Most centenarians suffer from dimmed vision and low energy. But at the age of 100, Infant Welfare Society of Evanston still shows the sort of foresight and vigor that animated its founders in 1913.

IWSE has a history of spotting problems before they show up on others’ radar screens and of addressing them in effective ways. By adapting its services to societal changes, the organization has been able to adhere to its mission of helping children and families thrive.

Many aspects of IWSE have changed. Its original focus on infant mortality and children’s health has shifted to early childhood education and family support. The stakes – children who have the emotional and cognitive skills they need to enter kindergarten and the world – are as high as they were when Infant Welfare was dispensing life-preserving milk and immunizations.

The structure of the organization has changed as well. In 1946 IWSE split from Infant Welfare of Chicago to become an independent non-profit entity. Volunteers play a vital but less visible role than they did in the days when they distributed milk, sewed layettes, weighed well babies in clinic and accompanied nurses on home visits. Now a staff of professionals presides over a budget of almost $2.5 million, teaches and assesses the children enrolled in its two nurseries, and conducts home visits and parent education through IWSE’s Family Support program.

Instead of the string of health clinics it once oversaw, IWSE has two education facilities: the headquarters at 2200 Main St., home to the Baby Toddler Nursery and a warren of staff offices, and a rental space in the Family Focus building that houses the Teen Baby Nursery.

Its third program, Family Support, involves 70 families, most of whom are struggling with multiple problems such as substance abuse or homelessness and whom caseworkers visit weekly. The caseworkers listen, connect parents to resources, help them cope with their child’s current development and anticipate future stages and, says IWSE Executive Director Cass Wolfe, “help them understand they are their child’s first teacher.”

Through all the changes, IWSE’s pioneering spirit is still evident.

The organization was launched to improve children’s health. At the turn of the last century, one in 10 Chicago-area children died before their first birthday. Knowing that tainted milk was one cause, IWSE assumed responsibility for distributing pasteurized milk.

By 1918, with its infant mortality rate still at 60 deaths for every 1,000 births, Evanston realized that more than milk was at issue. The following year 25 individuals gave $100 each to open the first IWSE clinic in the Strout house. The Evanston City Council approved funds to support the prenatal and children’s clinic and visits by a nurse to homes of disadvantaged families.

IWSE efforts apparently paid off. Evanston made national news in 1932 with one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the country. By then IWSE had six clinics staffed with seven pediatricians, five nurses, one social worker and one nutritionist. The clinics saw 1,900 preschoolers – 40 percent of Evanston children under the age of 5.

Depression-era cutbacks in the City budget made it necessary for IWSE volunteers to take over the finances and directorship of the organization in 1933; Evanston’s infant mortality rate continued to fall. It reached zero in 1940 for the 1,244 children in the care of IWSE clinics.

IWSE was in the vanguard in recognizing the connection between mental and behavioral and physical health. They added a psychiatric social worker to clinic staff in 1925, and in 1939 began offering classes led by a psychologist.

More mothers of at-risk families were finding it necessary to work outside the home, and by the late 1960s visiting nurses had identified an otherwise unnoticed need for quality care for infants and toddlers. Again a leader, IWSE opened the Baby Toddler Nursery – the first infant-toddler center in Illinois – in the First Congregational Church in 1971. It had room for 25 children and soon had a waiting list of 200.

Today there are 70 children in the Baby Toddler Nursery, Illinois’ longest-running independent licensed daycare facility. Ms. Wolfe says 42 of the children are in the federal government’s early headstart program, a couple are on subsidy only and 15 pay full tuition. IWSE is “committed to mirroring the diversity of Evanston,” she says, adding, “We know a mixed socio-economic [classroom] supports learning.”

Federal guidelines set early headstart class size at eight children; the teacher/child ratio at Baby Toddler Nursery is even better, three teachers for eight children.

The IWSE nurseries and Family Support Program, like previous Infant Welfare efforts, operate at the cutting edge of their field. Their educational practices are informed by research that has sparked “a new view of early education,” Ms. Wolfe says. While in the past experts held that “education started at age 6,” she says, the latest brain research shows “that we can
do a tremendous amount to support learning in the first five years.”

That new research became available in the 1990s, says Ms. Wolfe. A central revelation in publications such as “From Neurons to Neighborhoods,” she says, is that “relationships are critical to brain development.”

Children “need strong, positive human interactions” to create the foundations on which to build subsequent development, Ms. Wolfe says. Small class size at both IWSE nurseries fosters those interactions, she says, as does the fact that the well-educated staff members “talk constantly.” They enrich vocabulary by “singing, talking and reading a lot” and integrate early math, science and literacy skills into daily activities.

IWSE takes social development very seriously. “We’re helping children to find their own voices,” Ms. Wolfe says, “to use their words to stand up for themselves and interact in a positive way.”

IWSE was ahead of the curve, when in 1983, it began providing developmental screening and early interventional services for babies and toddlers. Experts now know, Ms. Wolfe says, that a child who has six or seven other stresses added to significant trauma is “almost certain to face developmental disabilities.” IWSE hopes to catch those issues “early enough that by 3, they’ve conquered the difficulty so it won’t burden them in school,” Ms. Wolfe says.

Providing a “stable, consistent loving environment” for up to 16 babies in the Teen Baby Nursery has an added benefit, she says: “It allows the moms to concentrate on finishing high school.” Ninety percent of them do finish. In addition, she adds, frequent home visits “help [the teens] understand what it means to be a mom.”

A long-time pacesetter, presently a member of the Childcare Network of Evanston and contributor to a nascent, community-wide conversation on literacy, Infant Welfare Society of Evanston celebrates not 100 years of solitude but its century of involvement.