A Lifetime of Giving Back: Celebrating Edythe Kirchmaier at 107

Edythe has been giving back to others for much of her life, including 40 years at Direct Relief. Photo by Isaac Hernandez.
Edythe has been giving back to others for much of her life, including 40 years at Direct Relief. Photo by Isaac Hernandez.

A 107th birthday is call enough for celebration, but what’s really extraordinary is the way Edythe Kirchmaier – Direct Relief’s volunteer of 40 years – has lived those 107 years. Born January 22, 1908, Edythe’s been serving others nearly her entire life.

Helping Soldiers Abroad & Citizens at Home During World War I

Edythe’s commitment to others dates back to when she was 10 years old and knit “cootie catchers” for soldiers serving in World War I. Because of dirty conditions in the trenches, the soldiers’ clothing and bodies would often become infested with lice (or cooties). The cootie catchers were a belt that they could tie around their waist when they slept at night. Attracted to the warmth, the lice would burrow in the belts which the soldiers would then burn in the morning, helping keep them free of painful itchiness and discomfort.

Right around the time Edythe (then Edythe King) was making cootie catchers for soldiers abroad, she continued to care about people in need living near her childhood home in Springfield, Ohio. She asked her mother if she could bring food in a basket to school for the poor children. Her mother told her, “there’s no one poorer than we are” but allowed Edythe to take food to school anyway. Edythe says that her mother would often provide food to people in poverty in exchange for work around the house and that this influenced her own desire to help others.

Pursuing the Emerging Field of Social Work

Edythe studied social work while attending Ohio State University, though she says in undergraduate school she was “just too busy having fun” to volunteer much. She attained her degree in 1930.

She continued to pursue studies in social work, enrolling in a master’s program at the University of Chicago in 1931. She took classes and did field work through 1934, but didn’t complete her degree because she had to help her family at home. While at U Chicago, she studied under pioneers of the emerging field, such as Edith Abbott and Jane Addams.

During her time in Chicago, Edythe lived at Howell Neighborhood House, which at the time was in the Czech neighborhood. In exchange for room and board, Edythe would spend time with the teenage Czech girls who lived there. She said she taught them things such as how to fix their hair and do their nails and makeup. She also helped them buy clothes. “They were so appreciative of anything that was done,” Edythe reflected.

Afterward, she lived at Hull House at the Jane Club, or a cooperative for working women. While there, she worked with Mexican immigrant girls whose families were receiving aid, helping them to adjust to culture in the United States.

Moving to California

Edythe took a job in the Illinois state welfare office where she met her soon-to-be husband, Joe Kirchmaier. A few years after marrying, they moved to Lompoc, California where Joe worked as a Red Cross Field Director during World War II.

During this time, they had their two children, but family duties didn’t stop the couple from finding ways to help in the community. Edythe said that because of the war, meat was in short supply and so they raised rabbits to sell to people who couldn’t afford to buy other meat. She says their family never ate the rabbits though, because it was too traumatic for the children.

They moved their family to Santa Barbara in 1948 to the house that Edythe continues to live in today. She worked at Family Service Agency, but found time to give back to her kids and community. Edythe served as a leader for the high school youth group at the First Presbyterian Church, where she is still a member today. She was also a Girl Scout leader for her daughter’s troop.

Volunteering at Direct Relief

After Edythe and Joe retired, they saw an ad in the newspaper seeking volunteers to serve abroad for Direct Relief. They served two 18-month terms teaching abroad in Taiwan starting in 1976 and continued to stay involved in the organization upon their return to the states.

Though Joe passed away seven years ago, Edythe continues to come to the office nearly every Tuesday morning, hand-writing thank you letters for supporters of Direct Relief with a tight knit group of fellow volunteers. She says it is one of the highlights of her week and that “Direct Relief is like my second home.”

Join Us in Honoring Edythe

Edythe will be celebrating her birthday next week with Direct Relief. Beyond her personal contributions to the charity, including hitting her goal of getting 105,000 likes on Direct Relief’s Facebook page to raise awareness,  Edythe has inspired thousands of people around the world through appearances on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Today Show, and the Oprah Winfrey Network’s Super Soul Sunday.

Her message of staying positive, not worrying about things that can’t be changed and giving back to others has touched the lives of many. Please join Direct Relief in honoring this amazing woman.

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