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Child City has fostered ‘sense of belonging’ for 100 years

A view during winter 1914-15 looking north up Lincoln Highway (now Illinois Route 31) from southeast edge campus Mooseheart Road.

A view during the winter of 1914-15, looking north up Lincoln Highway (now Illinois Route 31) from the southeast edge of the campus on Mooseheart Road. The Loyalty Hall boys' dormitory dominates, but the campus is still raw, sparse and largely treeless. | Photo courtesy~Mooseheart

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October 20: Mooseheart Monster Mash 5K Walk/Run; 3 p.m. registration, 4 p.m. start; 20 donation benefits Mooseheart School. Renovation/Expansion project. Costumes encouraged, strollers welcome, no pets. Contact Emily Rollins for registration/information at 815-243-3110 or

October 27: Mooseheart Founder’s Day, 9 a.m. presentation at the House of God on Davis life and legacy, followed by presentations by Michigan Moose Association at Michigan Home; hayride in the afternoon.

Nov. 23-Dec. 31: Holiday Lights at Mooseheart; 6 p.m.-9 p.m. nightly; 80-plus holiday light displays over a 2-mile route through the campus; $10/car donation.

March 30: Mooseheart Family Easter Egg Hunt, Mooseheart Stadium

May 25: Commencement Day for Mooseheart High School Class of 2013, conferral of the Moose fraternity’s Pilgrim Degree of Merit, Convocation of the Women of the Moose College of Regents Degree; all held in conjunction with the 2013 International Moose Convention, based in Milwaukee.

Week of July 22-27: Centennial Celebration Week: Carson & Barnes Circus; fireworks and other celebrations leading up to re-creation of Mooseheart’s Dedication Ceremony at Carson & Barnes Circus Tent on July 27.

For more information, visit

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Updated: October 24, 2012 6:13AM

Erin Stryker could so easily have gone astray. When the 18-year-old’s parents divorced, the Orlando-based youth lived with her father and three siblings in a bad neighborhood. Her father worked hard, yet struggled financially. She and her three siblings roamed free and fought often.

“It was very stressful,” says Stryker. “Our family was not close at that time.”

Eight years ago, Stryker’s aunt, who lives in the Fox Valley, told her parents about Mooseheart. All four siblings enrolled the following year. All four are now either in college or headed that way. All four are thankful for Mooseheart.

“I probably wouldn’t be going to college next year, if it weren’t for Mooseheart,” says Stryker, who plans on studying criminal justice. “They’ve given us opportunity we didn’t have before.”

The Stryker family is not alone. Thousands have come before and thousands will likely follow. This year marks the commencement of the 100th year of the Mooseheart Child City and School. Founded in 1913, Mooseheart is a residential child care facility that has provided shelter, education and emotional support for more than 12,000 children from infancy through high school. There are currently 220 children living on the campus that operates under a $16 million annual budget.

“The original idea of the founder (James J. Davis) was that every child deserves an education and a vocational trade and when I look at that principle over the last 100 years, I see we’ve stuck to that,” says Scott Hart, executive director of Mooseheart.

An eye on the future

Davis, a steel worker from Pennsylvania who had seen the harsh realities of America before the days of Social Security benefits, sought to provide a home and education for the widows and children of the Loyal Order of Moose. He also wanted to make sure that home lasted for a long while. Under his direction, Mooseheart bought 1,000 acres just outside Batavia, only 360 of which became the Mooseheart campus. The remaining acreage was used as farmland to help support the school.

According Kurt Wehrmeister, director of communications and public affairs for Mooseheart and co-author of “Mooseheart, A Century of Giving,” only 11 kids first occupied the sprawling campus, ideally situated near the railroad, the Fox River and the city of Chicago.

“It all harkens back to Davis who wrote, ‘Labor provides for today. Property provides for tomorrow,’” says Wehrmeister. “And we’re still trying to manifest that philosophy.”

