FARGO — A social service agency that’s housed orphans, facilitated adoptions, provided disaster relief and been the center of sometimes controversial refugee resettlement is marking a major milestone.

Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota is celebrating 100 years of helping people in need. Children have been its focus since day one.

CEO Jessica Thomasson said the organization was founded by immigrants, many of whom were Lutheran. “They looked around and saw kids and families in need and came together,” Thomasson said.

Started in 1919 as the Lutheran Children’s Home Finding Society, the organization aimed to find homes for orphaned, abandoned and neglected children. The organization has since blossomed into a provider of dozens of services relating to the most challenging social issues of our time.

In honor of the century mark, LSS has a series of events and publications planned.

A statewide potluck is set for Sunday, Feb. 24, when North Dakota’s 485 Lutheran churches are encouraged to hold potluck dinners after their Sunday services.

“There’s usually Jell-O and hotdish involved,” Thomasson said with a laugh.

Collectible cookbooks and keepsake publications of the LSS quarterly newsletter will be published, and galas will be held on both ends of the state as a way to thank donors and supporters.

Help in times of war, disaster

In 1936, the organization became known as the Lutheran Welfare Society of North Dakota.

It would become a vital support to families during the Great Depression and World War II, holding clothing and food drives and providing foster homes to children whose families were destitute.

As the years passed, the organization became involved in disaster relief, helping victims of the devastating 1957 tornado in Fargo, and historic flooding in 1997 and 2009. It became known as Lutheran Social Services in 1969.

Though its scope of service is broad, LSS is perhaps most often associated with refugee resettlement.

It’s taken criticism over the number of refugees who have come to North Dakota, in recent years in particular. However, its help for refugees escaping war-torn parts of the world dates back many decades.

In 1948, following WWII, Polish-born teenager Alex Golubowicz was the first refugee to arrive in Fargo through the federal Displaced Persons Act.

Thomasson said nearly all of the refugees being resettled now are joining family members already here. “To be reunited and know that they get to start again is true joy,” she said.

A refugee and a teen mom

Ena Vogel, 76, of Fargo, was among those early refugees.

She came here with her parents by way of Estonia, a small country in northern Europe, when she was 6 years old. Her family had spent three years in displaced persons camps in Germany.

“I don’t remember the fear, as such, because I had the love and security of my parents, but life was just so different,” Vogel said.

The agency sponsored her family — helping them find housing and work until they could get established. They’re gestures for which she and her family are forever grateful.

“They allowed me to have a life of freedom,” Vogel said.

Christy Goulet also has LSS to thank for positively impacting her life.

She was just 14 and pregnant with her second child when she moved into Luther Hall, an LSS residence.

Her family had a long history of alcohol and drug abuse, and neglect. The structure provided by Luther Hall, and the counseling she received there, helped her move toward a sober, happy life.

“It was a good reminder that if you can’t understand your feelings and emotions, go and ask for help,” Goulet said.

She is now a devoted mother and grandmother, artist and employee at an assisted living facility.

Helping people like Vogel and Goulet is what LSS has been about since its inception.

“They’ve done it quietly, they’ve done it namelessly. They just look around and see something that needs to be done. Whether it’s popular or not, they do it,” Thomasson said.

Lutheran Social Services of ND timeline

1919 Lutheran Children’s Home Finding Society incorporated

1925 Luther Hall opened

1936 Lutheran Welfare Society (LWS) of North Dakota incorporated

1948 Polish-born teen Alex Golubowicz is first refugee to arrive in Fargo

1957 LWS plays key role in recovery efforts after historic Fargo tornado

1961 LWS places 1,000th child for adoption

1969 LWS changes name to Lutheran Social Services (LSS)

1978 LSS helps develop first hospice movement in North Dakota

1991 Luther Hall becomes North Dakota's first residential treatment center for children

1995 Community-based programs expand to include Youth Court, Restorative Justice

1997 LSS provides disaster assistance in wake of historic flooding

2014 Jessica Thomasson becomes CEO

2015 LSS moves into its current facility at 3911 20th Ave. S. in Fargo