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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

The story of Arizona’s oldest nonprofit: Associated Charities of Nogales


On Feb. 14, 1912, Arizona was admitted as a U.S. state. In the century since then, alongside the other pillars of its economy, Arizona has also developed a thriving nonprofit sector – now more than 28,000 organizations. This Statehood Day, we at the ASU Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation set out to discover just how deep the legacy of Arizona nonprofits runs by locating the oldest existing nonprofit organization in the state. Through a combination of IRS databases and state records, we found our answer in a city on the state’s southern border: Nogales, Arizona.

The organization finds its roots in the actions of Theodore Gebler, an early settler who arrived in the city in the late 19th century. As a wealthy resident, Gebler held ownership over business property in Nogales and mining property in Patagonia. He had a reputation in Nogales for his philanthropic work and influential business dealings.

When Gebler died in 1926, he set aside money in his will to build a property now known as The Theodore Gebler Memorial Building. Completed in 1930, the building still stands today at 78 Terrace Ave.

However, the building is more than a typical office space. For nearly 100 years, it has also stood as the home of Theodore Gebler’s trust and its accompanying nonprofit, Associated Charities of Nogales.

While very few records of the organization’s oldest activities exist, its story can be traced through newspaper clippings by the still-functioning Nogales International. For years following the Associated Charities’ founding on September 30, 1926, news stories detailed Gebler’s life, death and will leaving funds to support the Nogales community “in perpetuity.” 

“[Gebler] asked his good friends to take this property and to build something to give back to the community,” said Associated Charities of Nogales President and Santa Cruz County Supervisor Bruce Bracker. “They knew they needed to have a nonprofit associated with that trust.”

Since then, the organization has worked diligently to support the city it was founded in. It goes to painstaking lengths to keep Gebler’s wealth within Nogales by solely funding nonprofits run within the city.

“There’s so much need down here for this type of support for kids,” Bracker said.

In 2021, Nogales had a median household income of just over $31,000 — far below the median household income for the U.S. as a whole in the same year. The city is also home to a uniquely large immigrant population, with almost half of its nearly 20,000 residents being born outside of the country.

“Nogales is pretty disadvantaged if you look at the population,” Bracker said. “Majority Hispanic, poverty levels are high — there’s a lot of kids that just need a hand up.”

Since the ‘70s, this hand-up has taken the form of scholarships and partnerships with youth organizations operating in the city. Bracker says Associated Charities shares deep ties with the local chapters of United Way, Boys & Girls Club and other youth organizations. 

“You put a Boys & Girls Club in a disadvantaged community, it really means a lot,” said Bracker. 

Additionally, the organization sponsors the Theodore Gebler Scholarship, which supports one student each year graduating from Nogales High School according to Bracker. The $5,000 scholarship is renewable for the duration of the student’s time in college. 

“If they need a sixth year because they’re studying something that takes a little bit longer, they just need to write us a letter and we take care of them,” Bracker said. “I  always ask them (the scholarship recipient) to get into a position where they can help people, whether it’s financially or donating their time.” 

Bracker says students receiving the scholarship find themselves motivated by knowing “this organization and this man set something up so that they would help,” motivating students to “pay it forward.” The request aligns well with a core tenet the Associated Charities has followed since its creation in the 1920s: the desire to give back to the community that created it.

 “We knew that we were small and we were isolated,” Bracker said. “Giving back to the community and helping each other — that’s how you may get a better place.”

Image: “Theodore Gebler Memorial Building (1930)” by Marine 69-71 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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ASU Lodestar Center Blog