Hephzibah is celebrating its 125th-anniversary celebration 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 helped make our mission possible. We hope you find them as inspiring as we do!
Our first 125th-anniversary story is about reconnecting. It began in 1935 when two distressed parents—financially strapped and broken in spirit by the relentless hardships of the Great Depression—were forced to accept the devastating reality that they could not afford to feed, clothe and care for their two children, Keith and Muriel.
“My parents had gone out to California five or six years earlier,” Keith Elkins wrote decades later in his book, Hephzibah’s Children: 1930 to 2000. “Now, in the depth of the Great Depression, they were driving back to their hometown of Chicago, dead broke with two kids: my sister Muriel and me. Emotionally depleted after failing to find their fortune in California and on the verge of a breakup, my parents could no longer provide for us. On October 23, 1935, they dropped us both off at Hephzibah Home. It was one month after Muriel’s third birthday and one day after my fourth birthday.”
Elkins, now 91, doesn’t remember much else about that day. But he does remember the relative comfort and stability of his life as a “Hephzibah kid.”
“Muriel and I lived at Hephzibah for about three years, and my memories of the place are very positive,” he says. “We were housed well, fed well, clothed well and taught well. I remember Hephzibah’s backyard playground, where I discovered that I got dizzy on the merry-go-round, that the backs of my bare thighs stuck to the slide in hot weather, that it felt good to swing along the monkey bars and that climbing on the jungle gym was easier than climbing the trees.” He also remembers weekend outings to the Lake Theater and other destinations in the community. “It was just wonderful,” he says.
The siblings’ sojourn at Hephzibah Home wasn’t a long one in the context of a lifetime, but it was an unforgettable one for Elkins, who went on to earn a doctoral degree in educational psychology at the University of Chicago, become a husband and father and enjoy a distinguished academic career as a professor at the SUNY Empire State College in Buffalo, New York. Throughout his adulthood, he also used his skills and talents to help others by serving as a board member for numerous nonprofits, an advocate for seniors, a benefactor and a volunteer.
Elkins attributes much of his personal and professional success—as well as the development of the moral compass that guides him—to the “steadiness” that he first experienced at Hephzibah Home.
“Now, toward the end of my life, I’m discovering that Hephzibah shaped me far more than I realized and gave me a sense of inner orderliness that I would not have had otherwise, given the circumstances of my upbringing,” he notes. “It may sound overdramatic, but I do not think that I would have survived my childhood if it had not been for Hephzibah.”
Elkins suspected that there were other former residents who shared his enduring fondness for “this wonderful place” and believed that many of them would appreciate an invitation to return to Hephzibah for a reunion weekend. So in May 2007—during a visit to Oak Park with his wife, Kathleen—he proposed the idea to Hephzibah’s board of directors. The board’s approval was enthusiastic and unanimous.
Elkins immediately began working with Hephzibah staff to set a date for the event, track down former residents and organize the first reunion since Mary Wessels had founded Hephzibah Home in 1897.
But records were spotty for some decades—and finding his fellow alumni proved to be more challenging than he’d anticipated. During one discouraging week, he sent out four emails, only to have three of them bounce back marked “undeliverable.”
Unwilling to give up on the idea of a reunion, he redoubled his efforts, doggedly combing through old files and conducting Internet searches to find current addresses. His determined search for other “Hephzibah kids”—which eventually turned up more than two dozen former residents—was fueled by a deep personal need to “return to his roots.”
“I felt a need to reconnect with the place in a more meaningful way than simply coming back and looking around,” he explained to Wednesday Journal reporter Marty Stempniak during an interview for a Summer 2007 article about the upcoming reunion. “I suppose it was the sentimentality of an old man, but I wanted to relive my childhood in some fashion, find out more about my Hephzibah years and learn about the life experiences of my fellow Hephzibah Home alumni.”