Mooseheart’s population exploded over the next half-century to as many as 1,200 students, due in part to the ravages of the Great Depression and the losses from World War I and World War II. Upwards of 50 boys were housed upstairs in barrack-like open rooms, according to Wehrmeister. They worked the farm, labored in the machine and carpentry shops, attended school and trained for the military.

“For more than half of the first hundred years, they came with their mother if the breadwinner of the family died. Now we care for a lot of kids in need, most of whom have never known the traditional family structure,” says Wehrmeister. “And for the first time, they are going to get responsible care, clean sheets, three meals a day and a safe place to live.”

A new environment

Certainly U-Conjay Nelson, now a Mooseheart senior, had never known stability before she enrolled four years ago. But she did know love. Nelson and her ailing mother used to walk past a local Moose Lodge every day in their not-so-great Delaware neighborhood, until one day they decided to stop in to see if they could find help.

“My mom didn’t want me to be a product of my environment, so she sent me here where I could have better opportunities that she couldn’t provide,” says Nelson, who plans to study nursing next year. “It was really hard at first.”

Not only did Nelson miss her mom, she also bristled at the strict discipline at Mooseheart, something most newcomers experience, according to Hart.

“For many of these kids, there was no structure and their parents, if they were around, would give in to what they wanted,” he says. “At Mooseheart, we’re not going to give in if you throw a temper tantrum.”

Yet the discipline at the school is done with the child’s best interests in mind. And though the newcomers might not believe it, the place is much less rigid than it used to be.

“The old timers at Mooseheart laugh now about being sent to the farm,” says Hart. “That was where you went if you were being punished for something you did wrong.”

Open to all in need

As time passed, Mooseheart has, indeed, shifted from a place that offered a bed, a locker and a full belly at night solely for the children of Moose members, to a place where children from dysfunctional families can thrive. “Now any child who has a need for residential placement can apply,” says Hart. “And that’s a big change.”

What’s also changed is the movement away from an institutional-like setting to an emphasis on the recreation of the nuclear family. The same homes that slept upwards of 50 boys, now hold 10 to 12 children. Each house also comes complete with family teachers who seek to provide consistency, while developing the social skills and work ethic essential for success later in life.

“When I look at Mooseheart through the ages, it is the sense of belonging that we have instilled that has come out of hurt or loss or dysfunction of the nuclear family,” says Hart. “For us, the challenge is how do we help them come from a place like that and wind up seeing something bigger than themselves.”

They also wind up giving back.

Recently, Erin Stryker and U-Conjay Nelson were among a half-dozen seniors seated at a bake sale booth, hustling sweets for their graduation celebration next May. Sure there was laughter and excitement about moving on to the next chapter of their lives. But there was also awareness of the responsibilities they bear as the elder classmen. And they talk about their role as caregivers to the incoming middle schoolers.

“We kind of took them under our wing because we all know what it’s like not being at home,” says Stryker. “We can relate to things that other people can’t.”

Controversy, hurdles

Mooseheart has not been without its problems. Its reputation as a safe and protective place for children came under fire in 1994 after four men went to prison for sexually abusing children at the Mooseheart home from 1988 to 1992.

Then two years later, another employee was convicted of video-taping children performing sexual acts in 1995. After the series of sex scandals rocked the Child City, Moose International adopted stricter screening measures for houseparents and other personnel.

Also, just as the country’s wealth has risen and fallen, Mooseheart has also struggled financially. To help meet the needs of leaner times, the organization recently annexed half of its 1,000 acres to the city of Batavia, said Wehrmeister. It also plans to extend utilities on the western portion along Randall Road. The land will not be sold. Rather Mooseheart will one day serve as its own developer for commercial properties.

With the help from the Loyal Order of Moose and the revenue generated from its land, Mooseheart fully intends on keeping its doors open for another 100 years.

“It’s the resiliency that is what impresses me about this place,” says Wehrmeister. “And the need for caring for kids in need is constant and eternal, even if the circumstances from which they come have changed.”

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