My junior year of college at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb afforded a unique opportunity that influenced my career path. Every Wednesday afternoon, a number of us students boarded an NIU bus and traveled an hour or so west to Dixon, Illinois, where we volunteered for several hours in children’s wards at the Dixon State School for developmentally disabled children. Lionel, pictured with me by the bus, was one of my favorites. Our weekly sessions took place on the ward, but occasionally we went on Saturdays and took the boys for picnics and games at state parks around Dixon. Laura, Ann and Jan, and I, all friends from Douglas Hall dorm, worked with the boys, and this photo shows Laura and myself with Lionel and Bobby.
The experience was so meaningful that I changed my major from Liberal Arts (aiming for the ministry) to education. This meant taking my junior year classes over since the majority of the education classes were within the junior curriculum. I couldn’t afford two more years away at school, so I returned home to live with my folks and finish my education at Chicago State University in Chicago. But I missed working with the kids, so in November of 1966, I began volunteering at Chicago State Mental Hospital (formerly called Dunning) at Narragansett and Irving Park Road, about eight miles north of our Lakeview community in Chicago.
I was interviewed by Dr. Elam, who ran Children’s Ward 5, and his assistant, Mr. Beck, a large, sturdy, bearded psychologist as imposing in demeanor as he was in stature, who immediately plumbed my willingness for a long-term commitment with “their kids.” I told them of my switch of majors from liberal arts to education, related my volunteer experiences at Dixon State School, explained my love of kids and of my time leading church youth groups and teaching Sunday School classes, and mentioned my own experiences as a Cub Scout and Boy Scout.
I was granted the privilege of volunteering on CW-5, a cottage composed of four rooms smack in the middle of the one-mile-square gated, guarded, high-fenced grounds of the state hospital. There were two large dorm rooms flanking the large day room. The 40+ residents slept in the dorms, one for boys (who far outnumbered the girls) and one for girls, each containing beds and some cage-like cribs for the more disabled residents. A fourth room contained the kitchen dining area where we held our meetings with the boys.
My first few visits to the ward were tough. Lower functioning children, who made up the majority of the residents, were scattered about the day room, most sitting listlessly in front of the two wall mounted black-and-white televisions, their hazy eyes mesmerized by whatever was incomprehensibly playing out on the screens. Several others wearing football helmets were banging their heads against walls, examples of perseveration at its most self- destructive. I recall noticing a hole in the wallboard where one helmeted boy was seemingly attempting to create egress for his escape. A few were tied to their beds in the dorms, their skin blotchy and red and patchy and the restraints necessary to prevent them from peeling their own skin off their bodies, piece by piece.
All on this ward were classified as multiple-handicapped since all suffered from several conditions including (the then called) retardation, schizophrenia, hyperactivity, neurosis, psychosis, social maladjustment, and brain injury. I started with five of the highest functioning boys, and compared to the others I had observed, these boys seemed almost normal though they were far from normal. Since I was alone during those first months, I took just three to five boys each week, and gradually I got to know the 14 highest functioning boys. Realizing I would need assistance with this many kids, Mr. Beck interviewed and located several other volunteers to work with me, which is how I met Deena and Sue.
Our weekly Wednesday evening meetings were held in the dining room (photo above) which was locked to keep our boys in and the other children out, and involved games and crafts designed to promote cooperation, eye-hand coordination, following directions, socialization, etc. and included coloring, creating collages, Bingo, relay races, Twister, Simon Says, and many other activities. The weekly interaction allowed us to bond with the boys and we begin to determine which ones were capable of leaving the ward. When a boy was uncooperative, he was sent back to the day room, but then allowed to rejoin us the next week. Gradually, their behavior became more cooperative and disturbances became rare, and eventually we would walk them to the ball field and play softball, football, volleyball, freeze-tag, soccer, and dodge ball. There was a sunken garden on the grounds where we played hide-and-seek and secret agent, and we also went to the institution’s playground and indoor swimming pool and further developed our rapport with and control over the behavior of the boys.