By Fall 2007, the 76-year-old’s dream of a Hephzibah Homecoming was finally within reach. For one emotional weekend in October, Elkins and 24 other former residents returned to their childhood haven to share their memories of Hephzibah and reconnect with a place that would always feel like home in their hearts. The weekend was so successful that staff members immediately began planning the next homecoming celebration.
The following year, Elkins received the Heart of the Home Award at our 2008 Heart of Gold Ball for his efforts to reunite the former residents of Hephzibah Home.
But, even as he was being recognized for his past contributions, he had another project in the pipeline: a written history featuring the recollections of residents who had lived at Hephzibah Home in the decades between 1930 and 2000.
“In June 2008, as I began to outline the book, I wrote: ‘I have begun my life’s work,’” he recalls. “Later, I realized that those were almost the exact words that Hephzibah founder Mary Wessels had used in 1897 when she wrote to a friend: ‘I have begun my work. I have two boys, ages 6 and 7.’”
True to his nature as a career academic, the retired college professor was meticulous about his research, contacting former residents and their families, who sent him their stories; poring over “mountains of material” dating back to Hephzibah’s founding in 1897; and reading decades worth of board-meeting minutes to gain a better understanding of the societal shifts that drove Hephzibah’s evolution from a 19th-century orphanage to the comprehensive child care and child welfare organization that it is today.
“When I was writing Hephzibah’s history, I was struck by the fact that—of the five male Hephzibah Home alumni I interviewed for the book—one became a policeman, another became a career military man and two of us became teachers,” he points out. “I think that says something about the safety, stability and security that life at Hephzibah afforded us.”
By 2009, Elkins’s labor of love was printed, bound and published.
“Hephzibah’s Children: 1930 to 2000 tells the story of how an old-fashioned orphanage responded to seismic changes in social policy and local child care codes,” he noted in the book’s introduction. “It shows how Hephzibah grew from the kindness of one woman sheltering two orphaned boys into a children’s association that offers a wide array of programs—including group homes, daycare, foster care, adoption and family services—for countless children and their families.”
While Elkins was preserving Hephzibah’s past, he was also planning for its future by naming Hephzibah as the beneficiary of a bequest in his will.
“I treasure the gift that Hephzibah gave me, which was the gift of hope,” he explained in 2015 when he and his wife, Kathleen, notified Hephzibah about their planned gift. “I wanted to return that gift by helping to ensure that Hephzibah can provide as much security, hope and happiness for children in the future as it did for me and my sister back in the 1930s.”
In October 2020—as our anniversary approached and we began to reflect on Hephzibah’s 125-year legacy of helping children thrive and families flourish—we reached out to Elkins via Zoom to learn more about Hephzibah’s lasting impact on his life.
“As one of many Hephzibah kids, my proudest achievement by far is not what I accomplished in my career, but that I was able to break the chain of family dysfunction and give my daughter the safety, security, stability, caring, constancy and fairness that I found only at Hephzibah during my own childhood,” he confided.
When asked about his hopes for Hephzibah’s future, his answer was a simple but powerful one: “My hope is that Hephzibah will always be here to provide a safe haven—because there will always be children and families who need a place like this.”
At the end of the Zoom interview, we had a surprise in store for this alumnus, benefactor and friend: a chorus of happy 89th birthday wishes from our executive director and the children now living at Hephzibah Home.
“Happy birthday, Keith!” said Hephzibah Executive Director Merry Beth Sheets, her face lighting up with a huge smile. “You are such an integral part of our history and our legacy here at Hephzibah. You are so important to us!”
Sheets’ birthday greeting was followed by a chorus of happy birthday wishes from a new generation of happy, healthy “Hephzibah Home kids.” As the youngsters held their hand-drawn and colored birthday cards up to the computer’s camera and shouted, “Happy Birthday, Keith!” one by one—Elkins was visibly moved and momentarily at a loss for words.
“Oh, that’s wonderful!!” he managed to say as he savored the best birthday present ever from the happiest childhood home that he had ever known.