say that we're always going to be the cheapest thrift store in Lawrence," Northrop said. "It's definitely not for profit. We don't charge high prices."

The League struggles with its visibility. On the one hand, they want people who need them to know where they are. But they don't get too upset if the college crowd looking for cheap deals doesn't find the League store as often as they find other thrift stores in town.

"It's a great location for the clientele that we serve. I don't necessarily know that we want it to be highly visible," Northrop said. "We just put up a banner behind the building you can see from the corner of Ninth and Mass. All you have to do is look east."

His vision is to keep the store in its current location, the historic Bromelsick property from which it has operated since November 1937, and keep the building in good shape.

"The location makes it easier for those folks that we serve, which are primarily around the downtown area on the east side, especially in proximity to the various overnight shelter programs," he said.

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