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Our History: EDSD and ECS

The Episcopal Diocese of San Diego (EDSD) stands as a proud and dedicated partner of Episcopal Community Services (ECS). Together, we embody the shared values of compassion, justice, and community engagement. Episcopal Community Services (ECS) has been a beacon of hope and transformation in San Diego. Through its long history and comprehensive range of services, ECS has made a profound impact on the community–providing early childhood education to approximately 2,000 children through the Head Start program, bilingual counseling services to at-risk families and children, addressing the complex challenges faced by long-term homeless and mentally ill clients by providing them with homes and substance abuse treatments, and playing a crucial role in helping individuals recover from substance abuse disorders through counseling and support.

As a diocese, we recognize the vital importance of ECS’s mission to break barriers and transform communities. This steadfast relationship reflects our commitment to fostering a society where everyone has the opportunity to thrive, making ECS an essential pillar of the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego’s journey toward a more just and equitable San Diego.

Nine years after the end of World War I, in 1927, a group of faithful Episcopalians in San Diego came together with a shared vision: to provide support and care for those who were often forgotten by society. This noble cause led to what eventually became Episcopal Community Services, an organization that would go on to make a profound impact on the lives of countless individuals and transform communities across the region.

In its early days, ECS focused on social welfare programs, extending a helping hand to marginalized individuals facing various hardships. Their commitment to service quickly gained recognition as the years passed. In 1954, embracing the spirit of change and growth, the organization expanded its scope to address the wider spectrum of needs within the San Diego community. After forging partnerships with the government, ECS secured its first contract with San Diego County in 1955. This pivotal moment marked a turning point in ECS’s history. The new contract allowed them to provide counseling and job opportunities for men transitioning from correctional institutions, a bold step towards breaking the cycle of recidivism–empowering individuals to build meaningful lives after incarceration.

The Rev. Ralph Bonacker, Director of ECS in 1959, said, “It’s easy to criticize and to point fingers at these men. Society may feel that it has no duty to these men, that they have erred, that they must work out their own salvation. But this simply isn’t so.” 

Mirroring the evolving needs of San Diegans, ECS tackled the pressing issue of homelessness by providing shelter and housing assistance to those in need. In 1979, the San Diego Tribune described an ECS lunch program as first looking like a breadline out of the Depression. “But, up close, the picture is quite different. Men and women from all walks of life are receiving a free, noon meal.” Julia Doughty, then 20, who worked at a health food store and volunteered with ECS, said, “We don’t ask anything of anyone. We don’t make anyone listen to a sermon first in order to get a free meal. We do it because we care about those that don’t have anything.”  

By 1985, ECS had opened the Friend-to-Friend Clubhouse, the first drop-in center for mentally ill homeless people in San Diego. The clubhouse was a place where they could connect, access essential amenities like showers and laundry, make necessary phone calls, securely store their belongings, and, significantly, seek assistance in navigating government benefit programs.

In 2007, after a dispute with the landlord, the ECS Friend-to-Friend Clubhouse eventually closed its doors after 22 years of serving the streets of San Diego. The Union-Tribune reported that Steven J. Gordon, the location’s landlord said, “‘It’s a nuisance and a detraction for downtown and for the other businesses in the area.’ Social workers ‘don’t belong there.’”

Early on, ECS recognized the importance of access to mental health support. Offering comprehensive services to address the emotional well-being of individuals and families is a standard for ECS’s programs today. Substance use disorder treatment became a vital component of their efforts. By providing support and rehabilitation to those battling addiction, ECS continued to reach out to those on the margins with a helping hand.

ECS’s impact did not stop there. Understanding the significance of early childhood education, ECS sought to ensure that the youngest members of our community received a strong foundation for their future. Through their multifaceted approach to service, ECS acted on their belief that addressing various interconnected needs was key to fostering a strong, vibrant, and just San Diego. 

Today, ECS has a number of wraparound programs to support children and families. The ECS Para Las Familias program provides a range of bilingual early childhood mental health services to low-income children from birth to 12. We know that behavior problems can arise due to trauma, such as illness, accidents, neglect, domestic violence, and child abuse. By offering adult mental health services to parents of children currently enrolled in the program, ECS gives parents the tools to help them heal from their own past traumas in order to create a healthy emotional bond with their children. ECS is again there to fill the gaps in social programming with care-filled service. 

Central to ECS’s success are its core values, guiding every decision and action; belonging, respect, empowerment, exploration, and stewardship form the bedrock of their work. Inclusivity and collaboration are the driving forces behind their community engagement, and they strive for equity in all aspects of their programs.

Today, ECS and the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego continue to work toward an abundant and equitable society where every person can unleash their unlimited potential. With a rich history of compassion, faith, and community engagement, EDSD is proud that ECS embraces the challenges of the future, continuously evolving to meet emerging needs, and inspiring others to join us on the journey toward a better, more compassionate world.

Reflecting on the rich history and enduring partnership between ECS and EDSD, Elizabeth Fitzsimons, CEO of ECS, said:

“ECS, built on a rich history of resilience, continually adapts to our community’s evolving needs. Our partnership with the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego, the origin of our legacy, is fundamental to our mission. From mental health services to homelessness relief and early childhood education, our dedicated team, many with lived experience, tirelessly work to make a difference across our 23 locations. As we reflect on the 7,000 lives we impact annually and celebrate the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego’s 50th anniversary, we acknowledge the immeasurable value our collaboration brings to the community.”

Fitzsimons then went on to commend the leadership of Bishop Susan Brown Snook and highlight the empathetic approach of ECS:

“As the Chief Pastor of EDSD and our ECS Board Chair, Bishop Susan Brown Snook brings invaluable support and leadership to our mission. Our approach is always centered on understanding and addressing the unique circumstances of each individual we serve. Whether assisting a child in our Head Start program or providing a safe space for an adult grappling with addiction and homelessness, our focus remains on building empowering relationships of trust. Encouraged by EDSD’s milestone, we are committed to fostering an abundant and equitable society where all have unlimited potential.”

Over the last 96 years, ECS has touched thousands of lives in San Diego. From providing shelter to offering mental health services, from empowering individuals to nurturing communities, their legacy is one of hope and transformation. The unwavering dedication to breaking barriers and creating opportunities has left an undeniable mark on the landscape of social welfare in San Diego. EDSD takes pride in our continuous involvement in ECS’s journey; while we celebrate EDSD’s 50th anniversary, we’re looking forward to being a part of ECS’s history and future.

And so, the remarkable work of Episcopal Community Services continues, a testament to the power of collective action, the strength of the human spirit, and the profound impact that can be achieved when a community courageously comes together with a shared vision of uplifting lives and transforming communities.  …this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

To learn more about Episcopal Community Services, visit https://www.ecscalifornia.org


Category: #Communications, #Service

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One reply to “Our History: EDSD and ECS

  1. Barbara (Trouble) Wilder | on June 14, 2023

    I well remember having released prisoners working in our yard in the mid-50s . . . my mom was involved with ECS even back then.

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