On Oct. 19, 75-year-old Keith Elkins is finally coming home.
The 36-year Buffalo, N.Y. resident will be in Oak Park that weekend for the Hephzibah Children’s Association’s Homecoming Celebration-the first for the organization since its inception 110 years ago.
“We thought about it [in the past], but we needed Keith’s energy to actually do it,” said Executive Director Mary Anne Brown, who noted they’ve already heard from several people across the country. “It helps them make sense of their lives and complete their story.”
Hephzibah (946 North Blvd.) is a shelter and residence for abused and abandoned children.
Elkins and his sister were first left there by their parents from 1934 to 1937 when he was 3 years old. He felt it was an important part of his childhood and, although he visited Hephzibah several times over the years, he felt a desire to get more involved.
“I felt a need to reconnect with the place in a more meaningful way than simply coming back and looking around,” he said in an interview last week when he was in town for a planning meeting.
Elkins flew back to Illinois, met with Hephzibah’s board of directors and gave a speech proposing the idea of a reunion to which all those who lived in the Hephzibah home would be invited.
The board approved the idea unanimously, and the homecoming is scheduled for the weekend of October 19-21. It will include a scrapbook-making event, dinner and tours of the residence.
Elkins said he still has vague memories of living at Hephzibah-such as reaching under its fence to pick and eat mint leaves and digging a deep hole in the play yard and asking his sister to come see it. He chuckled recalling that she asked him to bring the hole to her.
Retired from a college teaching job in New York since 1977, he remembered his first return visit to Hephzibah being “thin” and empty. It didn’t carry the emotional weight he would have expected. But through his involvement in arranging the homecoming, he feels as connected as he was in 1934.
“I’m not just looking at it from the outside. I’m part of it again,” he said.
After he made his speech last May, he sat with the Hephzibah children during supper. One little girl named Hope pointed at Elkins and asked, “Are you the kid who lived here in the ’30s?”
“It may sound foolish to say, but it was as if the 70 years between now and then disappeared, and I was a Hephzibah kid again,” he observed
“This was my home, for God’s sake, for three years that are very important in the development of a child,” he said, drawing from his knowledge in educational psychology, in which he holds a doctorate from the University of Chicago.
Elkins is currently in the process of contacting people, but he wasn’t having a ton of luck as of last week. He sent four e-mails out a few weeks ago to alumni and three of them came back marked “undeliverable.” Records are spotty in places.
“I don’t know what to expect in terms of the event itself,” he said. “What I do expect is that I’m going to continue to feel really good about whatever happens. I think it’s going to be a wonderful event.”