Volunteers of America Turns 125

125 years ago, the United States was a very different place.

The year was 1896. Utah had just been admitted as the 45th U.S. state. William McKinley would win the year’s Presidential election. The Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson was in full swing, defining “separate but equal” to uphold racial segregation. The Dow Jones stock market index and the first ever Ford vehicle were both created.

In the midst of these monumental events in our nation’s history, on March 8, 1896 in the Great Hall of New York’s Coopers Union, Volunteers of America was founded by a fearless husband and wife duo, Ballington and Maud Booth.

Ballington was the son of General William Booth, the founder of The Salvation Army. Both Ballington and Maud were passionate social reformers, dedicated to a life of service and assistance to others. Together, they moved from Great Britain to New York City in order to take over and lead The Salvation Army’s forces in the United States.

When Ballington and Maud first arrived in New York, they were thrown into the Industrial Revolution – a society transitioning away from a focus on agriculture, with countless people homeless and living on the streets, with the unemployed desperately seeking work. After a few years of furthering The Salvation Army’s mission and mounting differences on how to best serve individuals in need, Ballington and Maud broke away from The Salvation Army to form Volunteers of America. The Booth’s decided the core of their new organization’s mission would be based on a simple pledge: “go wherever we are needed, and do whatever comes to hand.”

In furthering this mission, one of the Booth’s first actions as leaders of Volunteers of America was to aid the poor and impoverished in New York’s tenement districts, establishing day nurseries and summer camps and providing housing to single men and women in need. As the organization grew, VOA would expand their services during The Great Depression, mobilizing to provide assistance to the unemployed, hungry and homeless with the establishment of employment bureaus, wood yards, soup kitchens and “Pennie Pantries” and then during both World Wards in operating canteens, overnight lodging and Sunday breakfasts for soldiers and sailors in need.

In the early days of VOA, Ballington and Maud also made the choice to enter an area of social service and advocacy that was not as common at the time: prison reform. Maud was instrumental in advocating for the right of those who were exiting the criminal justice system, believing help was needed and should be given to aid in their successful acclimation and smooth transition back into society. She founded our nation’s first halfway houses, known as Hope Halls, creating a model that VOA continues today.

Maud Booth became known as the “Little Mother” of the prisoners and a real leader of early reentry efforts – a remarkable feat for a woman in a time when women had little to no voice and were certainly not expected to be outspoken leaders. Maud also became a pioneer in providing services to ALL those in need – defining the organization as equal in providing comprehensive services for both men and women and assistance regardless of gender.

When Maud first began her work in the criminal justice system, treatment and rehabilitation for the incarcerated population was not considered necessary or needed. However, she recognized the value of both immediately. Today along the same line, many people see rehabilitation services for perpetrators of domestic violence as counterintuitive – however, VOA has been offering treatment to batterers for years, helping these individuals identify, address and correct the core issues of their problems.

Since our inception in 1896, VOA has remained rooted in Ballington and Maud’s original ideals of going wherever and doing whatever is needed to order to best serve those in need – and never being afraid of tackling oftentimes tough, controversial issues.

“Volunteers of America has been incredibly adaptive over the years while remaining true to our original mission of serving those in need,” said Dan Lombardo, President and CEO of Volunteers of America Delaware Valley. “However, we still have room to evolve and grow. By really being attuned to people’s needs, becoming more active in dealing with racial prejudice and continuing to develop cutting-edge programs with outcomes-based research, I am certain our organization will be able to keep passionately serving those in need for the next 125 years and beyond.”

In 125 years, our country has gone through countless change – internet booms, electric cars, pandemic, wars, cultural and political revolutions. Change may be inevitable; however, the need for continued education, outreach, and selfless service will always endure. As our society continues to evolve and the needs of individuals change, VOA’s commitment to serving our communities’ most vulnerable populations will never waver.

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