In September of 1967, Ted Beck became Chief-of-Service for CW-5 and two months later excitedly announced that the Chicago Council of Boy Scouts had offered an opportunity to charter a scout troop for our boys, complete with hand-me-down uniforms from other troops. We discussed the offer with the parents club and all agreed that it would be a wonderful opportunity for the 14 boys. Ted and a few of the fathers took care of the legalities and I became Scoutmaster of Troop 981.
Normally, monumental reams of paperwork were required to take residents off-grounds, but our Scout troop designation cleared away that obstacle, and nearly every Saturday we would take the boys through the gates and provide experiences most of the boys had never had. Several times we went to Foster Avenue beach on Lake Michigan, where I quickly learned about a muted but evident north-side 1960s racism as our mostly Hispanic and black lads received stares and glares from some of the local white swimmers at the beach. Another day we found several empty railroad boxcars on a siding along Forest Glen Avenue and the boys climbed into the empty cars and walked the rails, a simple thing we probably all did as kids but which these boys had never experienced. And they talked about it for weeks!
One Saturday in May of 1968, we drove to the ball field on the hospital grounds and I opened the trunk of my car. “Hey, guys. Who’s gonna help me take the bats and balls over to the diamond?”
Daryl and Johnny immediately clamored, “I will, I will,” and I handed the gear to them.
Without warning, Angel, ever helpful and ever in need of attention, added, “I’ll shut the trunk, Chuck,” and immediately slammed the trunk closed so we could more quickly begin playing ball. Unfortunately, I had put my car keys inside the trunk as I handed out the equipment, and the keys were now locked in – and I was locked out. I said nothing and we played ball. After finishing and walking the boys back to their ward, Deena had to drive me home to get my spare set. But we made some fun of the trip, taking Daryl and Pat with us and staying at my house a while to listen to some of my record albums (yes, albums.) To this day, I still carry a spare car key in my wallet because of this experience, and on numerous occasions I have used it and been grateful to Angel for teaching me this lesson!
Another highlight for the boys was when they got to wear their Scout uniforms. We had fitted each boy to a hand-me-down shirt and pants, pinning the hems at the correct length and marking each uniform as to which boy it was for, and then we carefully pinned all the insignias onto the sleeves – the numbers 981 and the patches for the patrol they were part of. The parents club saw to the hemming and the sewing of the patches. The nursing staff had to get the boys dressed in their uniforms, which was a real chore, so we only did it once a month or so, but when the boys had their uniforms on, the results were noticeable as a pride suffused the boys’ faces and a dignity infused their demeanor. I was always grateful to the wonderful nurses who were willing to help us this way despite their hectic schedules.
Other outings included picnics, trips to Garfield Park Conservatory and O’Hare Airport, attendance at a Chicago Sox game, and trips to playgrounds in nearby Chicago parks. Several of the boys, accompanied by volunteers, attended my wedding to Nancy in August of 1969, and in later months we brought them to our apartment for visits and games in our new home.
After a number of these outings, I felt we were ready to venture into the local forest preserves, where the photo above was taken. Our first foray was on June 15, 1968, at nearby Schiller Woods off Irving Park Road at the Des Plaines River. We walked through the large meadow, past the pavilion with its tall stone fireplace, and as we approached the tree line, Daryl stopped and looked at all the dense forest about to engulf us.
“Are there b-b-b-bears in there, Chuck?” he asked with quivering voice.
“No,” I assured him.
“I’m afraid of b-b-bears, Chuck,” he said, still frozen in place.
“No bears around here, Daryl,” I repeated.
“I’m REALLY afraid of b-b-bears, Chuck!”
“Don’t worry, Daryl. Just hold my hand and I’ll protect you,” I assured him.
He looked at me, squeezed my hand with more strength than I realized his small frame possessed, and tentatively stepped forward a step, and Angel quickly took my other hand. “Save me too, Chuck,” he asserted plaintively.
