PRINCETON, W.V. (LOOTPRESS) – On Tuesday, May 4, the Children’s Home Society of West Virginia’s (CHS) Mercer County office celebrated the organization’s one hundred and twenty-fifth year of service.
According to CHS Regional Director Marilyn Pearce, May 4 is also the organization’s Founder’s Day, meaning it was the perfect day for her office to celebrate the anniversary.
CHS was formed in the Spring of 1896 when Reverend D.W. Comstock, a retired minister and longtime representative of the National Children’s Home Association, recruited four Charleston-based ministers and the director of the local YMCA to establish the organization.
On May 4 of 1896, the State of West Virginia issued a certificate of incorporation in the Society’s name for “the purpose of finding homes for homeless and dependent children.”
The CHS website states that the Society’s first facility was located on Washington Street in Charleston. Named after U.S. Senator Henry Gassaway Davis, whose estate continues to provide operating funds, the Davis Child Shelter was the only home of its kind in the state, describing itself as a “home-finding institution” rather than an orphanage. While the Davis Child Shelter was originally planned as a home for four to eight waiting children along with the superintendent and his assistants, the influenza epidemics in the early 1900s and the depression years caused the capacity of the shelter to grow to 110.
“The mid-1900s brought its share of changes, too,” CHS recalls. “Shifting social trends in the ‘70s, such as a decreasing number of birth parents choosing to place their infants for adoption, led the agency to focus more on the adoptive placement of children with special needs and emotional challenges.”
The Society continued to grow and expand its services during the latter part of the century, and it received full accreditation of all sites and programs from the Council on Accreditation of Services for Families and Children in September of 1991. Programs relating to foster care, outreach, family visitation, respite, prenatal and early childhood services, parenting skills training, community-based social work, and truancy diversion services were added, and new shelters were built.
On Tuesday, Pearce and her office were joined by the organization’s two previous Regional Directors, Sarah Whittaker and Joanne Boileau.
Both Whittaker, who was the first director and served for the majority of the 1990s, and Boileau, who served from 1999 until her retirement in 2019, detailed how the agency has grown and changed over the years as it expanded on its programming, moved locations and hired more staff.
While it began as one man’s desire to help all children have a safe place to rest their heads at night, today CHS, which serves all 55 counties in West Virginia, has 13 primary locations, 9 emergency child shelters, statewide adoption, foster care, volunteer, and mentoring programs, and 15 other family support and intervention programs.
In 2020, CHS provided crucial assistance to more than 15,000 children and their families throughout the state.
Regardless of all these changes, CHS’s mission- to promote the well-being of all West Virginia children- has remained the same.
“Even with all the changes, the mission hasn’t changed in 125 years, and that is remarkable,” Pearce said. “Even as we evolve in the future it will stay the same. It is about making sure that our mission remains on the forefront in everything we do every day.”
“I feel pride and privilege to be part of this legacy and part of this organization,” Boileau added. “It is a rich history and just like any family, and that is what it feels like, family, we have had our problems, but we have a lot of dedicated workers and great volunteers that have always been there to support the Society and are very committed to making sure that service continues.”
Whittaker agreed, stating that it is amazing to look back at the organization’s history and see how far it has come.
“It is 125 years of celebrating service to families and children in West Virginia. We are always advocating for the best service to children, and this agency has a strong reputation of being very high quality in service.”
While the Mercer County office held a small celebration of their own, the agency as a whole will celebrate the milestone in Charleston this Saturday, May 8.
According to Whittaker, there will be several different programs, activities and events taking place on Saturday, including a short presentation that details the history of CHS. Agency members, community members and past CHS children and families are expected to attend.
The event will be train-themed to signify the “Orphan Trains” that were used to transport children to families who would take them in during the early years of child welfare services.
While looking back on the last 125 years for inspiration, Pearce looks to the future and is excited to see what it will hold for the Children’s Home Society of West Virginia.