Helen Tufts

Helen Tufts Child Outreach Program

Helen Tufts never set foot in Kingston, yet thousands of Kingston children have experienced her powerful social justice legacy in programs that bear her name.

Something’s in the oven in the Lower Kitchen this evening. It smells delicious! What does this have to do with social justice at Sydenham Street United Church? Many families in Kingston struggle with poverty, disability and underemployment, and people connected to SSUC and The Spire have worked for generations to provide support and programming for some of these families. A good example is the Helen Tufts Child Outreach Program, operating at 82 Sydenham Street for decades, with a current successful partnership between SSUC, The Spire, Queen’s University AMS and Frontier College. What’s this all about?


The Helen Tufts Child Outreach Program (HTCOP) began in 1968. An offshoot of the Helen Tufts’ Nursery¨ it provided a resource for children who had aged out of the nursery. The new program was developed to continue to help support these underserved community members. Originally named the Helen Tufts Tutorial, the program aims to help children between the ages of 6 and 12 by providing a safe, fun and collaborative educational environment where they can gather. The program was retitled the Helen Tufts Child Outreach Program a few years ago.

Teamwork: seniors, students, children

The Helen Tufts program pairs each child with a volunteer Queen’s student who helps the child with literacy skills, plays games, does a craft and acts as a role model and mentor. That delicious smell coming from the Lower Kitchen is some cookies– they’re doing some baking at HTCOP tonight! Space and financial support are provided by SSUC; for the past few years a partnership with Frontier College has provided administrative support with recruitment¨ training and supervision of the Queen’s students. Volunteers from the church community include a coordinator, a financial overseer, and telephoners who contact the families each week to confirm whether their children will be attending a session.

Each week for decades volunteers have been working with countless Kingston families, another reminder of the central role of the church in the programs located in this vibrant community hub. The Helen Tufts program is always adapting to find ways to meet the diverse needs of the community appropriately and efficiently. An ongoing challenge is transportation. Most families are not within walking distance, many do not have a vehicle, or even have the time to get their child to SSUC between their work and other responsibilities. To deal with this, the program provides a bus service so that children can attend the program without any additional stress on their family. This allows HTCOP to support these children and their families and thus continue to engage them actively within the larger community.  You’ll see that bus parked outside SSUC twice a week during Queen’s academic year.

HTCOP: Learning outside of school

The Helen Tufts Child Outreach Program has a dual purpose that benefits Kingston and the greater community. Firstly, it assists families and children by providing a place for them to learn and have fun in a safe non-school environment. Secondly, it provides an opportunity for Queen’s students to get involved in the Kingston community and spread their passion for education with the children temporarily in their care. They can develop a personal connection with the children, enriching their experience while at Queen’s. What about this Helen Tufts? Who was she anyway?

Helen Tufts: determination in action

Helen Loring Tufts was born in 1892 in Oneida County, New York and died in upper New York State in 1969. Her long life was a marvel of dedication and grit, most of it spent a world away from New York. Tufts joined the American Baptist Women’s Missionary Society, became a Baptist missionary and spent 23 years in Burma as the head of an English Burmese high school in Rangoon (Yangon).

During the Second World War, the Japanese army invaded Burma and successfully occupied the area. Helen realized that the school would have to evacuate to safety after Japanese troops took over the building and threatened the school community. She helped the children to flee, guiding the refugees through stifling heat, ceaseless rain and difficult terrain as they escaped from Burma, reaching safety in India. Tufts was dauntless: within 2 years she was head of another school in Nagaon, Assam. In the immediate aftermath of the Japanese invasion and then retreat, Tufts took up her duties in her new school and reported in a positive way about the smaller numbers of students: she could offer them more individual attention. This feature is of course a bit like the program named for Helen Tufts operating in Kingston more than 75 years later.

This photo depicts some students in Helen’s world in 1944

One of the students she helped during the  invasion eventually moved to Canada. To  honour her bravery, resolve and spirit, the  student commemorated Helen Tufts by  establishing a nursery in the Kingston community, honouring her legacy of working  with children and those in need. The nursery  and child outreach programs began at First  Baptist Church in Kingston, formerly a partner  with SSUC in the Helen Tufts outreach, until First Baptist relinquished their role in 2017. Helen Tufts  never came to Kingston, yet her name remains tied to our social justice work. We don’t know whether Helen Tufts was aware that one of her students created this enduring program  in her honour. We do know it’s a long way from the steamy jungles and uplands of Burma to Kingston¨  Ontario. And we know that Tufts’ dedication to children and her passion for teaching and social justice  endures within the Kingston community as the two programs named for her continue to assist Kingston  families and provide community links for Queen’s students.

References: American Baptist Mission Society and Women’s American Baptist Missionary Society, 1944, Assam MissionaryConference Report. Special thanks to Queen’s University student intern Kaitlyn Macdonald ED, April 2020

Updated 2020 10 14