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The Rhode Island State Home and School Project

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Echoes of Childhood Reiterate the Heart of Project

The State Home and School Project is continuing to tell the stories of so many that have called one of the oldest orphanages in the United States home, at an earlier time in their lives. It may be easy for most to overlook what life may have been like for those children. The project is making sure that this does not happen. We, as a culture, are molded by history. It provides a sense of who we are and how policies and practices have shaped the society we have grown accustomed to. Events held this past spring reflected on the early lives of many former residents.

The State Home and School is now a vital part of Rhode Island College and a centerpiece of the Sesquicentennial Celebration. In May both the College and the project was exhibited throughout a six-week period in the Rhode Island Treasures Exhibit - celebrating Rhode Island’s History at the Rhode Island Convention Center. It is estimated that over 40,000 residents and students from Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts had experienced the displays depicting the history of both institutions, by the time the exhibit closed June 15.

More personal accounts and memoirs have been collected from former residents. The oral histories gathered for both research and journalistic purposes set a stage for understanding an earlier time when the Home (and in later years the O’Rourke Children’s Center) was operational. The stage, however, is not set with actors, but with individuals whose real life biographies and childhoods allow us a glimpse into the past. More and more former residents and staff of the Home, administrators, scholars, faculty and, community leaders are dedicating time and talent to the project.

The real heart of the project is honoring the childhoods from years ago and embracing the truth that every child matters. On April 6, 2003, a second reunion was held for former residents and staff of the institution. Later that day, a memorial was dedicated to all children that had resided on the grounds of what is now the East Campus of the College. Rhode Island College President John Nazarian, Congressman Jim Langevin, Lt. Governor Charles Fogarty, Richard Hillman, supervisor of child protective services, Leslie Sevey, president of the Rhode Island Association for the Education of Young Children, and former resident and nationally acclaimed artist Willy Heeks unveiled the plaque which reads:

The Rhode Island State Home and School (est. April 29, 1884) was one of the first public orphanages in the United States. Opened in 1885 as a model of enlightened social policy, its roles as a residence and school for children ended in 1979. Over the course of its history, thousands of youngsters called this their home. This site is dedicated to honor these children.

An important project of the Sesquicentennial, the project was featured during the inaugural celebration held at the Rhode Island Convention Center on May 9, 2003. Honoring the Past to Ensure the Future, a video production, depicting the Home’s history and the innovation of the project debuted that evening with many former residents in attendance. The audience fell silent as they experienced accounts from the Home’s early ledgers and residents. Truly this was a testament to the importance of the project. Preserving the legacy of one of the oldest orphanages in the country is of great significance and a vital resource to shape future policies that affect child welfare.

Childhoods of long ago help one to know that every child is significant. The past cannot be forgotten.
Oral histories and further archeological activities are ongoing, as are strategies for preserving the last remaining original cottage to serve as resource for the additional study of child welfare and policies.

A special fund has been established in the Rhode Island College Foundation to support the Rhode Island State Home & School Project. To make a donation please make checks payable to the RIC Foundation, with the name of the fund on the check memo line. Mail to: RIC Foundation, 600 Mt. Pleasant Avenue, Providence, RI 02908


This text originally appeared in Rhode Island Alumni Publication, Summer 2003

To learn more about the project contact Patricia Nolin, Special Assistant to the President, call (401) 456-9854, or email pnolin@ric.edu.

To contribute to the oral history project contact Diane Martell at dmartell@ric.edu (email) or 401-456-8628 (phone).