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The Rhode Island State Home and School Project

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A Road Revisited An Update on The State Home and School Project

The State Home was one of the first post-Civil War public orphanages in the United States. Up until that time, large state-operated institutions, called almshouses, were the primary means of support for dependent children who were not fortunate enough to be placed in small, privately sponsored orphanages. The State Home and School Project at Rhode Island College was initiated in the spring of 2001 when Trinity Square Repertory Theatre contacted the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) for historic background material that would be helpful as the Theatre Company began pre-production of John Irving’s Cider House Rules, a novel set against the backdrop of an early orphanage. In response to the request, Richard Hillman ’83, an administrator of DCYF and RIC alumnus, began reviewing old documents relating to the State Home and School. It was clearly recognized that the current East Campus of Rhode Island College possessed the three original structures of the State Home. The discussion into the importance of the history contained on the East Campus began. It was decided that preserving the Home’s legacy would act as a centerpiece of the College’s Sesquicentennial.

As the fall semester began, archeological digs were continuing, artifacts were unearthed, research was conducted, and a strategy was underway to preserve the “yellow cottage,” the only unmodified structure remaining from the original State Home. Outreach to community and business leaders, as well as local artists resulted in furthering the vision for this historic site. A Walking Tour was developed for visitors to get a sense of what life may have been like for those who walked the grounds many years before. Collection of the histories of former residents, staff, and other individuals intimately involved in the home were also continued.

In October, former residents of the State Home/O’Rourke’s Children Center gathered to share their experiences and meet with others who at one time lived in state custody. According to Diane Martell, assistant professor of Social Work, “The morning was a great success. We recognized the importance of respecting privacy of these individuals and, therefore, took steps to keep information regarding the participants confidential. It is our hope, however, that many former residents will join in our efforts to document the history of the Home and the lives of the people it touched.” Rick Housman ’87 shared his thoughts on his past: “I am so thankful that God made life hard for me. It has taught me to appreciate everything I have accomplished that much more. I can still recall the emotions I felt as I drove by the DCYF grounds on my way to classes at RIC. I am living proof that if you have faith and hope you can overcome anything.” Willy Heeks HD ’95, another former resident, said, “...as individuals began speaking, threads of connections began to emerge, and I felt a real desire to share my memories. What came out of that experience were glimpses of imagery and emotion, sparking an appetite for more exchanges.” One former resident donated one of her last remaining childhood possessions — the Bible given to her upon entering the State Home in 1949. Her hope is that it can be proudly displayed in an exhibit depicting life for so many young children, at that time.


This text originally appeared in Rhode Island Alumni Publication, Fall-Winter 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).