A Tribute to Mary Anne Brown

Marge Tye Zuba shares her surprise at the joy and laughter she found behind Hephzibah Home's French doors

three girls on playground equipmentMessages have been flowing in steadily since Hephzibah’s Executive Director, Mary Anne Brown, announced that she will retire in June 2017. At the gala on March 4th, Mary Anne will receive Hephzibah’s Heart of Gold Award.  — an honor she originated, and one she has given to many generous supporters. Marge Tye Zuba, a writer and educator who worked closely with Mary Anne, penned a tribute we’d like to share.

“Describing Hephzibah as an orphanage housing 26 children, ages 4 to 12, who have experienced horrific abuse and neglect at the hands of parents and foster parents, conjures up deep sadness and outrage. And, if you were fortunate to visit Hephzibah, you might steel yourself before entering, assuming that, within those doors, you would find little to smile about.  And you would be right. There is not a “little” to smile about.  There is a LOT, to smile about and to laugh about. Hephzibah is a happy home!  You won’t step over the threshold without sensing the joy, the peace and the fun of Hephzibah.

Mary Anne Brown’s contribution to society can be seen in the lives of the many children who have lived at Hephzibah Children’s Association over the past forty years she has been the executive director.

Take ten steps inside and you will find the French doors that open to Mary Anne Brown’s office. Over these past forty years those doors have been open, and often, emanating from within, you would hear almost raucous laughter from behind the desk of this woman whose head and heart have created a safe home, a warm haven and a new beginning for so many children who have suffered the label “ward of the state of Illinois.”

Believing in the goodness of children and knowing that there is great resilience within young broken lives, Mary Anne has surrounded herself with a staff of highly competent, passionately committed and creatively adept staff. Under her leadership, rebuilding lives begins one day at a time.   It is, for many of the children, the first real home they have known.

Unable, or unwilling to accept the status quo, Mary Anne has sought out opportunities to enhance and enrich lives. Believing that academics are most critical for these children, Mary Anne initiated an Academic Advisory Board. She solicited funds to hire an educational coordinator to work with the children who attend the Oak Park Public Schools. Through the years she has crafted a strong partnership with District 97 that continues to this day.

Hephzibah Children’s Association is one of those places where no one expects the focus to be on reading…It is an orphanage! And yet, everyone who works there believes and embraces the value, joy and transformational power that reading has in the lives of these young children.  Reading is one of the critical issues she has concentrated on over the past six years.  Books, tutors, a reading clinic at University of Illinois at Chicago…all of these are just a small part of the daily celebration of reading.  While children in foster care often have many social and psychological needs, Mary Anne Brown recognizes the critical need for each child to be able to read.  As she puts it, “Reading is the ticket.”

Mary Anne Brown is extremely non-linear. While, in the middle of planning for the sixth Hephzibah Summer Reading Academy, she points to a box of cowboy hats that just arrived…”Wouldn’t the kids love a rodeo?  Let’s have one.”  And within hours, staff has secured the services of a downstate stable and horses will arrive outside Hephzibah’s door, along with carnival games, etc., to celebrate the end of the school year in June.   While closing off a boulevard may be daunting to some, it is incidental to Mary Anne.  For her, it is about the bigger picture.  For her, it has always been about the children.  It is about each of them stepping into that stirrup and riding high down the street…It is about a photo taken of each one.  It is about a memory to treasure.

And, then there are the arts. How Mary Anne loves the arts.  “Yes, the children must have a summer art experience” she says.  And, again, within hours, through community networking, artists are sought out, dates are determined and so began the five year Colorful Days Festival, providing arts every Thursday for nine weeks in the summer.  And so, the children were introduced to the harmonica, painting murals, gospel singing, dancing, face painting and drumming.

Over the years, many of the children at Hephzibah celebrated “family” at Sibling Camp. Many had siblings they had not seen in a long time.  Mary Anne’s idea of a Sibling camp took shape quickly and now the annual camp finds brothers and sisters treasuring those “taken for granted” sibling moments of sharing stories, taking walks, and swimming together.

There are awards, many awards that Mary Anne has received. Yet, there are none as rich or meaningful as seeing Jon read for the first time, or hearing Tony play the harmonica, or seeing Michael on top of the Pinto pony.  Mary Anne’s joy is about that summer afternoon in August at Thatcher Woods where 26 children celebrated the end of the summer reading academy by releasing the butterflies they nurtured from caterpillars.  Her joy is about hearing Julia referring to the butterfly who didn’t fly away quickly and stayed on the grass for a while “He’s not hurt.  He’s just scared about being free.”

We are most fortunate to have such a woman within our midst. And, honoring her is about honoring the children for whom she lives and breathes and with whom she laughs and loves.”

Thank you to Marge Tye Zuba for sharing this tribute. It’s not too late to take part in the Heart of Gold Ball by attending, placing an ad in the program, or making a donation in honor of Mary Anne Brown’s Heart of Gold Award and her enduring contribution to Hephzibah. The ad book deadline is February 15th. Learn more.

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