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Social reformer Lillian Wald remembered for bringing health care, other services to Lower East Side

Settlement founded by humanitarian Lillian Wald thriving decades later
Settlement founded by humanitarian Lillian Wald thriving decades later 02:52

NEW YORK -- This Women's History Month, CBS2 is remembering humanitarian Lillian Wald, one of the most influential social reformers of all time. 

She pioneered programs -- from visiting nurses, to free school lunches. She also founded a New York City settlement that continues to thrive and expand.

Since 1893, the Henry Street Settlement has delivered health care, social services and lessons in everything from language to music to Lower East Side residents. 

Wald, its founder, lived from 1867 to 1940. Her parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe, and she was raised in Rochester with wealth and privilege. 

Nursing brought her to a poverty-stricken Lower East Side, where she made house calls, saved lives and, over the course of more than four decades, changed New York City for the better -- and not just in terms of health care. 

"She was a public health nurse, but she was also an immigrant rights activist, she was a labor activist, she was a co-founder of the NAACP," said Katie Vogel, public historian for the settlement. "She was affecting change, but she couldn't even vote."

Wald believed children should have clean and organized places to play, instead of city streets. In 1899, she co-founded a league that resulted in Seward Park on the Lower East Side. It's recognized as the first permanent municipal playground in the nation. 

She also brought social reforms to the city's public schools. 

"Free school lunch programs, special education classes in public schools, school nurses," Vogel said. 

"She was a queer person. She wouldn't have used a term like that in the 1890s or early 1900s, but we have love letters between her and a few women," she went on to say.

In the 130 years since Wald founded this place and made it her home, it has grown to 18 different sites with a total of 60 programs. 

"The things that she cared about are the things that we care about now -- equity, access, inclusion, fairness, opportunity and service," said David Garza, Henry Street Settlement's president and CEO.

Garza said Wald gave us a blueprint that endures, and it begins with treating everyone with dignity, respect and care.

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