“I have begun my work. I have two boys, ages six and seven.”
MARY WESSELS, Founder, Hephzibah Home
This message—written by Oak Parker Mary Wessels on a postcard addressed to a friend in 1897—is one of the few remaining records of Hephzibah’s beginnings more than a century ago.
Not long after Wessels sent this postcard, a local orphanage was destroyed by fire and she opened her home and her heart to a dozen more children. She named her fledgling children’s home “Hephzibah,” after her own mother. The name, which means “comforting mother” in Hebrew, was the perfect expression of Wessels’ mission to provide a nurturing haven for children in need.
As Wessels took in more children, her modest home grew crowded. She used a small inheritance to purchase a larger house at 332 Lake Street and posted a sign outside, inviting community members to come inside and learn more about her work on behalf of “society’s most vulnerable children.”
Soon, neighbors and local merchants began dropping by with donations of food, clothing and whatever else they could spare. As word spread about Wessels’ work, the Oak Park and River Forest community responded with generosity and compassion.
“Much is done for these little ones, a large percentage of whom come into the home undernourished, with enlarged tonsils, adenoids, neglected teeth, rickets and the ills resulting from those conditions,” Wessels wrote about this outpouring of support. With the donated medical care and wholesome food that the children now enjoyed, she added, “it would be strange if these children did not respond.”
As the children grew and thrived, so did Hephzibah. In 1902, Hephzibah Home was officially established as a nonprofit organization with the help of Oak Park and River Forest residents who were concerned about the well-being of the community’s destitute children. According to Hephzibah’s first annual report, the organization’s mission was to “provide a home for destitute children without regard to race or creed.”
In a report to Hephzibah’s first board of directors, Wessels wrote, “Fifty-four children, each with his own bed, lived at the home [this] year, with an average of 19 children at a time.” She also issued the first of many appeals for critically needed provisions: “Coal is needed for the coming winter.”
By the 1920s, the number of orphaned and destitute children in need of safe and loving shelter had surpassed the capacity of Wessels’ Lake Street house. It was time for larger quarters—and the local community united to turn this dream into a reality. Village residents and business owners made nearly 300 donations totaling $78,000—just $3,700 short of the total cost of constructing a brick, dormitory-style building with a kitchen, dining room and living room on the first floor and sleeping areas large enough to accommodate 40 children on the second floor. The building was designed in the shape of the letter “H”—for healing, hope, happiness and, of course, Hephzibah!
Work crews broke ground in 1926 and put the finishing touches on the residence in 1929. That same year, the stock market crashed, ending the economic prosperity of the Roaring Twenties and plunging America into the Great Depression. The newly constructed children’s home opened its doors just in time to serve as a haven for Depression-era children whose parents could no longer afford to care for them.
Despite the dire circumstances that had landed them on the dormitory’s doorstep, the children flourished at Hephzibah Home. In an annual report from the 1930s, the superintendent noted, “My report this year is one of happiness in the Home. What could be happier than a group of healthy children in a beautiful home with rooms and toys of their very own? When at eight o’clock each morning, 44 happy children troop into the dining room with shining morning faces, we feel that much has been accomplished.”
These thriving youngsters also reaped the benefits of a partnership established in 1936, when Hephzibah Home became a Community Chest agency. In the years that followed, the Community Chest served as Hephzibah’s most significant source of support—support that continues until this day through the United Way.
During the tumultuous 1930s and 1940s—a time of war and economic hardship—children were housed at Hephzibah for many different reasons. Some came from broken homes or families in crisis, while others were brought to Hephzibah because their impoverished parents could not provide for them. Still others found a safe harbor at Hephzibah while their fathers were off at war.
By 1974, times had changed. More women were entering the workforce, and the need for nurturing, enriching and affordable daycare had surpassed the need for a children’s home. Hephzibah temporarily suspended its residential program and launched a Day Care Program that provided educational, cultural and social enrichment for school-aged children. Two years later, Hephzibah opened additional day care sites at two Oak Park elementary schools. By 1997 Hephzibah would be providing day care for 600 children at eight elementary schools and one summer day camp location.
But Hephzibah’s founding mission to care for society’s most vulnerable children could not be accomplished with day care alone.
Between 1981 and 1992, Hephzibah went through a period of unprecedented growth as the organization expanded its mission to meet the needs of Illinois children and families.
During this decade-long expansion, Hephzibah launched foster care and child welfare programs to protect children from neglect and abuse; opened one of the state’s only diagnostic treatment centers to assess the physical, emotional and psychological needs of neglected and abused children; introduced a comprehensive array of services for families in crisis; and established a residential treatment program to give children traumatized by neglect, abuse, failed adoptions or abandonment the long-term therapeutic supports they need to heal and succeed in a family setting.
In 1995, 2000 and 2007 respectively, the Oak Park, Western and Chicago Auxiliary Boards were founded to raise awareness of Hephzibah and support its mission through fundraising events and service projects.
Today, Hephzibah Children’s Association serves more than 1,000 children and their families each year with group homes for neglected and abused children; services for families struggling with issues such as poverty, chronic disease, mental illness, substance abuse or homelessness; foster care and adoption programs for children in need of loving homes; Head Start and Early Head Start programs to give infants, toddlers and preschoolers from low-income families the best possible start in life; and award-winning after-school daycare on a sliding scale for families of all income levels.
What began as one woman’s quest to help children in need more than a century ago has evolved into a full-service, internationally recognized agency with a multifaceted mission to enhance the safety and well-being of children while preserving the dignity of parents and families.
Just as Mary Wessels’ mission was embraced by a caring community in the late 19th century, Hephzibah continues to be supported and sustained by a compassionate and committed corps of staff and board members, benefactors, corporate and community partners and volunteers in the 21st century. We know Mary would be proud to know that her life’s work has been carried on for more than 100 years!