"The good neighbor looks beyond the external accidents and discerns those inner qualities that make all men human and therefore, brothers." Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love, 1963
There's an old saying that "blood is thicker than water," that biology is what makes a family strong no matter what. That blood ties bury deep within the DNA the need to know who your family is and where they're scattered. But some have a family that grew in their heart and they're on a quest to find them all, many years later.
Frank Szemko has almost sixty brothers and sisters but doesn't know where all but a few of them are anymore. He doesn't even know if they're alive and well or passed away years ago. The Family Tree Project though (at www.sharedabundance.us), part of a national college scholarship foundation where any alumnus of a US orphanage can post old photos, their name, the name of their home, and the years they were there, may finally help him find out.
Frank is an alumnus of the Brooklyn Orphan Asylum Society, now shuttered. Only the building that held the dorms, offices, cafeteria, classrooms-his entire world as a child-still stands. Now it's the offices for the town of Islip. He knows because he lives 500 yards away from the home, his old home.
The history of his life is held within the children he grew up with. They are the ones who know the ending of every childhood story and can laugh easily with him, again, at a once forgotten prank. They are the ones who have known him the longest and can see through any layers he has put on over the years and remind him of how much he has always been loved.
While on his journey he also hopes others who grew up in more traditional definitions of family come to understand what he has always known. His childhood in an orphanage, and thousands of other childhoods like his, were happy ones.
He has grown up with the images pushed upon him of nightmare homes that outsiders have concocted from their imaginations. None of Annie or Oliver! was ever true for him or the Brookwood home, their nickname for the home. It was a great place to grow up, he says.
They had chores and earned an allowance; they went to the nearby public school and made friends who came by for dinner. The only differences between him and most of us were that there were eight other beds in his room and he ate dinner with sixty other people who didn't really look like Frank.
There was always something to talk about. A huge camaraderie, he says.
And, when he needed to, Frank could turn to any one of the older guys, his big brothers, and ask for help or advice. "They were always there," he says.
The girls and boys of Brookwood knew they were the children of the men and women who worked there, giving their hearts and souls to their well-being. "William Saint-Marie, the director of the children, was a father to me," said Frank. "He had a gift to make every child feel like they mattered and spent time with us putting on puppet shows and building model airplanes. And, if somebody needed to be squared away, they were but nobody ever raised a hand to us." Punishment was walked off around the campus or in time-out.
Alice Ray, the supervisor of the senior boys, wrote Frank every month for years after he left and taught him the ABC's of a date. When he was in the army, he came back to visit her, and the other members of his family at Brookwood, all the time.
"I had to get along with a lot of people from a young age. It opened up my heart more and has made it easier to get to know others, not harder, because I know my family loved me," he said. It is the foundation he has built his life upon, and it has been a good life.
But, time passed and the home closed, and the kids he grew up with moved on to wives and husbands and kids of their own, and they lost touch. He misses them all.
So, two of his "brothers," Wayne and Merrill Higgins, and Frank are determined to search out the other pieces of their family. At the top of Frank's wish list is Julio Quintano, a muscular kid back in the 1940s with a lot of savvy who looked out for all of the younger fellows. Or Bobby Howard. Or Jean Omland. She was Frank's first girlfriend.
Frank's dream is of an enormous family reunion where everyone can trade photos of grandchildren and stories of where they've been and what they've seen. They can see how each other has turned out and cheer each other on or offer a shoulder to those who need it. Like any other family.
He loves them all, and misses them. Maybe soon he will see some of them again.
"Consider the constant cycling of death and rebirth, the endless going and return. Everything you experience has a beginning, a middle and an end, and is followed by a new beginning, therefore do not draw back from the passage into darkness: when in deep water, become a diver." Ralph H. Blum, The Book of Runes
It stands to reason that if some new goo-gaw or invention or scientific discovery was doing a great job, we'd all know about it. After all, this is the age of information overload with text messaging, the Internet, and twenty-four-hour news stations.
But there is an entire movement, centuries old, that is enjoying a comeback and doing a great job at what is deemed by many an intractable problem-and chances are, you don't know about it.
