For more than two centuries, the New York City Mission Society has been on the frontlines of the war on poverty, providing critically needed support for children, young adults, and families in New York City’s most underserved communities.
New York City was amid a severe economic crisis crowded with newly arrived immigrants, the so-called “poor, huddled masses,” rampant with disease and widespread poverty. The New York City Mission Society (then called the New York Religious Tract Society) formed to inspire hope to the masses that flooded the city. At the time, our mission was to provide Christian tracts to every New Yorker willing to receive them.
After a brief period under the umbrella of the American Tract Society, and with the help of William E. Dodge, the New York Religious Tract Society was reconstituted in 1827 as the New York City Tract Society. Dodge, a prominent merchant, eventually served as a congressman from New York City. He was also a guiding force behind the establishment of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). To this day, the Cleveland Dodge Family Foundation remains actively involved in the work of the New York City Mission Society
The Mission Society soon took form as one of New York City’s most respected and unique social service organizations, creating ward libraries that were a forerunner to New York City’s public library system, an industrial boys school, an employment agency for women and children, a visiting nurse service in Lower Manhattan, and trips to the country for urban children which led to the creation of the Fresh Air Fund.
Innovation remained a major theme in the Mission Society’s work in the 20th century. The Mission Society maintained firm authority over its churches, overseeing their budgets, raising funds for endowments, and other vital administrative responsibilities. Over the years, the Mission Society served people from various religious faiths and collaborated with diverse faith-based institutions.
The Mission Society operated two camping programs, Camp Minisink, and Camp Sharparoon for children and teens, and Camp Green Acres, for families and seniors. The camps, which offered academic as well as recreational opportunities, helped to bridge the learning gap that often occurs during the summer months. Thanks to the Mission Society, young and adult alike could relax in the countryside, where they partook in recreational and cultural activities and made excursions to nearby cultural and historical sites
In collaboration with several local churches, the Mission Society initiated New York City’s first sleepaway camp for African-American children. Originally located on Staten Island, the camp moved to Dutchess County when the Mission Society received a donation of land bearing the name “Minisink.” With this move, the camp became known as Camp Minisink. In addition to create New York City’s first camp for African-American children, the Mission Society developed programs that have taught and continue to teach academics, teamwork, discipline, and leadership skills to countless young people. Values such as kindness, compassion, and respect were at the core of the Mission Society’s work.
Minisink staff left their church offices and established headquarters in a townhouse at 348 Convent Avenue – and Minisink Townhouse was born. The Minisink Townhouse operated numerous youth development programs during the school year, including the Leadership Training Class, the Girls Choir, the Dance Club, and the Indian Lore Club. Among other things, these programs developed in young people a heightened sense of self-esteem, providing them with strong role models, and supporting their academic growth.
The Mission Society opened a new Minisink Townhouse on 142nd Street and Malcolm X Boulevard in Central Harlem, bringing most of its programs under one roof and creating a vibrant community center in the heart of the neighborhood. Alumni of Mission Society Minisink programs formed active and vibrant groups, and many host reunions to this day. Many of the thousands of children and families who have come through Minisink’s doors have viewed it as a second home, a supportive and safe environment where they developed their character and honed their skills. Wilbert E. Burgie started the Camp Minisink Cadet Corps, which later grew to serve over 3,000 young men and women and for several years fielded a Drum and Bugle Corps, known as The Warriors, which won many awards over the years.
Camp Minisink moved to the former Camp Sharparoon grounds in Dover Plains. A new building for The Tapawingo Honor Society was built and dedicated with gifts from many well-known people of color, including Stevie Wonder, Harry Belafonte and Sammy Davis Jr. Until the organization sold these campgrounds in 2005, the Mission Society’s camping programs defined summer for generations of inner-city teens and adults.
The Mission Society took a decidedly more secular direction, formally ending its relationships with churches but retaining the core values that had always characterized its services: dignity, kindness, and respect. The organization began to provide services within public schools, offering attendance improvement, after-school, and drop-out prevention programs in Harlem and the Bronx.
The Mission Society established its first Learning to Work program at Harlem Renaissance High School and its Amachi/NY mentoring program for children with incarcerated parents. Learning to Work programs help students graduate from high school, place them in internships to expose them to the work world, and ensure they are ready to attend college.
The Mission Society continued its focus on serving children and families in New York City through programs like Learning to Work and an enhanced the Power Academy, for the academic support of school-age children, along with before/after school programs, and a Summer Youth Employment Program. The organization held a Bicentennial Gala – a celebration of 200 years of continuous service.