Never mind that more than 30 years have passed.
Moments after Columbus resident Michelle George walked through the doors of the former Bartholomew County Children’s Home the other day for a visit, she became a teenager again, remembering younger years that shaped her life — and brought her joy in what some others consider an unlikely place.
The building has been the Bartholomew County Youth Services Center for more than 20 years. But she was pleasantly surprised to find one of the bunk-bedded, residential wings largely unchanged.
“I’m not ashamed,” George said of the years of 1979 to 1984 when she lived at the 60-bed home, where young people were placed for various reasons, from family struggles to neglect. “I’ve never wanted people to feel sorry for me. I actually was very, very fortunate to be there.”
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The 49-year-old home alumnus and former student cook at the home wants to reminisce with other former residents of the facility that operated on Illinois Avenue from 1967 until its closing in 1991 due to dwindling occupancy of only a few young people. So she and others have organized a children’s home reunion beginning at 4 p.m. Saturday at Donner Park near the shelter house at 19th Street and Lafayette Avenue in Columbus.
They believe it’s the first such gathering in years for those who were at the home either as residents or staff. And since it has been a struggle to find most former residents, George is uncertain what she will find at the park Saturday afternoon.
“I guess it could be 20,” she said of attendance. “Or it could be 200.”
Perhaps George’s most emotional recollections of her time at the home relate to the love and support she felt from Jim Weaver, the home’s director during her stay, and his wife, Nancy. Jim Weaver died in 1988.
“He was so welcoming to me and very loving and kind,” George said. “He had such a presence about him as very caring and very loving.”
Chris Riggin Dieters, another of the reunion organizers and now a resident of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, said she loved her time at the children’s home from 1976 to 1981. Her best friend then, Cindy Niemoeller, remains her best friend today.
“I realize that any trouble I got into there was trouble I would have gotten into anyway,” Dieters said with a chuckle. “Some of us did typical teenage stuff.”
She’s especially looking forward to the weekend.
Dieters said, “For me, the reunion is a chance to see people I haven’t seen since I left.”
One of her happiest times unfolded when residents did their own homemade performance of “Grease” for houseparents when Dieters was a preteen. But even her later years were a time of meaningful bonding with others at the home.
“With teenagers, all you really need to find is one commonality, and suddenly you’re best friends,” Dieters said.
And the home leaders saw lots of local people and groups become friends with residents. George recalls the ABATE motorcycle group bringing Easter baskets every year, the local Corvette Club regularly showing up and taking residents for a spin, and wilderness challenge camp in Bloomington. Not to mention hot-air balloon rides.
Dieters recalled residents getting free admission to movies at The Crump and The Commons (she saw “Smokey and the Bandit” 23 times, as best she can remember).
“The community rallied around us,” George said. “And we were able to do and see and experience things that other kids had no opportunity for.”
George understands that some people take issue with her warm memories of the place. That’s OK, as she sees it. Her perspective looks at “the glass half-full,” as she put it.
“We were loved,” George said. “We felt like were like any child in any (healthy) family.”
What: Reunion and pitch-in of former residents and staff from the Bartholomew County Children’s Home.
When: 4 p.m. Saturday. Organizers will provide meat and ask those attending to bring a dish of food to share with others.
Where: Donner Park near the shelter house at 19th and Lafayette streets in Columbus.
Information: Organizers would like those planning to attend to respond with an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or a note on the Facebook page at Bartholomew County Children’s Home Reunion.