Air conditioning wasn’t available in 1944 to combat Oklahoma’s summer temperatures. The nights were hot, the air in the dormitories was still, and sleep was nearly impossible. To escape the heat, girls would climb down the drainpipe, salt shakers in hand, to sit on the front steps and eat cool, sweet tomatoes from the garden. Midnight tomatoes were a luxury for Frieda Elliott, Frances Sanders Pierce and JoAnn Monger. With parents who were either dead or unable to care for them, the girls had nowhere to go. They had been shuffled from what were then known as “preventoriums” to hospitals – until they found sanctuary at The American Legion Children’s Home (ALCH) in Ponca City, Okla.
Pierce says the ALCH was much more than another temporary sanctuary. “They taught us right from wrong. I don’t know what would’ve happened to us without the home.”
More than 60 years later, memories of caring housemothers, childhood pranks and support from Legion family members remain clear, as does the impact the home is still making today – even though much has changed over the years.
Staying in Business When Others Didn’t. The American Legion Children’s Home sprouted from the seeds of generosity. Local oilmen donated land, resources and funds that, when combined with sizeable contributions from The American Legion, allowed the facility to open its doors to needy children in 1928. While donations provided the structure, it was the involvement of Legion family members that made the facility a home. Elliott remembers her sponsor, a member of a local Auxiliary unit, making all her clothes by hand. Local posts sponsored sports and square-dance teams. The former residents recall a huge linen closet annually filled with Christmas gifts donated by Legion family members. Cooperation between dedicated volunteers and school administrators put the welfare of the child first, and set the home apart from other children’s institutions across the country.
The era of big, institutional orphanages suffered through the late 20th century, because of perceptions in movies and literature that painted them as bleak, compassionless warehouses administered by cruel disciplinarians. In some areas, the perception was real, and child-abuse lawsuits forced closures or condemnations, leaving facilities vacant across America. How did The American Legion Children’s Home in Ponca City manage to survive?
ALCH Director Bill Alexander has an answer. “We pride ourselves on our reputation as a school and home, rather than an institution. And we owe a portion of that reputation to our association with The American Legion name.”
Support for such institutions can be traced back to the Legion’s beginning in 1919, when it boldly promised “A Square Deal for Every Child.” That promise represents the early objectives that are still alive today among The American Legion Children & Youth Division programs. The American Legion strives to assure care and protection for the children of veterans, and to improve conditions for all young people. Recently, the Legion’s Child Welfare Foundation awarded its largest-ever grant of $64,000 to the ALCH, to fund promotional material and outreach.
The Changing Landscape. As the ALCH discovered several years ago, it’s impossible to restrict services only to children of veterans. The whole idea of a separate home for veterans’ children came wrapped in miles of red tape, which detracted from the institution’s central mission to assist children. In a relatively short time, the home realized it couldn’t close its doors to many other children who needed help.
Reserving spots for children with veteran relatives requires the availability of private-placement beds. Twenty years ago, the ALCH could not keep all those beds filled. At the same time, state institutions were forced to close their children’s homes. Oklahoma’s Department of Human Services (DHS) approached the Ponca City home with an option to contract beds for displaced children. In order to be placed in DHS custody, these children are proven to have been abused, neglected or deprived. Sadly, this category included many children of veterans. ALCH realized that cooperating with DHS could be the most direct route to assist children with veteran connections, while making it easier to secure funding – thus enabling the facility to remain open while others were closing down.
David, a current ALCH resident, is the son of a Navy veteran. He has forged strong bonds with his sponsors and mentors at the facility, including local American Legion Auxiliary members. They take him shopping, on vacations and out for lunch. “There are good people here,” David says. “I might be in a detention center if I hadn’t come here.” His case is an example of how the facility’s partnership with Oklahoma’s DHS allows the home to continue reaching out to children of veterans. Because DHS considers ALCH the preferred placement for young people with veteran connections, over half the children currently in residence meet the home’s original criteria.
But it’s not an easy task. Over time, beds contracted to the state increased until ALCH had guaranteed DHS nearly all of its available beds. The problem became how to accommodate veteran families who needed assistance, whose children weren’t in DHS custody. With Operation Iraqi Freedom under way, requests were increasing. Grandparents found themselves unable to control children left in their care during parent deployments. For example, a father stationed at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma needed temporary placement for his oldest son during a deployment. In a three-month time frame, more than a dozen families were turned away. The denials weigh heavily on ALCH’s administrators, who take their responsibility to veteran families seriously. “This is what this home was built for,” Alexander said. “Our country is at war again, and servicemembers and their children have earned this assistance.”
But providing all the care necessary comes down to money. “Roots and Wings” is the building campaign currently under way to secure funding to designate a dorm specifically for veterans’ children. Ideally, contributions would enable ALCH to build the additional dorm. “It’s tough,” said Kerri Bowman, the home’s administrative assistant. “We can’t forsake the children we have, but we want to return to our original mission to provide a home for the children of veterans.” Right now, ALCH administrators feel the two groups of children have distinctly different needs, and should not be integrated. The prospect of reclaiming the original mission may be difficult. But with increased funding, the Ponca City facility hopes to help more families with needs, whether from DHS custody or military deployment.
