Fern Chamberlain, tireless advocate for the poor, died March 7, 2011, at Dow Rummel Village in Sioux Falls.
Fern was born November 26, 1911, in New Rockford, North Dakota, to Merton and Mabel (Loomis) Chamberlain. Her early years were spent in various South Dakota communities where her father was a teacher and school administrator. Her family settled in Sioux Falls when her parents purchased a grocery store at 720 E. 14th Street. It was there that Fern became acquainted with the plight of the poor. Families with money came in through the front door of her parent’s store, but food went out the back door to those too poor to feed their families.
Fern graduated from Washington High School, Yankton College and Western Reserve (now Case Western) University in Cleveland. She returned to South Dakota with the first Master of Social Work degree in the state, to help implement a state public assistance program to receive federal funds for relief. As chief of Research and Statistics from 1937 to 1966, she developed programs and policies to improve the human condition and conducted investigations to assess the hopes, needs and obstacles of people in poverty. She made sure the legislature was given accurate data as policies affecting the poor were crafted. Legislators knew to seek her out for information and guidance.
In Pierre, Fern was Superintendent of the Sunday School at the Congregational Church. She adopted a young boy, one of the first adoptions by a single woman in the state.
Fern resigned her position in 1966, frustrated by her feeling that budgets had become more important than people. She began work in Sioux Falls writing grants for Lutheran Social Services’ Special Projects. These included Indian Ministries and programs for children and mothers. At Lutheran Social Services she interpreted statistics and legislative language to help improve the advocacy of a number of other agencies. Oliver Bergeland came to LSS saying, “We have got to do something for the elderly.” So Fern drafted a proposal for his dream and wrote for a grant to fund a director and secretary for a senior center. The center was later named the Bergeland Center for Seniors, now called Active Generations.
The year after the Wounded Knee events of 1973, trials brought many Native Americans to Sioux Falls, and Fern saw the need for a clearinghouse of information. With a grant from the Department of Justice, she established the Information Center, which later became the Volunteer and Information Center, now known as the 211 Helpline. She recruited volunteers to answer crisis calls in their homes at night prior to current technology that enables rapid communication with emergency response services.
She later worked for the United Way writing grants, and was part of the group that started the Sioux Falls Food Pantry.
After retirement in 1980, Fern actively lobbied state officials and the legislature and wrote frequent letters to the editor pointing out needs and inequities. For over 30 years Fern scrutinized every bill going through the state legislature for possible consequences for children and the disadvantaged and alerting numerous groups so they could better advocate for those they served. She worked lifelong to counter myths and stereotypes about government assistance and to create more respect for the important work of raising children.
She was a charter member of South Dakota’s Chapter of the Women’s Political Caucus and received its Foremother Award. She was a member of the South Dakota Peace and Justice Center, League of Women Voters, Bread for the World, and a loyal member of First Congregational Church cherishing her denomination’s commitment to social justice. Over the years she was recipient of awards in honor of her work, passion, and influence.
Fern is survived by social workers and other advocates and political allies who will carry her work forward, many friends, and generations of South Dakotans who never knew her but whose lives have achieved a degree of comfort and prosperity due to her committed advocacy for public policy that invests in human capitol and promotes a more just society. Her son Richard preceded her in death.
In lieu of cards and/or flowers, Fern would be honored by letters to the editor on a cause that you and Fern share. Memorials may be made to NASW-SD, PO Box 1245, Sioux Falls SD 57101, for scholarships for social work students or to a charity of the donor’s choice.
Funeral services are scheduled for 1:00 pm Thursday, March 10, 2011 at First Congregational Church in Sioux Falls. Interment will be in Hills of Rest Memorial Park.