By Devin Rose
Mary Anne Brown, the executive director of Hephzibah Children's Association for 36 years, thought someone was pulling her leg when a few months ago she took a call from a person saying the non-profit was to receive a $1.2 million bequest from a doctor who had died in Texas back in 2005.
It was no joke. Recently the estate of Dr. Burtram Butler was settled and Hephzibah has now received the single largest donation in its 115 year history.
Brown doesn't know very much about Dr. Butler beyond his having been born in Oak Park and raised by a single mom on Linden Avenue. He became a clinical psychologist and educator in Texas where he lived and died. Brown also knows that Butler was buried in Forest Park. Hephzibah is still trying to figure out if there is a direct connection between Butler and the non-profit. Since a key Hephzibah mission has long been to provide day care to single moms that seems like a possibility.
Hephzibah also runs an orphanage at its North Blvd. headquarters for children from across the state who have been severely abused physically or emotionally. In addition, the non-profit runs a foster family program, a Head Start, and daycare and pre and post school programs.
Brown and Mark Trinka, the chair of Hephzibah's board, say the donation is a game changer. "What it does for an organization like Hephzibah is to offer sustainability," said Trinka. "Not for five years. Not for 10 years. But for 20 years that we'll know we have this resource. We are a lucky benefactor."
Brown said the money will be placed in Hepzibah's foundation not the general operating fund. Interest earned off the investment of the bequest will be used to fund programs and create new programs. "Over time," said Brown, "that is going to be a lot of money."
"A donation like this allows us to make plans for the future and know that, years from now, there'll be something there to help us," Brown said.
When she started at Hephzibah, the organization was strapped for cash. Staff had ended the residential program because an orphanage was not thought to be a good way to take care of kids, Brown recalled.
There was pressure on mothers to stay at home, and there wasn't the same level of acceptance of working mothers as there is today.
A big part of Hephzibah's growth came from encouraging people to believe in their mission of taking care of kids in need, which was only made possible by donations from individuals and corporations. Under Brown's leadership, the school-age daycare program started and parents began to see the benefit for working parents. Hephzibah staff also saw a need for foster care because at-risk children were being taken out of the community. Now, they accept kids statewide and worldwide
And Hephzibah has been planning for the future. They're working on projects run by high school students as part of the Hephzibah Huskies volunteer group. Brown said they're also trying to introduce more senior citizens and college-age volunteers into the program.
Partnering with other agencies has also benefited the organization's development.
Brown said there was no room for a physical education facility, so they use the nearby YMCA, which offers free memberships to the 26 kids who now live in the home. Dominican University offers academic assistance for a few weeks each summer. Thrive Counseling Center provides help with mental health resources.
"It's just really reaching out to say, 'Where can other people help us?'" Brown said. Partnering also makes the kids feel like they're a real part of the community and that they are accepted here, she said.
Brown was recently recognized for her work with children at the West Cook YMCA Gala. She was awarded the inaugural Scott Gaalaas YMCA Partnership Award for her collaboration with the YMCA in supporting the children at Hephzibah. Gaalaas is a late YMCA executive director.
She attributes the success of the organization to staying focused on its mission. They stick to what they're able to offer. Brown said about 69 percent of kids statewide in residential programs don't last three months when they move into other homes. In the past two years, 12 kids have left Hephzibah and all are still in their new homes.
With staff and budget growing since Brown first came on board, she says it's exciting to think about what else Hephzibah and its partners can offer for kids. She looks forward to seeing them every day, and wants to keep empowering them in the present so they have hope for the future.
"I can't imagine my life without coming to work," she said.