Soon we were deep in the forest where the sights and sounds of squirrels, birds, rabbits, and deer captured their attention, and so did all the trees. None of the boys had ever seen so many trees together in one place or so close together. After a half hour walk, we had looped back and reentered at the far end of the meadow from where we had started, and after taking a few steps on the grass and noticing the trees were behind us, Daryl stopped, turned around, let go of my hand which he had been clutching for the entire hike, began clapping his hands and shouting, “That was fun, Chuck! Let’s do it again! Let’s do it again!” And we did - numerous times in the months to come. We also taught the boys fire safety, including starting and extinguishing campfires, and how to safely use a small hand axe.
Our field trip to the forest preserve had been a smashing success, and after it had been repeated several times, I talked with Ted about my next plan – taking the troop on an overnight campout. I suggested the Chicago Council’s campground, Camp Fort Dearborn in the Chippewa Woods Forest Preserve just off Higgins Road at the Des Plaines River in what is now the Village of Rosement. We talked about what equipment and supplies I would need and he agreed to look into the possibility.
Soon he returned with a counter-offer. Before we took them off the grounds for an overnight trip, he suggested we do an overnight in the back yard of one of the hospital’s residences (the “New Horizon House”) on Oak Park Avenue (pictured above) which was located just on the other side of the fence surrounding the grounds. That way, we would be off-grounds but would have communications with the ward via the phone in the house, and if any of the boys freaked out during the night, we could take them inside the house. We could also use the house’s washroom and kitchen.
So, as seen in the photo above, I enlisted several friends from church, Fred and Georgeann, as additional volunteers, and using Georgeann’s tent and my Indian tepee-style tent, we successfully camped in July of 1968. We played games, tossed Frisbees, cooked our meals, sang songs around the campfire, and after tiring the boys (and ourselves), enjoyed a good night’s sleep. The infectious nature of working with these marvelous children became all the more clear to me after this outing because Fred and Georgeann so loved the experience that they registered as regular volunteers and joined me for our weekly Wednesday evening sessions and later campouts.
Bolstered by this successful outing, tales of which the boys regaled upon all who would listen, we began planning another campout, this time at Camp Fort Dearborn. We never imagined the hurdles we would have to overcome, the biggest one being the prohibition the Chicago Boy Scout Council had regarding no females being allowed overnight at their facility. Ted Beck had to use every bit of his public relations expertise to get permission for our female volunteers to accompany the troop, but somehow he managed, with the proviso that no girls were allowed to sleep in a tent with any male volunteer. No problem! So in September of 1968, the male bastion of Camp Fort Dearborn was invaded by Troop 981, and for the first time in the campground’s long history, females spent the night. The girls took one tent with half the boys and the guys took the other tent, and everyone (including the supervising ranger, who just happened to be the brother of one of my scoutmasters from years before) was happy. Hikes in the woods, stalking lessons, leaf gathering, cooking, hide-and-seek, and singing around the campfire occupied our time, and everyone had so much fun that we camped at Fort Dearborn twice more the next year in July and September. The photo below is one of these outings.
If you wonder how the boys liked these campouts, check their faces as Fred wrestles with Angel and Bobby...
... and dance the twist...
I sheepishly admit that volunteering at a state institution took me way out of my comfort zone back in college. But my experiences at Dixon State School and then the five years volunteering at Chicago State Mental Hospital had a profound effect on me, so much so that I changed my college major to education and later earned a master’s degree in special education and reading. Though I know my time with these wonderful children affected their lives in many positive ways, the personal satisfaction I derived from knowing these young boys and the lessons I learned from them have always made me feel that my time with them had benefited me far more than them, and I am exceedingly grateful for the opportunity to have met and known and worked with them. And now, as I write this story forty years later, and as I reminisce through my numerous photographs and recall the boys and my fellow volunteers and the many and varied activities we enjoyed together, I find myself getting choked up and teary-eyed, and I joyously relive again the pleasure and delight those captivating young boys brought to me.
Over the intervening decades, I have tried to remember how going out of my comfort zone back then paid lifetime rewards, so as not to fear repeating that challenge. And I guess that is my moral for this story to you -- dare to accept challenges, consider them as adventures, go out of your comfort zone, and reap the benefits. Do it! Adventure is a VERB.