Orphanages, which began in the United States before the American Revolution, are in the middle of a recent resurgence with surprising results. New homes are opening, a dozen are expected soon mostly in the West, and they are welcoming children in ever-increasing numbers.
The story of modern orphanages though, now called residential education facilities (REF), has been largely ignored for over sixty years. Their stories have mostly gone untold.
Not only are they thriving after a radical drop in numbers during the 1980s, they have lessons to offer every parent in America on how to raise our children into happy, confident, independent, and loving adults. Parenting tips are included in appendix B. They are gathered from each home's wisdom to use in your own household. Take what works for you and leave the rest.
But we can only see the blessing they have to offer if we can first put aside the myths and read the stories captured here with an open mind.
A vacuum of information about children's homes has given the myths that have always surrounded orphanages in this country lasting power. Their hold is so secure, few of us have left room for even the possibility that we don't know the truth. We believed the tales of institutionalized children who were kept fed and housed but were deprived of the chance to create familial bonds.
The idea of a nurturing environment and a decent childhood wasn't even a consideration. I was guilty of the same thought. Too many late night dramas that saved another innocent right before they were to be sent off to the home.
That point was driven home early in the research of the book when I attempted to write a short editorial about Frank Szemko who grew up at the Brooklyn Orphan Asylum Society in Islip on Long Island, New York, from 1946 to 1951.
I kept interviewing seniors who had grown up in different homes across America who couldn't find the children most referred to as their "brothers and sisters," and the sense of loss they carried was profound.
Frank was representative of the people I'd met. He lives in a house in the shadow of the Brooklyn Society, now a town building, to stay close to the home, his childhood home, because it was the greatest symbol he had left of a childhood he cherished. Living nearby eased the pain of not having enough people to share those memories with-other alumni.
Frank kept most of the stories out of his daily life, where they could have lived again for a little while in their retelling, to avoid the curious questions or outright statements that were benignly rude.
I wrote about Frank's childhood and how much he longed to find the other children, now senior citizens like himself, and submitted it to a nearby large metro paper that had run several editorials before, but this time I ran into a problem.
No matter how hard I tried, the editor, who had no personal experience of any home, including Frank's, couldn't believe Frank's version of events. He flatly refused to believe Frank was telling the truth. At best, Frank had left out details in his old age.
Frank's hurt and anger was palpable, and there was nothing I could offer but the chance to try again. That's why his story, along with those of several alumni from the homes profiled here, is recaptured in short vignettes in between each chapter.
The Family Tree Project, a part of The Shared Abundance Foundation, was started as a result of the alumni of US orphanages who want to find each other. No Internet bulletin board existed so I started posting old photos, the names of the homes, and the years people lived there as a means to help people reconnect. More information about this free service can be found at the foundation's web site at www.sharedabundance. us under The Family Tree Project. More about the foundation is included in appendix A.
My experience with Frank and the editor was just a taste of what was to come. Someone pointed out to me as I set out that this was going to be a very telling journey for me because I was stepping into a place others had obviously chosen not to. Nothing gets ignored by the larger press by mistake for sixty years. There has to be a lot of motivation.
They were right.
The word orphanage raised issues from the start from every quarter. It possesses a radioactive quality that few words not considered four-letter possess. Several homes didn't want me to even step foot on their property lest they become tainted with the word-orphanage. Several kept reminding me their facility was different, implying their children were somehow different and not to confuse the two. Some homes no longer accept children from social services to avoid the political hammering. However, some social workers have been known to give parents who face losing their child to foster care a choice to take their child and place them in a nearby home before the courts catch up with them. Not all of the parents whose children end up in foster care or at REFs were neglectful parents. Many of them, in fact, were doing the best they could with the resources or circumstances, such as illness or poverty, handed to them.
The REFs' unwillingness to give me access ranged from anger to many phone calls to references to make sure I'd get the story straight before I was allowed entrance. I understood their apprehension; there are over 600,000 reasons-all of America's children in need of a home, who didn't need the myth enlarged or worsened.
But there is also a small, growing movement by older alumni of US orphanages fed up with the ignorance surrounding their childhood who want the word revived and insisted I use only the word-orphanage-in conversations and not the longer moniker, residential education facility. To them, that was the insult and a denial of their truth.
