Deaconess Foundation Celebrates 125 Years of Serving St. Louis

As leaders of the Deaconess Foundation celebrate the ministry’s 125th anniversary, they’re recognizing a mission that has developed from strong roots to serve new needs.

“We have the same mission, but the expression of it has changed over time,” says the Rev. Starsky D. Wilson, president and CEO of the CHHSM member ministry in St. Louis, Mo. “We’ve always focused on the health of our community, and we’ve always supported vulnerable populations.”

Deaconess has adapted to changing times and needs. In 1889, the Evangelical Deaconess Society of St. Louis consecrated the first Evangelical Deaconess Sisters in the U.S. to care for marginalized German immigrants. The Deaconess Society opened the Deaconess Hospital of St. Louis in 1930 and established a school of nursing in 1943. However, in the changing health care environment of the 1990s, the hospital system transitioned into a grantmaking foundation focused on meeting the needs of children in St. Louis.

“There’s a powerful continuity to our history, rooted in faith heritage, that’s focused on the improved health of our community and people,”

Wilson says. “When we transitioned into a grantmaking foundation, we realized that the well-being of children is an indicator of public health.”

Today, Deaconess Foundation strengthens the community’s capability to care for children by investing in endeavors that improve the health and well-being of children, engaging the community around key issues and advocating for change. In honor of the organization’s 125th anniversary, the foundation is offering a special health grant of $500,000 over five years to be made to a health care organization in the region that is expanding access for underserved populations. In addition, small grants are provided to child-serving organizations and local United Church of Christ congregations for projects related to children and youth. Deaconess also gives more than $100,000 per year in scholarship grants for nursing students.

In 2004, the foundation launched the Deaconess Impact Partnership. The program strengthens the operations and leadership of child and youth-serving nonprofits in St. Louis by providing support over a four-year period. In 2013, it initiated the community capacity-building program, which invests in building public will, collective action for children and advancing child-friendly public policy.

“We have worked with 20 impact partner organizations,” Wilson says. “Their combined reach is about 10 percent of total children in our community. The more organizations we strengthen, the stronger our community and further our reach.”

The foundation recognized the anniversary with a dinner at Eden Seminary in Webster Groves, Mo., on April 22. The celebration, attended by approximately 300 child advocates and UCC members, marked the release of the 125th anniversary book, “Deaconess Spirit,” as well as the entry of the Deaconess archives into the Archives at Eden, a collection of historical records and manuscripts about the seminary and the Evangelical Synod of North America. Other events this year will include a family celebration and child advocacy forum on July 26, and a symposium on child well-being in November.

Wilson reflects on the power of the foundation’s rich history.

“We gave a nursing scholarship to a student at Rockhurst College named DaKari Burrell,” Wilson says. “I met him volunteering to paint a local church with students from Loyola Academy of St Louis, one of our impact partners. Burrell doesn’t look like the original Deaconess Sisters, but their spirit lives on in him.”

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