Defining Families

defining families quoteI’ve been invited to participate on a panel sponsored by the Pasadena Library entitled “Creating Families Today.” I admit the title is overwhelming. For many generations, Hillsides served as a surrogate family for many children who, for various reasons, were separated from their families. Hillsides was referred to then as the Episcopal Church Home for Children. Extraordinary caregivers like our visionary founder Deaconess Evelyn Wile pioneered a home-like setting that mimicked as much as possible the characteristics of a family. It provided a safe environment, nurturing attention, and value-based role modeling that was oriented toward creating stable, well-balanced young men and women equipped to take their place in society. It was an innovative alternative to the large institutional settings that were common in that era, and eventually emerged as a model adopted by most child welfare organizations.

In an era where women like Deaconess Wile were exclusively dedicated to caring for children who were orphaned, many of the caregivers served as substitute parents and were revered as such for a lifetime. I used to be the director of a similar facility in Massachusetts that had been directed by a community of Roman Catholic nuns.  During the funeral of one of the sisters who had long-served as a house parent, there was an outpouring of affection from many of the former residents who mourned her as their mother. When I have the good fortune of meeting elderly former residents of Hillsides, their recollections are of poignant moments of dedicated and loving caregivers who made a difference in their lives.

Of course it was a much simpler time then caring for children with far less-complex issues than those we serve today. The care offered was the best attempt at providing a family for the residents but it was markedly different from the family experience typical of that time. In spite of the fond memories and appreciation for the fine care they received, there is nevertheless a touch of sadness and a sense of loss for these former residents because nothing can replace a family.

Families, however, can be very dysfunctional. For many we serve today, they have been a source of trauma. Yet the family, however we define the parent-child relationship, is the source of identity and the fundamental relationship that mostly influences who we are as adults. Today we no longer aspire to be a substitute for a loving family; rather we are committed to being an indispensable ally for children and their families on their journey hopefully to restoration and well-being.

In our former role as surrogates and today as a resource for those we serve, I would avoid the notion of creating families but rather position Hillsides as supporting families to be as effective as possible in being safe, healthy, and happy. At our gala, Symphony of Dreams, held last Saturday night,  a client of ours, Rose Princess Donaly Marquez, talked about the role her Hillsides therapist played in helping her cope with past traumas, which enabled  her to dream for what many would consider unrealistic goals. The services Donaly received together with her adoptive parents helped her realize her aspirations and draw strength from the loving care of her family. In this instance, no family was “created,” but rather, a child and family were supported to be loving and create enduring bonds of care and affection that give life and provide reason for hope.

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