Before they even had the right to vote, a group of courageous women founded Birmingham's first orphanage and social service agency. One hundred and twenty-nine years later, their entrepreneurial spirit and commitment to serving children and families continues at Gateway.
Gateway was founded as the Mercy Home for homeless mothers and children in 1891. Ahead of its time, the Women's Christian Temperance Union developed a nonprofit business model to meet the needs of homeless women and children on the streets of Birmingham. During its first eight years, the Mercy Home was rented in a building and was providing an unprecedented amount of services to the community. It gave refuge to homeless, abused and "troubled" children, as well as single mothers and their newborns. The Mercy Home also provided a daycare for children with working mothers and job training services for women in need of employment.
In 1899, the Mercy Home built its first building at 11th Avenue and 22nd Street North, with funds from the city, county and private donations. This was one of the first private-public partnerships in Birmingham's history.
By 1906, the Mercy Home Board recognized the need for a statewide organization to advocate for the needs of Alabama's most vulnerable children. Through their lobbying efforts with the Alabama Legislature, the first supervisor for children's affairs was appointed and the first industrial school for girls was established. Their successful momentum advocating for women and children continued, helping establish the first Alabama State Child Welfare Office in 1919.
In 1923, the Mercy Home became one of the first four community partners with the United Way of Central Alabama. This lifted the financial burden from the Mercy Home Board to the chest. To this day, Gateway is one of only four agencies to receive an allocation over $1 million thanks to the proven, substantial outcomes of this financial partnership.
In 1929, the Mercy Home moved to its historic campus. Residential, recreational and academic facilities were built to house and care for children from hard backgrounds of abuse, neglect, homelessness or broken families.
In 1954, a group of leading citizens under the auspices of the Jefferson County Coordinating Council of Social Forces undertook a countywide Survey of Health, Welfare and Recreation. The survey committee employed professional advisors from around the country and conducted a thorough appraisal of the county’s social service needs. One of its three (3) major recommendations was for the establishment of a comprehensive family service agency. A twelve (12) member steering committee was appointed by the coordinating Council in August 1955, to study and plan the details on organizing such an agency. In January 1956, the committee was awarded a $90,000 grant by the Robert Meyer Foundation to finance a new agency for two years. A Board of Directors was chosen, organization was completed, and the offices of the Family Counseling Association of Jefferson County opened for service on August 15, 1956. The agency provided a six-point program of casework services, community leadership in the betterment of social services, group education, professional education, research, and some emergency case relief. At the completion of the two-year demonstration period, the agency became a member of the United Appeal of Jefferson County (formerly called the Community Chest).
Ten years after the Family Counseling Association joined the United Appeal, the old Mercy Home changed its name and program service area in the first of a series of actions that were to result in a merger between the two agencies.
The Mercy Home changed its name to Gateway on April 30, 1968.
In response to the changing needs and services in the community, Gateway changed to a residential treatment program July 1973, and was converted from an agency serving small children to one for teenagers, ages 12 to 18, of both sexes. Several local agencies were providing the other services Mercy Home had initiated, but there was no service for teenagers who could not live at home for emotional, behavioral or other reasons. It was this important gap in social service delivery that the renamed Gateway stepped in to fill.
The United Appeal remained the principle source of funding for Gateway until 1975. In 1974, newly appropriated federal funds for social services were granted to the states under a program known as Title XX. The Title XX appropriation for Alabama in 1975 was $42.2 million, and the state agency mandated by law to administer the funds was the Alabama Department of Pensions and Security. In 1975, Gateway was selected by DPS as the recipient of a half million dollar grant for the state’s Title XX appropriation. This additional money enabled Gateway to increase its services, residential facilities and staff substantially.
By 1972, Gateway and Family Counseling had recognized the need for a cooperative effort between the two agencies, since the problems of families and the problems of children were usually indelibly intertwined. After a four (4) year working alliance, the Board of Directors of Gateway and the Family Counseling Association voted to merge in April 1977. The Merger was accomplished under the new name Family and Child Services, and the united board of the new agency held its first meeting on April 19, 1977. The merger represented a giant step towards the improvement of services and increased cooperation between agencies. Its broad goal was to understand and use the influence of family relationships in the development and adjustment of all family members through advocacy, increased capacity, provision for a continuum of service in all phases of family life, increased direct services, and a broadly based future planning effort.
Since January 1999, the agency has been operating as Gateway once again, linking all of its programs under that one name while maintaining a link to the agency’s rich history.
By 2002, Gateway had developed a number of programs to provide services to families and individuals in the greater Birmingham community and had outgrown its existing space. This building on 20th Street South was purchased in order to provide mental health counseling, violence intervention, and consumer credit counseling to clients in a centralized location. This building also houses the agency’s administrative functions and the offices of several other programs.