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Geraldine 'Gerry' Aronin former state official and advocate for families in need, dies

Geraldine "Gerry" Aronin, former deputy secretary of the state Department of Human Resources who worked to help the less fortunate and women who were victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease Sept. 27 at her Canton Cove home.

She was 90.

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"She changed the world and my life," Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who had been Ms. Aronin's classmate at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, wrote in a condolence letter to her two children.

"As another sister in social work, we shared so much in common. We saw ourselves as not only clinicians but as grass roots organizers and social strategists," wrote Senator Mikulski. "She was not afraid to head to City Hall with me to ask for changes we needed to help those who needed it the most."

Geraldine Alenik was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., the daughter of Russian immigrants Philip Alenik, an automobile mechanic, and Leah Alenik, a homemaker.

She was a graduate of Erasmus Hall High School and earned a bachelor's degree from Brooklyn College.

In 1945, she married Louis "Lou" Aronin, a labor lawyer, and the couple settled in Baltimore in 1951.

Mrs. Aronin began her career in 1958 with Baltimore City's Department of Social Services as a protective services caseworker.

She obtained a master's degree in community organization from the University of Maryland School of Social Work in 1965, then became the first director of community services for the city Department of Social Services.

Inspired by President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty during the 1960s, Mrs. Aronin created the agency's Emergency Services Program and Emergency Services Center in 1966. The program helped poor families who had fallen behind on their Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. utility bills get power and gas turned back on.

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"When I first decided to press for funds for the program, I didn't realize what a hassle it would be," Mrs. Aronin told the Sunday Sun Magazine in a 1967 interview.

She went to the city, but its budget was already set. She went to the federal government and was told the Office of Economic Opportunity did not allow cash payments to people. Undeterred, she went to the city Welfare Department — which approved a $1,000 grant, the magazine reported.

Mrs. Aronin was able to present documentation showing that "shut-off gas and electricity is one of the severest problems facing the poor," she told the magazine.

She also directed a new, federally funded Family Living Program, which focused on helping welfare families achieve economic independence.

In 1971, The Baltimore Sun reported that welfare workers with "missionary zeal" were being criticized by welfare officials and Gov. Marvin Mandel for "just adding people to the rolls." At the time, state officials said as much as $8 million a year was going to people who were technically ineligible.

Mrs. Aronin spoke in the workers' defense, telling The Sun that "caseworkers who circumvent the rules are doing everything they can to help that client with basic resources." She said the presence of "ineligibles" on the rolls was largely due not to caseworkers but to administrative bureaucracy.

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Mrs. Aronin left the city's Department of Social Services in 1971 when she was named director of program planning and evaluation for the newly established state Department of Human Resources, formerly the Department of Employment and Social Services.

There she worked with the legislature to increase funding for services to families and children.

"She was able to go to the state legislature and, through her indicators, tell them exactly what they were getting for the taxpayers' money and where it was going," said Sharon L. Nathanson, a social worker who worked with Mrs. Aronin at the DHR.

"She was extremely dedicated and a forceful personality," said Ms. Nathanson, a resident of Cross Keys. "She was also a fabulous writer who knew how to present information to legislators that was understandable."

Mrs. Aronin eventually became deputy secretary of the DHR in 1981. The Evening Sun noted that at one time "she was the highest-ranking woman in state government."

She continued her activism after retiring from the department in 1983. That year she organized the Women's Alliance of Maryland, a nonprofit that advocates for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, displaced homemakers and homeless women.

Her leadership resulted in the first state support of programs serving these vulnerable populations and a tripling of service capacity across the state.

"Gerry considered her founding of the Women's Alliance of Maryland one of her most important achievements of her career," said Joanne Selinske, a former social worker who was running a YWCA shelter for homeless women when she first met Ms. Aronin.

"She mentored many young women across Maryland, and she inspired us with her advocacy in providing services to women," said Ms. Selinske, a Ten Hills resident who is now a hypnotherapist.

In her letter to Ms. Aronin's children, Senator Mikulski wrote: "Your mother devoted her life to helping others. She was a voice for the voiceless and worked not to seek power, but to empower those who she served."

During the 1980s, Gov. Harry R. Hughes appointed Mrs. Aronin to the University System of Maryland Board of Regents. In 1980, she was presented the University of Maryland School of Social Work Alumna of the Year Award, and she was chosen as the recipient of the 1987 Girl Scouts of Central Maryland Distinguished Woman Award.

Mrs. Aronin remained active at the School of Social Work, where she served on many committees, and most recently on the steering committee that planned the school's 50th-anniversary celebration of its founding in 1961.

In recent years, she served as legislative affairs officer of the Maryland chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

Mrs. Aronin enjoyed attending the theater and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, visiting art galleries and museums, and shopping. She was one of the original investors and served on the board of Baltimore Clayworks in the early 1980s.

A Brooklyn Dodgers fan when growing up, she later transferred her loyalty to the Orioles. She and her husband, who died in 2005, had been season-ticket holders and, for a decade, attended spring training.

She was a member of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and had served on the board of the National Council of Jewish Women.

Funeral services were held Sept. 29 at Sol Levinson & Bros. in Pikesville.

She is survived by a son, Marc Aronin of Finksburg; a daughter, Ronni Aronin of Mount Washington; a brother, Bernard Alenik of Finksburg; three grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

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