LSS: 100 years of caring

Eye on KELOLAND

SIOUX FALLS, SD (KELO) — A South Dakota non-profit that serves newcomers and families in-need quietly reached an important milestone this year. LSS isn’t holding any public events celebrating its 100th anniversary, due to the pandemic. So we wanted to share the story behind this Lutheran-based organization that’s had such a profound impact across the state over the past century.

LSS began its mission of service as the Lutheran Children’s Home Finding Society and opened this shelter for unwed mothers, called the House of Mercy, back in 1921.

“You think of where society was at that point in time and it as a safe place for women to be with an unplanned pregnancy and in some of those situations maybe family took the child and in other situations, it may have been an adoption placement just like happens today,” LSS President & CEO Betty Oldenkamp said.

Many family trees of today have roots in those adoptions that started with the House of Mercy.

“Quite often, people will approach us and say, I had a family member who was adopted or adopted my children through LSS so it’s a very strong touch-point for folks in the state of South Dakota,” LSS Chief Operating Officer Rebecca Kiesow-Knudsen said.

LSS has accumulated a trove of mementos from its past, even holding onto a bank book that dates way back to 1924. In 1939, the Children’s Home Finding Society changed its name to the Lutheran Welfare Society of South Dakota and it became the first private agency to be licensed for child care in the state. After World War II, the organization began its refugee resettlement program.

“Actually, our very first arrivals were from Lithuania. They were Lutherans. And it was a statewide program that was organized through support with the churches,” Oldenkamp said.

LSS says it rises above the modern-day politics of refugee resettlement by seeking only what’s best for the newcomers and the community. The agency has decided against resettling refugees from Afghanistan in South Dakota because many weren’t able to obtain special visas that would allow them to work in the U.S. and support themselves.

“We need to do that in a way that the work that we do is of exceptional quality and has an impact for the people we are serving and contributes positively to the community, as well,” Oldenkamp said.

In 1965, the Lutheran Welfare Society was renamed Lutheran Social Services. In more recent years it’s been rebranded as LSS, but its ties to the Lutheran church remain as strong as ever, as does its reputation for service to communities across South Dakota.

“In my 20-year history with LSS, I’ve seen growth and evolution and we’re often asked to come to the table to solve tricky problems that no one else is able, or willing to step up to,” Kiesow-Knudsen said.

The financing has changed through the decades and you no longer measure accounts in the hundreds of dollars. Nowadays, LSS runs on an annual budget of $24-million, and like many non-profits, staffing has been an issue here.

“We have a lot of licensed professional staff who deliver the services we have so we have to be competitive from a wage standpoint because there are a lot of opportunities for those individuals,” Kiesow-Knudsen said.

Rebecca Kiesow-Knudsen will be part of a staffing change to begin LSS’s second century. She’ll take over as President and CEO when longtime head Betty Oldenkamp retires in December, knowing that she’s leaving the organization in good hands.

“I’m very proud of how we have evolved and changed over the years and what I see for the next 100 years is that will continue,” Oldenkamp said.

LSS has arranged more than 4,100 adoptions over the past century. You can take a deeper dive into the agency’s history by going to a timeline listing important milestones through the years.

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