Hephzibah at 125 years
Hephzibah is celebrating its anniversary with a series of stories about the children and families whose lives were transformed by our programs and services, as well as some of the “Hephzibah Heroes” who help make our mission possible.
This month, we’re featuring former Executive Director Mary Anne Brown, who led Hephzibah Children’s Association with vision and creativity for more than 40 years, from 1976 until her retirement in 2017.
Fueled by her passion for helping families flourish—and an unshakable belief in the boundless potential of every child—this dedicated humanitarian and trailblazer helped transform Hephzibah from a small day care center with an annual budget of $100,000 into a nationally recognized child welfare agency with a comprehensive array of services and a $9 million annual budget.
In this article, Brown reflects on the changing needs of children and families during her four-decade tenure—and shares some of the ways that Hephzibah’s passionately committed staff and board met those needs with the support of a caring community.
Watch for more 125th-anniversary stories in the months to come. We hope you find them as inspiring as we do!
In 1976, Mary Anne Brown followed her heart to Hephzibah Home and began a 41-year journey that would bring hope and healing to thousands of children and their families.
When Brown—an Oak Park wife and mother with a master’s degree in child behavior and development—left her previous post as director of the South Austin Community Day Care Center to lead Hephzibah into its next chapter, society was going through some seismic shifts.
“Hephzibah was at a crossroads,” she recalls. “More women were entering the workforce—and the need for quality, affordable day care had surpassed the need for a children’s home. Two years before I arrived, Hephzibah had suspended its residential program for the first time since the agency’s founding in 1897 to redirect its resources to day care for working parents.”
During her first year on the job, Brown did a lot of listening. What she heard was that there was a pressing need for more before- and after-school day care programming—as well as a full-day summer camp—to provide recreation and enrichment for Oak Park elementary schoolers while their parents were at work.
“At the time, our program was tiny,” Brown notes. “We were serving 20 children on the first floor of Hephzibah Home. The need for nurturing, enriching day care far exceeded our available space—and our waiting list was growing longer by the day.”
Constrained by the program’s meager budget, Brown began searching for creative solutions.
“We approached the Oak Park school district with a proposal to provide day care on site at the village’s elementary schools. The district gave us the go-ahead, and we piloted our school-based day care program at Oak Park’s Lincoln and Mann elementary schools in 1976. We continued to roll out additional sites until we were providing day care on a sliding scale for more than 600 children annually at every elementary school in Oak Park and one summer camp location.”
This alliance between Hephzibah and District 97 was the first of many fruitful partnerships that would be forged over the next four decades to help children thrive and families flourish. But Brown soon realized that Hephzibah’s founding mission to care for society’s most vulnerable children could not be accomplished with day care alone.
“There were day care kids who needed help, and their families needed help,” she states. “So we began to work with the social workers at the police department to provide emergency services for day care families in crisis.”
That informal arrangement with the Oak Park police set the stage for Hephzibah’s Day Care Social Services Program, which continues to enhance the lives of hundreds of day care families each year with crisis intervention services and referrals for medical and mental health services, housing, vocational support and legal assistance, as well as direct assistance such as bus passes, grocery store gift certificates, clothing, school supplies and other family needs.
It also paved the way for Hephzibah Foster Care.
“As we became more involved with day care families that were struggling with issues such as unemployment, housing insecurity, chronic health problems, substance abuse or domestic violence, we realized that some children needed foster care,” Brown explains. “But, at the time, children at risk of harm from neglect or abuse were transported out of our community to a centralized Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) intake center and placed in foster homes throughout the Chicago area.”
That troubled Brown, who hoped to minimize the disruptions in the lives of these children by keeping them in the Oak Park/River Forest community.
Community-based foster care was a relatively new concept in Illinois at the time. But Brown firmly believed that children were better off in the familiar environs of their own neighborhoods, where they could attend their own schools and maintain relationships with their teachers, neighbors and friends. So she began to lay the groundwork for a community-based foster care program.
It was an ambitious goal. But, where some people saw obstacles, Brown saw opportunities. In 1980, Hephzibah launched one of the first community-based foster care programs in Illinois to keep children close to home while protecting them from neglect and abuse.
Soon, a new need emerged as the first cases of what would later become known as AIDS were reported in the U.S. From the onset of the epidemic through 1994, an estimated 14,920 HIV-infected infants were born in the U.S.(“Pediatric HIV/AIDS in the United States,” https://www.pedaids.org/pediatric-hiv-aids-united-states/) —and Hephzibah pivoted to meet an unprecedented need.
“In the early 1980s, DCFS contacted us about HIV-positive babies in need of foster care for reasons unrelated to their HIV status,” recalls Hephzibah Foster Care Specialist Davida Williams, who retired in 2013.
After visiting the quarantined babies—who were being housed in an isolation unit at a DCFS children’s shelter and closely monitored by three Chicago children’s hospitals—Williams conferred with Brown and Hephzibah’s board of directors. Their response was unanimous and unequivocal: “These babies were vulnerable and needed the care of loving families. Hephzibah would meet that need.”
