Help's Angels

Lawrence’s Social Service League is in its element in these tough times


Jean Ann Pike is no stranger to desperation.

As manager of the Social Service League, she deals daily—intimately—with all sorts of people in need. These days, there are just more of them.

"I'm seeing a lot of new faces lately," says Jean Ann, who estimates that over the last few months some 40 percent more customers have shopped her store at 9th and Rhode Island. She says first-time customers account for almost all of the increase.

"The ones that surprise me are the ones that pull up in a nice car, but they're losing the house," says Jean Ann. "And medical bills are killing people. I have a lawyer coming in now because of family medical bills. This health care system is going to bankrupt a lot of folks."

Whatever a customer’s situation, the League is usually able to meet their needs upon request—and at Jean Ann's discretion.

"Give me a good story or a referral from another agency and we'll take care of you," she says. A cardboard sign on the wall reads: "Pricing based on content and attitude." That is, people are only asked to pay what they can afford—if anything.

Shoppers on a budget are well familiar with the Social Service League's store, one of the few thrift shops remaining in town. The 138-year-old limestone building at 905 Rhode Island doesn’t have the cavernous storage or endless shelf space of a Wal-Mart—but it makes efficient use of everything it does have.

Shelves are packed, neatly, with all kinds of goods—clothing, shoes, bedding, housewares, furniture, toys, bicycles, LPs, books... The League takes most anything that's clean, useful, and that can fit in their store.

Within the daily bustle of the store, Pike also administers a number of discreet humanitarian services. The League provides eye exams and glasses for children and adults. In partnership with Payless, they’re able to provide shoes for school children. They help unfortunate women turn their lives around. They supply clothing to the homeless, and to those starting afresh with job interviews and new jobs.

How to donate The Social Service League accepts donations of most anything that's clean, useful, and fits in its store. Donations are accepted at the store, 905 Rhode Island, during business hours: Wed. 9-4p.m. Thu. 9-p.m. Fri. 9-4p.m. Sat. 9-2p.m.

Everything—all goods, all services, all the money that keeps the League open—is donated.

"When things are tough, it's so easy to look inward and focus solely on your own problems," says Chuck Magerl , owner of Free State Brewery, whose recent benefit brought in nearly $10,000 for the League. A $22,000 windfall came this year from the Lawrence St. Patrick's Day Parade group. Benefits at downtown clubs with local bands donating their music and time, have also helped the League keep up with demand. Just three months into the year, the SSL hasn't seen money like this in a long time. In all of 2008, the store brought in around $40,000—money that pays Pike's salary and all operating expenses.

"The reality is that it's even more important to give back when things are tight,” he says. “Staying vigilant to the well-being of others is essential to building a strong, healthy community."

Past Event

Social Service League monthly meeting

  • Tuesday, March 31, 2009, 6 p.m.
  • Social Service League, 905 Rhode Island St., Lawrence
  • All ages / Free


Past Event

Social Service League Chili Feed

  • Sunday, April 19, 2009, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Social Service League, 905 Rhode Island St., Lawrence
  • All ages / Free


The League was born in 1863, in the wake of Quantrill's raid. When Lawrence was burned to the ground by pro-slavery raiders, leagues to aid the victims and help rebuild sprang up as vigorously as grasses after a prairie fire. Distilled from these groups, the Social Service League was issued a charter of incorporation by the state of Kansas in 1911. In 1932, it settled into its current location. Those are Lawrence’s roots as a community strong with a tradition of altruism.

A century later, Jean Ann at the helm of a legion of Lawrence volunteers and supporters carry the torch.

Jean Ann's role at the League extends far beyond daily operations. She is the face and the heart of the organization—"the mother of it all," says Kathy, one of the League's longtime regular volunteers (who prefers to do so anonymously). Jean Ann does indeed seem to harbor great, motherly reserves of energy—she clearly approaches her work as a labor of love with plenty of good humor.

The League's volunteers arrive at the store at 10 a.m Wednesday through Saturday. "Regular volunteers, in general, tend to be from the lower end of the economic system," says Jean Ann. "Many of them are paying back the help they received themselves at some time." There are also students and others logging community service time, some working off court-mandated sentences, volunteers referred from other agencies, and SSL regulars. Jean Ann summarily herds them up with her formidable voice and sets them to making order from the chaos stacked and racked in every cranny of the building.

One of those volunteers is SSL board president Merrill Evans. She was born with the pro-community gene. Her mother, Ann Evans, helped get the Lawrence Arts Center off the ground in 1975, and served as its director until 2008. Evans, 28, has a masters in social work and is employed as an emergency screening specialist at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center. She joined the SSL Board in 2008.

"The SSL isn't high-profile or flashy," she says. "We work at street level. That's one of our best attributes.”

A recent article in the New York Times last week describes "a flood of volunteers" overwhelming social service organizations across the nation. Most of these rookie volunteers, reads the article, are newly unemployed professionals—lawyers, bankers, accountants and high-level managers. They come to fill their time constructively, to make connections and maybe to bolster their personal karmic insurance funds.

Past Event

RHVC Day of Caring 2009

  • Saturday, April 25, 2009, 8:30 a.m. to noon
  • Roger Hill Volunteer Center, 2518 Ridge Court, Lawrence
  • All ages / Free


Whatever the motives, charitable organizations like the SSL are delighted with the influx of help.

"The main reason people volunteer is for selfish reasons, to be honest," says volunteer Emily Hampton. “People volunteer mainly to meet new people and to make themselves feel good. And that's totally fine with us, that's what we want people to do. We'll take volunteers any way we can get them

Hampton and Paige Blair are both AmeriCorps volunteers working with the Roger Hill Volunteer Center—a sort of volunteer clearing-house in town, assigning willing helpers to nearly 150 community non-profits.

“For me, too, the (SSL) fills a lot of needs,” Blair says. "The SSL is a reliable source of unexpected recycled treasure—it feeds a sense of object adventure… The inflow of new also encourages me to release out-grown belongings that someone else may be excited to discover."


Life might be a dream and love may make the world go around, but humans can't do much without the basics. The SSL does everything it can, even providing food when possible. It’s an ever-precarious lifeline, though, continually dependant on the mindfulness of neighbors.

"If people stop giving, we're out of business," says Jean Ann.


Emily Hampton 11 years ago

WhooHooo!!! We love you Jean Ann!! This turned our beautifully--well done Tom, Richard and everyone involved!

Susan Rickman 11 years ago

Hey Guys!

Hours for the League are as follows:

Wednesday-Friday 9-4 Saturday 9-2

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