Some politicos oppose the entire idea of orphanages, academies, or residential education facilities. There is a campaign in several states to deny any of the hundreds of thousands of dispossessed children in the social service system the right to stay at a residential education facility.
All of that dust was raised after visiting only one home, the Virginia Home for Boys and Girls, which is quietly hidden behind the West Tower Theater on a main thoroughfare of Richmond, Virginia-my hometown.
I was well aware of the movie theater; I had been there many times over the years, but was unaware of the home that stood on a green, wide campus right behind the strip mall. Their story is told in chapter 1, and it will enlighten a lot of people who have driven right by the small sign for years.
And, there is something more their stories have to offer. There's a certain magic for every person who's faced one of life's changes, whether it was divorce, or a death, or a sudden career turn, or even darker stories of addiction or crippling grief or whatever you might be facing. If you've ever wondered, standing at the edge of some change you never really wanted and weren't sure if you should retreat or go forward into the unknown, listen to these stories. You will see a way to believe in your own possibilities and perhaps embrace change in yourself.
That was the unexpected twist in the story for myself and my teenage son, Louie. We became part of the story little by little, our struggles to deal with large changes the same year I began this book. The path didn't start out that way, but became a journey to get me to let go and see the blessings through loss, struggle, and pain and, finally, coming back together for both of us.
There are just three things more to get out of the way before you can dive right into this book and get to know all of us and why I took on this project: Louie and me-these diverse people who have one goal in common, which is to raise healthy, happy children who grow into families of their own makings-and the miraculous story of how Louie and I survived and grew stronger.
The first is that I know a little about what it's like to grow up surrounded by a lot of people you aren't related to, but have to get along with, because I was raised on a campus, the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. My dad, Reverend Dabney Jefferson Carr III, was an Episcopal minister and on the faculty for over twenty years.
It was the 1970s when I grew up there, which is significant because it was a more liberal time, less paranoid, and no color alerts. Civil rights movements were going strong for both people of color and women, and the debates were happening not only in our house but all across the campus. Segregation had recently ended and women were given the right to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. My father had played small, quiet roles in both pageants and took me along on his forays into the struggles a lot of the time. Not to bear witness, but to take part and get to know the details of the people who were determined not to be defined by how others saw them. Not all of it went well.
The church I had grown up in, and my father had devoted his life to, fractured in places and splintered a little with both new ideals. Threats were made against African-American clergy and newly ordained women. They came from both inside the church and without, but my father remained calm, only occasionally shaking his head, before setting out to do what he saw as the right thing: nominating his best friend, Henry Mitchell, the first African-American to graduate from the Virginia Seminary, for a seat on what had been an all-white church board; casting his vote at the Episcopal General Assembly to ordain women; or walking by my side in the march on Washington for the Equal Rights Amendment as I shouted slogans and he looked on, bemused. They were very heady times.
My mother, Leontine, Tina for short, a worrier by trade, occasionally voiced out loud in clear sentences what she spent a lot of time hinting at-that maybe this wasn't going to go well this time-but she never stopped either one of us from going. That's all you can ask sometimes.
The other adults around me, the students and the faculty, believed in the possibilities, which isn't a common trait among most people. A lot of us spend far more time talking about what didn't go right, what isn't going well, and what can't possibly happen. We spend too much time peering into the little window to the inside of the soul letting us know there is mostly fear residing there. But, imagine being brought up with the idea that things will not only be okay, but you don't have to know how all of that will happen. It's another key ingredient to all of these successful residential education facilities, and we'll talk more about that later. It's also something to keep in mind in all families.
What's also important is the people who made up the seminary thought that they had a duty to create bonds and share even with us, the faculty rug rats. There were constant pick-up softball games in the field behind our house or the open green right in front of the main administration buildings. If a faculty member wasn't feeling well or was housebound, somebody's child was sent over just to check in on occasion and see if everything was all right.
Excerpted from A Place to Call Homeby MARTHA RANDOLPH CARR Copyright © 2007 by Martha Randolph Carr. Excerpted by permission.
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