Lending Library for youth staying at St. John’s Home
by BETH ALTENA
Every spring graduates of Rockford High School wrap up a major part of their lives to date: saying goodbye to friends who are off to spend summer elsewhere, leaving for college at different schools, realizing the group they have grown up with for the past 12 years are beginning a new phase of their lives.
For Stephani Sawicki, the ending of her high school career coincides with her last days as a Girl Scout, another part of her life that has been so important to her. She will spend this summer making sure the legacy she leaves as a Scout is an excellent one that will improve the lives of kids in this area.
Sawicki is working on creating a lending library for St. John’s Home in Grand Rapids—a project that will earn her the Girl Scout’s highest honor, the Gold Award, which is the equivalent of the Boy Scout’s Eagle Award. Ultimately, it will do much more than that.
“I want to have books, chairs, posters, globes, to make a place where kids can go and escape into a world of reading,” she described.
St. John’s home is a residential care home for children who have been removed from their family life due to severe neglect or abuse. With separate programs for younger kids, ages 6 to 12, and another for older kids, ages 13 to 17, the residences offer a place as youth either prepare to return to a rehabilitated family or for permanent placement.
According to Sawicki, she heard about St. John’s from Candy Lancioni of Aunt Candy’s Toy Company. Lancioni had an uncle, now deceased, who was devoted to helping the boys and girls who found themselves at St. John’s, and would spend every weekend doing chores or spending time with the kids. According to Sawicki, there is little in the way of books there now, just a few on shelves, and no library.
St. John’s has offered her a space to recreate with shelving, rugs, comfortable chairs, posters, bean bags, puzzles and games or other amenities to help the kids enjoy their reading time. From Aunt Candy’s she received a selection of books and a bright blue butterfly chair. Rockford Floor Covering donated some nice rugs, and other merchants, Girl Scout troops and individuals have given her books for the library.
“I have always loved books and reading,” confided Sawicki. “I was a bookworm.”
Sawicki said she believes the kids at the home will love the escape and imagination of reading as much as she does.
The home was conceived in the 1880s when Grand Rapids was a bustling commercial center and community fueled by the lumber industry. Despite the busy commercial business, there were a large number of homeless children living on the streets, usually ill with the sicknesses of the day. In 1882 Bishop Henry Richter pressured the Catholic church to build an orphanage.
About the same time, Jennie Blodgett and Emily Clark founded the Children’s Aid Society and received funds from Jennie’s husband, Delos Abiel (D.A.) to build a home. In 1857 the home was built at 42 Lafayette Street in Grand Rapids.
Just up the road at the corner of Lafayette and Leonard Street, an orphanage funded by a $60,000 gift from lumber baron John Clancy was built and named the St. John’s Orphan Asylum, later renamed the D.A. Blodgett Home for Children.
The two facilities provided housing and care for the young residents, but were not the same as a regular loving home life.
“Our children have everything they need except families,” noted the caregivers at Blodgett and the Dominican Sisters of St. John’s.
By the 1920s, a foster and adoption system was being put in place.
Today the facilities offer Big Brother Big Sister programs, therapists, and a home for children whose parents are incarcerated. Therapy programs are geared toward healing past trauma and preparing youngsters for return to their home or permanent placement in a new home.
Sawicki said Lancioni’s recommendation for a library for the kids at St. John’s was the perfect choice for her final Girl Scout project, and she has been working on the project since February. So far she has about 350 books collected, but noted most are for younger children. She would love to have donations of book for the older kids. She has the first and seventh of the Harry Potter series—one of her own favorites—and could use volumes two through six.
“It would be nice to have a couple copies of the popular books so the kids can read them together and talk about them,” noted Lancioni.
Other “hot” books for teens these days are the Twilight series and “Hunger Games.” Among the books Sawicki has enjoyed include “Eragon,” “Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “Sisters of the Traveling Pants.”
In addition to working toward a project that will have real meaning for many, many young people, Sawicki has enjoyed spreading the word about what St. John’s does and also about the value of being a Girl Scout. She said the organization has meant so much to her over the years.
“People think about Girl Scouts and they think about cookies,” she said. “It is much more an organization about community service.”
Donations can be made at Aunt Candy’s Toy Company, located on Courtland Street in downtown Rockford in the bright yellow building across from Kimberly’s Boutique. Questions can be directed to Sawicki’s e-mail at ****I left it at the office, get it tomorrow****.
Sawicki said her first childhood book that she recalls is one that she still owns, although it is ripped up, ratty and clearly well-read. Representative of a happy childhood that not all children are fortunate enough to enjoy, it is titled, “I’ll Love You Forever.”