Alternative to Foster Care. Today, foster care is touted as the universal solution for children in need. But the needs of children vary as widely as their personalities and histories. Some children require structure, consistent supervision and discipline to guide them along a productive path through life. In those circumstances, the stability of a group home is required. Group homes like ALCH offer the advantage of teaching children to live cooperatively among others. Monger says the group setting shaped her life. “We were one big family,” she said. Another benefit to that environment is the opportunity for intensive therapy. The Ponca City home offers a variety of treatment options that range from group and individual counseling sessions to equine therapy. For the type of child who resides at ALCH, therapy is vital. “The reality is, kids can be too damaged to break the cycle without interference,” Alexander says. “We try to break the chain.”
Financially, Legion family members and posts offer monetary sponsorships for children at the home. For $800 a year, one child can receive clothes and a winter coat, as well as Christmas and birthday gifts. And while giving on a larger scale is needed, it’s the interactive involvement between Legionnaires and the kids that Alexander says makes the most impact. “It’s great for these kids to be exposed to a wonderful grandparent relationship. They benefit from their knowledge and values.”
While forced to adapt to today’s needs, The American Legion Children’s Home has managed to stay connected to one of its most time-honored goals – making a positive impact on children in need. It worked more than 60 years ago for children like Frieda Elliott, Frances Sanders Pierce and JoAnn Monger, and it still works today. There are hurdles to overcome, but Alexander said he and his staff are ready to face them, with help from the home’s key benefactor. “The American Legion has supported us for 80 years, and the organization represents good things,” he said. “We wouldn’t be here without it.”
Brandy Ballenger is a writer and assistant director of operations for The American Legion Magazine.
‘It’s the Legion family ... that makes it a home’
The American Legion has been active in the management and support of children’s homes across the country since its inception, notably in Pennsylvania – home to the Scotland School for Veterans’ Children – and a facility in Michigan that is now closed. One facility that continues to thrive is The Indiana Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s Home in Knightstown, Ind.
ISSCH has offered care to veteran-connected children in need for nearly 140 years. By offering unwavering support since 1919, The American Legion helped insulate the children’s home from the wave of closures that swept the country in the second half of the 20th century. ISSCH prides itself on the fact that 99 percent of its students are relatives of veterans in need of a home and education.
The goal of the Knightstown home is to take at-risk youth and offer them opportunities to excel. But creating such an atmosphere requires more than buildings and textbooks funded by the state. The school maintains that children need comfort, guidance and support along with education, opportunity and direction. These core values of the ISSCH echo those advocated by The American Legion.
The Knightstown Home Committee, comprised of 11 district representatives, is the glue that secures this partnership. The facility submits annual wish lists to the committee and, in turn, the committee does its best to see that every need is met through the generosity of Legion family members. Superintendent Paul Wilkinson says the Legion’s influence is visible in every aspect of the facility. “It’s impossible to look at any part of this home without seeing a contribution made by The American Legion.”
From the 460-acre grounds to dormitory living rooms, it is obvious the relationship is working. Contributions have included everything from a state-of-the-art fitness center and basketball courts to televisions, refrigerators, furniture, computers, and even an outdoor amphitheater. Individual Legion family members, posts and districts have generously donated over the years to provide birthday gifts, tickets to sporting events and school uniforms for students.
While material items are necessary, ISSCH likewise relies on the spiritual support of The American Legion to assist with responsibility and citizenship. Such values are advanced through support of a successful 4-H program, involvement with a school-sponsored Boy Scout Troop and a popular ROTC program.
ISSCH encourages education and life skills. It provides comprehensive vocational training that ranges from veterinary science to culinary arts. Members of the building trade program construct houses in a local subdivision, from the ground up, with help from Legion mentors who give on-site training in such skills as electrical wiring and plumbing. These houses are then sold back to the community, with profits reinvested in the school.
When students near graduation, ISSCH continues to stand beside each individual as he or she enters the world. Scholarships are distributed to those who continue their education. For students planning to enter the workforce, an apartment on campus is provided, where they learn how to be fiscally responsible and practice independent living skills.
The Knightstown home focuses on the whole child and, while education and responsibility are key points, emotional and recreational needs of the children are met, too. As with all other avenues of the program, the school’s recreation fund benefits greatly from Legion generosity. The fund relies entirely on donations, since the state allocates no funding. Proms, yearbooks and class trips, along with an annual Legion Day in September, are provided through monetary gifts. Children without families are welcomed into Legion homes for the holidays. Wilkinson says, “The state provides us with an institution, but it’s the Legion family that makes that institution a home.”
Crafting a life for a child in need is a complicated process. Values, morals, education, recreation and structure must all be carefully woven together. When a facility stands for family, that facility must ensure it is capable of meeting the challenge. For most of those who pass through the Legion-supported school, its message comes through loud and clear, and the results come in the form of lessons that guide its alums for the rest of their lives. As ISSCH knows, this can only be achieved through partnership with a caring organization like The American Legion whose members are generous and willing to invest time and money in the life of a child. According to Luke, a resident at ISSCH, this cooperation is working. “I’ve learned life is what you make of it. You develop and adapt. I came here and bettered myself.”
– Brandy Ballenger