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The Rhode Island State Home and School Project

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A Road to the Past: The State Home and School Project Takes Shape at Rhode Island College

Richard Hillman '83, MSW '96

[Editor's note: As the state's oldest public institution readies for its 150th anniversary, the State Home & School Project, a centerpiece of the College's Sesquicentennial, will embody many academic fields of study. The following is a brief history of the project's beginnings, as well as a few objectives that have been identified.]


In New England, we have always valued our roads. We celebrate them in literature and art. There are roads "not taken" and roads "less traveled." We tend to assign roads with human qualities because of where they take us and what they symbolize. There is a road on campus at Rhode Island College that holds great meaning. As many New England roads, it sits hidden in the fields and woods. And like many roads, it holds the story of the lives of children, Rhode Island children. This road was meant to lead children to the sanctuary of Rhode Island's first public orphanage, the State Home and School.

Recently, there has been increased interest at Rhode Island College in the study and preservation of this important historic place, and plans to recognize the children who came to live there. Founded in 1884, the State Home and School was one of America's first post-Civil War public orphanages. A personal and professional journey along the "hidden" roads of the State Home began for me in March 2001 when Trinity Square Repertory Theatre began pre-production of John Irving's "Cider House Rules," a novel set against the backdrop of an early 20th century orphanage. The Department of Children, Youth, and Families was contacted regarding historic background material that might be used in Trinity's production. As a social worker with a passion for Rhode Island history, I found this inquiry to be fascinating. During my years at DCYF, I was aware that there were very old records and documents stored away in the files maintained by the Department. One rainy afternoon, I began to collect and review these books and documents. As I read one leather bound volume after another, I realized that these records reflected in "snap-shots" a narrative of the lives of children who came to the State Home over 100 years ago. I also realized that there were documents that described in detail the organization and functionality of a place that later would prove to be an important piece of Rhode Island and American history. Also tucked into one volume was a list of children who had died while residents of the State Home.

The following week I began the process of providing Trinity with the information they needed. The children living in these extraordinary volumes would not leave my thoughts. I needed to find out more about them, and I particularly wanted to find out about the children who had stayed behind. I called Laura Kirk, a reporter for the Providence Journal known for her work on children's issues, and described to her the records and the questions they were raising. One question that was haunting: 16 children had apparently been buried at the State Home previous to 1957, but not all were accounted for when the graves were relocated to the Grace Church burial ground that year. Together Laura and I investigated the history of these children and the Home itself. The result of Laura's work was a feature article in the Providence Journal in April 2001 entitled, "Rhode Island's Forgotten Children."

In April of 2001, I walked into the President's office at Rhode Island College with samples of the records and documents that we had found. As I described the books and logs, President John Nazarian and his executive staff seemed to grasp immediately that these were in fact important records. Furthermore, there was a sense that the lives reflected in these records held a value that deserved to be protected and celebrated.
Since that first meeting, the staff and faculty members of Rhode Island College have been active in exploring ways to preserve both the records and the last remaining physical manifestation of the State Home, the "yellow cottage." Pierre Morenon, associate professor of anthropology, has been a leader in the study of the State Home. Last summer, he led anthropology students in conducting preliminary surface studies of remaining foundation sites of the State Home and has since gathered faculty and students to continue and expand this study. This summer Morenon and Sandra Enos, associate professor of sociology, will be presenting a multi-disciplinary class to study the State Home and the social systems at work around it.

Building on Morenon's efforts is a two-year project by anthropology student Susan Hughs '03. Hughs is conducting an oral history project that explores the experiences of both students and employees of the State Home, later called the O'Rourke Children's Center. Working in conjunction with DCYF, Hughs has interviewed students from almost every era in the home's history. She has also interviewed former employees, some of whom work today at DCYF. This project will be incorporated as part of a permanent "remembrance" at the College.

Enos and Diane Martell, assistant professor of social work, have both given their time and skill in the academic study of the records and the Home. Enos has completely catalogued the existing records found at DCYF and is a member of the recently formed steering committee. Martell is also on the steering committee and is working to organize a reunion for former residents of the Home.

In addition to the academic work being done, efforts have been underway to preserve the historic records. The State Archivist, Gwen Stern, has begun the process to permanently preserve the records. Consideration is being given as to how the records, once preserved, can appropriately be made available for study in the future. In this and all of our work we have always tried to keep focused on the children and families whose lives form the core of our efforts. The physical presence of the land and buildings that once described this historic place still holds meaning for many people. As a supervisor at what was once DCYF's Building #9, I can recall former students, now adults, coming back to visit the place that was once part of their childhood. They came back to look, touch, and remember. They arrive daily, often with children and grandchildren of their own. I tell them about the road in the woods. They all remember the road and the big iron gates that still stand as sentinels.

The College has begun a significant effort to provide a home for those memories. President Nazarian is committed to preserving the last remaining wood frame structure, a cottage built at the turn of the 20th century. Rhode Island College has taken the first step to creating a place of study and remembrance. Preliminary study is underway to explore the opportunity to create a Child Welfare Resource/Study site and Museum at the site of the yellow cottage.Ê The site will encourage all Rhode Island to celebrate and learn from the past, while finding insights to guide us in the future.

Another part of this effort has been the work now underway to create a permanent memorial for the children lost from history during the reburial in 1957, as well as a tribute to all children who once lived at the State Home. Following the publishing of Laura Kirk's article last year, donations were received from the public to an "ad hoc" fund for the memorial. Through the efforts of Peg Brown, vice-president of development and college relations; Mike Smith, assistant to President Nazarian; and Patti Nolin, coordinator of the College's Sesquicentennial, the creation of a memorial is moving from concept to reality. These early contributions, held in a special account at the Rhode Island College Foundation, will form the "seed" funding for a memorial, slated for dedication in April 2003.

From my first meeting with President Nazarian and his executive team, I have been tremendously impressed with how Rhode Island College has embraced this part of its campus history. As an alumnus, neighbor, and colleague, I have been immensely gratified to see the people who define the mission and vision of Rhode Island College find value in a past which has long been left along a wooded road. It has been wonderful to "come home" and find that children and families are truly valued. As a graduate of Rhode Island College, I'm not surprised.


Richard Hillman, MSW is a supervisor of Child Protective Investigations in the Office of the Director at DCYF with 25 years of experience in private and public child welfare. A member of the New England Regional Steering Committee for the Child Welfare League of America, a permanent member of the U.S. Navy Family Case Review Committee (NETC-Newport), and a member of the Primary Care Physicians Advisory Committee Ñ R.I. Dept. of Health, Richard holds a B.A. in psychology and anthropology '83, and an MSW '96 from the College.

This text originally appeared in Rhode Island Alumni Publication, Summer 2002

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).