Before there was a United Way of Greenwich, there was a Community Chest. The names are still used interchangeably today. This charitable organization was the outgrowth of the Liberty Loan Drives of World War I. The success of our local fundraising organization today can be directly attributed to one individual - Helen M. Alvord.
Helen Alvord was born on September 21, 1897, in Bryan OH, just outside Toledo, to Justus E. and Ada May (Crum) Alvord. She received a Bachelor's degree from Oberlin College and a Masters in Sociology from Columbia University in New York. When she graduated from college, she started a career dedicated to helping other people. From 1923 to 1927, she worked as a caseworker for the Social Services Federation of Toledo. Helen was the Secretary of the Community Chest in Grand Rapids MI, and then moved on to become an Executive Secretary of the Council of Social Agencies in Troy NY. At the height of the Depression in 1933, she took over as the first Executive Director of the Community Chest and Council in Greenwich. Ms. Alvord served in this position for 35 years until she retired in 1968. She resided in town for a total of 54 years, and lived at 1 Andrews Road.
COURTESY OF THE GREENWICH LIBRARY ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
The Community Chest was in its infancy when Helen took over the reins. It had evolved as a way of centralizing fundraising for a number of organizations. The "Chest" was the fundraising arm, while the "Council" was the planning part of the organization. Prioir to this time, men had primarily taken the role of fundraiser. That was the stereotype. Helen was a pioneer for feminist rights - whether she knew it or not!
During the Depression, there were many in need of the numerous programs that provided relief. Public relief money was drying up, so the private sector had to be tapped. Alvord proved to be a true leader by convincing influential members of the community of the need for social programs. In her very first year, she was able to raise $192,000 - $17,000 over the goal. Alvord was able to get prominent figures in national business involved in the work of the Community Chest. She knew many neighborhood and industrial leaders, and was a great information source on the town and its residents. Under her direction, she was able to get competing interests to work together for the good of the community. Helen also limited duplication of effort by creating a Social Services Exchange to identify people who needed assistance. She worked with Roger Baldwin, a prominent lawyer and politician, to establish Visiting Nurse service to homes and schools. After World War II, she worked to have temporary housing created for returning veterans, and got developers to build housing in Riverside and Cos Cob. This eventually led to the creation of the Greenwich Housing Authority. State funds were obtained for the Adam's Gardens and Armstrong Court residences. Federal funds were procured for Wilber Peck Court and Quarry Knolls. Alvord worked closely with the local papers (Greenwich News-Graphic, Greenwich Press, Stamford Advocate and Port Chester Daily Item ) to promote many social programs in the community.
In her 35-years as head of the Community Chest, she faced many new challenges. The population grew, there were new wars, working mothers needed day care, seniors required special programs. Change was ongoing. It's to Alvord's credit that she and her organization were able to meet the changing needs of the community.
Although modest and self effacing, she was a great leader, who set goals and communicated needs effectively to the community. Helen Alvord was a great success at raising the money to meet the needs of many non-profit organizations. She was able to get people to concentrate on the entire community so that individual sections didn't feel separate. Until the Representative Town Meeting replaced the Town Meeting, special interest groups in town could push for their own agendas, ignoring the needs of the rest of the town. Helen worked for consistency and fairness. She was very dedicated to the town.
After she retired in 1968, she continued to work on social programs. Helen served as the Secretary of the Greenwich Foundation for Community Gifts, as an honorary board member of the United Way, a director of the Greenwich Hospital Corporation and a member of the ARCA Foundation Board. From 1968 to 1970, she served on the National Organization of Community Chests and Councils. She was also a member of the National Association of Social Workers, American Association of University Women, League of Women Voters and the National Institute of Social Sciences. her interest in theater led her to become a member of the Advisory Board of the American Shakespeare Theater in Stratford.
In her honor, the United Way created the Helen M. Alvord Award for Excellence in Humane Services in 1984. Biannually, it recognizes individuals who exemplify the characteristics attributed to Helen Alvord: skill, competence, imagination and a caring concern for the community.
Helen Alvord never married. Perhaps she didn't feel she had the time to devote to a traditional family while carrying out her duties at the Community Chest. One thing is for sure: her dedication and caring helped those in Greenwich who needed the many social programs our town has to offer. She set the bench mark for public service. Alvord was the right person for the right job at the right time. Her leadership shall never be forgotten.
Helen Alvord died on December 12, 1987. Many friends gathered at her memorial service to pay homage to her. She was remembered as a kind, warm, loving individual who knew how to get people to make good things happen in our community. There could be no greater tribute for someone who dedicated her life to the welfare of others. We should all be so lucky to be remembered like this.
The Community Chest and Council; Alvord, H. narrator; Oral History Project, 1975.
First 35 years of the Community Chest and Council; Alvord, H, narrator; Oral History Project, 1975.
Greenwich Time, Hearst Publications