30 years ago, I graduated from a place that felt like home. At 7 years old I went to Milton Hershey School, a boarding school in Hershey, Pennsylvania, with my brother who at the time was 5. It was a difficult, nearly impossible decision for my mom. Being a mom now, I can’t imagine all the struggle and heartache she must have felt. Now that I have my own children, I can identify with her pain more than I ever did living at the school. Entrusting people to care for your children is hard and she stepped out on faith in the hopes that the school would be able to help us.
Our family had just suffered the hardship of a fire in our home. We lost everything, including our new toys we got that Christmas that we were so excited to receive and play with. We were so thankful my family was safe and losing our home felt like a loss that was hard to overcome. We went to the Red Cross for assistance. It was a humbling and hard reality for my mom, brother, and myself. We couldn’t return to this home again. My mother was an immigrant, in the country for less than 10 years and didn’t have a grasp of the language. It was an impossible situation with impossible circumstances. I was grateful MHS could respond to our needs.
While we were students at MHS, we did not typically refer to it as home but, when looking back on it, we all know it was home for a great deal of us. It is a school for low-income families with widowed or divorced parents. The school funds every aspect of a child’s life from kindergarten through high school graduation. The school provides 3 meals a day, shelter, clothing, medical, dental, and of course a great education to about 2,000 students each year. It’s a school like no other and you make relationships that truly last a lifetime. I know I did.
I started in 2nd grade and my brother started in kindergarten. We were blessed to be able to live in the same home for 2 and a half years with a loving and caring couple, named Wendell and Betty Ann Mortenson, at student home Grant. It was a huge change from the bustle of New York City and our prior school St. Rita’s in Queens. We saw more grass than we ever had in our lives. There was a pond we could fish in and a giant circle that connected us to other homes where other kids our age were and where we could roller skate and play. Living together made it more tolerable for my brother and I. I was young, I did not understand what was going on, so I just pushed through it and accepted where we now lived.
With a move to 5th grade so was the move to a new home in middle division, where students that were in 5th to 8th grade resided. The name is exactly what it leads you to understand, it is middle school. I was placed in student home Elmwood with another loving and warm couple named the Mladenoffs. Randy and Julie were so patient, kind, and understanding of us middle school girls. We did so many crazy things like bleaching our hair, sneaking into the pantry for some delicious cookies made by the school in a tin can, and getting into arguments and fights as sister do. It was different than what I would have lived in NYC, a more stable and healthy environment.
Then off to high school I went, with 9th grade came a new home and a lot of drama. You know the drama I’m talking about at that age: boys, food, and friendships. While my student home situation at this time was unstable, I had an amazing foundation with the Mortensons and Mladenoffs. They were always by my side when I made poor decisions, as many teens do, and never judged me but just loved me no matter the circumstance. My experience was not a perfect one or even ideal all the time, but I am grateful to the school, it’s teachers, staff, and especially the houseparents who did everything they could to make our experience as close to a healthy home as possible.
We had 2 wonderful examples of marriages and families in our lives and when my husband and I decided to start a family we wanted to live closer to our school family so we moved to Harrisburg. Once we moved to PA we accepted a relief houseparent position at MHS and had the opportunity to give back to a community that loved and served me well. We wanted to work with elementary boys since we had a son, we thought that would be a good fit, but the Lord had other plans. We were teamed up to work with a couple that was serving middle school girls. We worked on weekends, 2 times a month and lived on campus for 2 and a half days. It was a great experience and one that I was familiar with and could relate to the students. We are still in touch with many of those young ladies and have seen them graduate from college, get married, have children, and succeed at life. We are proud pseudo parents.
My desire as a mama to 3 amazing boys and a dozen or so Milton Hershey School girls is to love them for who they are and how they are crafted. I want to celebrate their victories and triumphs with them, as well as mourn with them as they hurt, are sad, and/or feel frustrated. I want to love my kids and these girls I’ve had the opportunity to get to know and build relationships with, like I was loved by the MHS family. I am so thankful to the MHS community, the Mortensons, the Mladenoffs, and the countless others that have poured into my life. These 2 families are a huge part of my family’s life still today. Even though my brother and I left our biological family for a time, we gained a new family in a time of need, and we haven’t let them go. My brother and I are where we are because of all of them. We are tremendously grateful!