It was a pioneering and controversial move, given the fear and stigma that surrounded HIV/AIDS at the time. But Williams was undeterred.
“We were prepared to do whatever it took to help these babies because none of us could stand the thought of these tiny humans being housed in a secluded isolation ward,” says Williams. “We began reaching out to our foster families to see if they were willing to care for HIV-positive infants. A handful of these families instantly said, ‘We’re in.’ These were mostly older parents who were willing to take the risk because they had already raised their children and had empty nests.”
With half a dozen Hephzibah foster families on board, Williams met with DCFS to work out the details.
“I remember sitting around a table with representatives from DCFS and another social service agency and wondering how we were going to do this,” Williams recalls. “We concluded that the key to creating a safe and successful foster care program for HIV-positive infants was education. So we worked with the medical experts from DCFS and Cook County Hospital to educate our foster families about caring for these infants.”
According to Williams, Hephzibah’s foster families were prepared to love and nurture the HIV-positive babies to their dying days. But then a surprising thing happened.
“The majority of these foster babies—who tested HIV-positive at birth because they still had their mothers’ antibodies in their systems—seroconverted to HIV-negative status during their first year of life,” she recalls. “We then developed permanency plans for the babies, who were eventually reunited with family members or placed in loving adoptive homes.”
“Hephzibah was one of two agencies in the state of Illinois that stepped forward without hesitation to care for these HIV-positive babies,” notes Brown today. “Thanks to the courage and dedication of Davida Williams and some truly amazing foster parents who took on the risks and unknowns of caring for these children, many are now healthy adults living productive and happy lives.”
The launch of Hephzibah’s foster care program sparked a period of unprecedented growth as the organization expanded its mission to include a full complement of child welfare services.
Over the next two decades, Hephzibah opened one of the state’s only diagnostic treatment centers to assess the physical, emotional and psychological needs of neglected and abused children; established a residential treatment program to provide long-term, therapeutic interventions for children who had been severely traumatized by chronic abuse or neglect, failed adoptions or abandonment; launched an adoption program to provide safe and loving forever homes for children who could not return home to their biological families; and introduced a comprehensive array of services for families in crisis.
Yet, as Hephzibah continued to serve more children in substitute care, Brown noticed a disturbing trend. Many of the children at Hephzibah Home—and in group and foster homes across the nation—were lagging far behind their peers academically due to the many disruptions in their lives.
Brown believed that education was the ticket to a successful and fulfilling life, so she recruited some of the community’s most accomplished educators to serve on an Academic Advisory Board in 1999. Together they began brainstorming about ways to help close the achievement gap. That same year, they piloted a Summer Reading Academy in partnership with Dominican University to boost the children’s reading and literacy skills.
In the years that followed, Hephzibah launched an After-School Academy powered by an all-volunteer force of Homework Helpers to provide after-school tutoring for the children living at Hephzibah Home; recruited local artists to open doors to dance, painting, music and other artistic pursuits through the Colorful Days Arts Academy; and introduced One Book, One Hephzibah—a 12-week summer program designed to take the solitary struggle out of reading and make it fun by engaging the children in group activities and field trips related to each week’s featured book.
In 2003, Brown tackled another troubling issue: At the time, 75 percent of all children in substitute care were separated from their siblings in different group or foster homes. It was often the final—and most devastating—blow for children who were already grieving the loss of their homes, schools and communities.
To help mend these broken bonds, Brown and her team piloted Camp HepSIBah—a summer camp experience for children separated in the child welfare system. Nearly every summer since then—with a hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic—sibling groups have reconnected at a rustic woodland camp to share childhood adventures and form deep emotional bonds that will support and sustain them throughout their lives.
Hephzibah pioneered many other innovative programs during Brown’s tenure. But she is quick to point out that none of these programs would exist without the input, creativity and flexibility of Hephzibah’s staff and board of directors.
“Our program directors, social workers, therapists and child care workers—who were out on the front lines every day and often the first to perceive a need—came up with the ideas for many of Hephzibah’s most innovative programs,” Brown stresses. “We were able to pivot quickly to put their ideas into action because our board was informed and responsive—and our staff members were always willing to say, ‘Okay, we can try that.’”
Growth takes commitment, which Brown and her staff had in spades. But it also takes resources—and this was where Brown’s gift for spreading the word about Hephzibah’s mission came in.
“We had a collective vision of what children and families needed to be successful,” she says. “Whenever we communicated those needs to our friends and supporters, they responded with extraordinary generosity to make our mission possible.”
Although Brown is now five years into retirement, people still seek her out to share their “Hephzibah stories.” Some recall how grateful they were as young, cash-strapped parents to have access to nurturing, affordable day care. Others remember the hope and help that Hephzibah gave them when their families were in crisis. And then there are the children who found a safe haven and a place to heal at Hephzibah Home—all grown up now—with smiles on their faces and gratitude in their hearts.
For Brown, the feeling is mutual. “I can’t imagine my life without the children and families I grew to know and love during my 41 years as executive director—and the incredible community that was always there to support our efforts,” she muses today. “Whenever there was a need, people came together and we found a way to meet it.”
Article statistics sourced from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
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