By Dan Haley
A few years ago, I was talking to Mary Anne Brown, the Hephzibah Children's Association executive director. There was a story in the news — a failed adoption and a media firestorm over a mom sending her child back to Moscow on a one-way ticket.
We talked into the late afternoon. As Mary Anne urged less judgment and more empathy, her young wards in the agency's group home on North Boulevard began wandering in from school or day care or some such activity. More than one came into her office to share some news, to make a connection.
I remember a young boy who, like each of the 26 kids in the group home, had come to Hephzibah after pretty much unspeakable trauma and abandonment. He told Mary Anne his worries and she brought him in close and said to him, "You're right. Your life hasn't been fair. But what are you going to do about it? Are you going to go forward or be stuck?"
That was enough. Off he went with something to think about and a loving, secure place to do that thinking.
Got the word over the weekend that Mary Anne Brown is going to be retiring from Hephzibah this summer after 40 years. We talked Monday by phone.
The conversation started when she started at Hephzibah. The mid-1970s. A former nun, now married, she and her husband had just moved to Oak Park. Armed with her degree in psychology, she applied to be executive director of Hephzibah, by that point nearly 80 years old. She remembered that the agency was down to a single program, after-school daycare, that the annual budget was $100,000 and that the future was seen as fragile. After several interviews with the board, including one where her husband was called in, she was offered the position at a lower salary than the male candidate. And perhaps, she said, she was offered the job because she would take the lower salary.
That was the floor. And in the 40 years that followed, Brown, her colleagues, her board, a raft of partners and donors, both private and public, and hundreds of volunteers, have wrangled and cajoled the state and federal government into supporting thousands of children, most of them local, in every way that kids and families need support.
Mary Anne talks with enthusiasm about Hephzibah's programs, the newest being an offshoot of Head Start, which the agency rescued two years back when its local providers failed. While Head Start in Oak Park now serves 60 children, the new infant Head Start has 12 little ones receiving care and family visits.
"This is why it is still so exciting," she says.
Working with District 97 schools, Hephzibah now has day care in all the schools, serving 600 kids. There are almost 100 kids in foster care locally. The state trusts Hephzibah with 26 of the most troubled kids from across Illinois in its group home. There's the summer learning program for its kids hosted at Dominican University and the Camp HepSIBah which gathers up siblings spread across foster and adoptive homes for a week back together at camp each summer.
Local shop owners provide new shoes and clothes for each child who arrives at the group home, a local photographer shoots a portrait of each new arrival so their picture hangs on the wall in the hallway, "just like at home," says Brown.
It's a lot of work becoming an icon. But Mary Anne Brown has earned it. These days Hephzibah has a budget of $9 million and the staff numbers 150. The Hephzibah board is due to start a national search for her replacement shortly. And Brown, 72, says her "planful stepping away" comes at the right time. She is ready for the "new journey" of retirement though it seems plain she will not go too far.
"I love Hephzibah. I feel privileged to have worked with these kids," she says.