It was unlike any cookie exchange I had been to. No Christmas carols playing. Minimal decoration. And most of the adults in the room were complete strangers to each other 24 hours earlier. Although no celebrities were in attendance, camera flashes were going off almost as frequently as any red carpet event. This is what happens when a dozen bloggers exchange cookies with children from the Milton S. Hershey School.
Mere hours earlier, 11 other bloggers and I had been in the Hershey test kitchen, getting an insider’s peek into how recipes on the back of Hershey’s products and in those colorful recipe cards and cookbooks are created. We were divided into teams and dutifully followed (or tried to) the directions of some of the most beloved holiday cookie recipes. The sweet results were combined with additional batches of cookies for an exchange with two houses of children from the Milton S. Hershey School (MHS) — essentially a boarding school for underprivileged children, which gives children as young as 4 and as old as graduating high school seniors a second or better chance at life. The average income of the families the children came from is approximately $15,000 a year. Some of the parents choose to send their children to the school, in the hopes of breaking the cycle and providing their children with the education and life skills training they aren’t able to provide themselves. But some children arrive at the school under protective custody, their families completely unaware of where they are.
In a two-and-a-half day trip to Hershey, Pennsylvania and an opportunity to learn about The Hershey Company and its sister company, Hershey Entertainment and Resort, I have learned so much about chocolate, the attractions in this small Pennsylvania town of 21,000 people, and the fascinating failures and then successes of Milton S. Hershey. There is much to digest (physically and mentally!) from this trip, but one of the most heart-rending is the story of this school and the ideaology behind it, with very few modifications, that has survived the test of time for nearly a century and changed the lives of 9,000 people.
An Opportunity of a Lifetime
Milton Hershey and his beloved wife Catherine, aka “Kitty,” were unable to have children. November 18, 1909 they created the Deed of Trust that created the school originally named the Hershey Industrial School. Four students were enrolled the following year, beginning in a classroom in Milton’s original home. At the time of its creation, the school was for white orphaned boys, since then the school has expanded its student population to include underprivileged children of either gender and all races. Back in 1909, the idea was not only to feed, clothe, and educate the pupils, but also to teach them a marketable trade so they could make their own way in life after graduation. Three years after his wife’s death, Hershey donated the majority of his vast fortune to the school which to this day operates on funds provided via the trust and sales of Hershey’s chocolates, and does not accept private donations.
The school currently houses and educates 1800 students, with plans to expand to serve even more. The children live in group houses under the watchful eye of married couples who serve as Houseparents and who make sure the children not only are cared for, but go to school, extracurricular activities, and church, and also enforce a very structured way of life that includes chores and bedtime. Children have the option to go home for school breaks and five long weekends, but some of them don’t. Some families are very involved, maintaining regular contact with their children. Sadly, some don’t. The homes are divided by gender and level of school (elementary, middle and high school). High school seniors live in transitional housing that allows them to learn about managing a modest budget, shopping for and cooking their own food, and learning the lessons they need to know before striking out on their own — either in the work world or college. They earn scholarship money for college by maintaining good grades at MHS.
Although the campus itself is open, rarely are people given the opportunity to go inside a group home. Before the cookie exchange, my fellow bloggers and I were divided up and given the opportunity to dine with the children in selected houses to gain a better understanding of what life inside MHS is like.
Pizza and Perspective
The Hughes family, a married couple and their 15-year-old daughter, were the housefamily for the home of boys in grades 4 and below that I had the pleasure of joining for dinner. As a Hershey trolley dropped off two other bloggers and a Hershey rep, the young boys politely lined up just inside the entryway and extended their hands for a firm handshake while introducing themselves. My own son is a first grader, and I felt a lump in my throat as I realized that some of these boys were the same age as he is.
I did a double-take as one small boy introduced himself as Nugget. I later learned this was not his given name, but his preferred moniker, which reflected his small stature. Luis, the largest of the boys, was less talkative, and had only been at the school for four weeks.
We sat down to a dinner of pizza (a treat provided by the PR team) and were riddled with even more questions from the houseparents than we had for them or the boys. Guests are infrequent, and they were curious why women who had no apparent connection to each other would travel from states far and near to come share Wednesday night dinner with them. We, had lots of questions, but speaking for myself, felt like it would be indelicate in such a short time to delve deeply into them — the most obvious being, what brought each boy here?
Instead, we asked what their favorite subjects were (math seemed to be the predominate favorite) and what they wanted to be when they grew up. Watching my own boy grow in his obsession with Star Wars over the past few months, I asked if any of them were fans, and was met with questioning looks. “They are a little young for that,” Mr. Hughes replied after a brief silence. It was just one of the moments that drove home to me how different their lives — even before arriving at MHS — had been from my son’s. Upon noticing the missing baby teeth of several of the boys, one of the women made a remark about the tooth fairy, and once again an awkward silence fell. “Who is the tooth fairy?” one of the boys asked. The tooth fairy had not visited them at their original homes, apparently. While friends of mine volleyed back and forth on Facebook about the going rate for the tooth fairy in their respective neighborhoods, these children had never even heard of such a creature. Remembering that the average family income of the pupils was approximately $15,000, I could see why the tooth fairy had not come by.
The most enthusisasm seemed to come with the discussion of sports and extracurriculars. Just like my son, many of them enjoyed playing soccer. A couple of the boys were enrolled in tap dancing classes. And just like my household, Mrs. Hughes found she needed to write everyone’s schedules down to make sure everyone arrived at the right place (and came home!) at the right time — although I only have our family of four and she could have as many as 12 MHS kids as well as her own family to keep track of.
Both houseparents ensured all the children had eaten all they had wanted, and then the boys quickly cleared the table. Luis gave us a brief, but matter-of-fact tour of the house, which included a well-organized laundry room and mud room, a neat living room complete with a decorated Christmas tree and display case of Mrs. Hughes’s personal collection of Hershey memorabilia, and a large, shared bathroom. Each bedroom could hold up to two boys, who were provided with a twin bed, a dresser, and a desk with a hutch. The linens on the beds were themed by room — one room had football players on the bedspread. We silently took note of how unadorned the rooms were. One boy had a photo of himself as a baby with a woman I presumed to be his mother. Luis had three posters – two of WWF wrestlers, and the other an advertisement for Diary of a Wimpy Kid. In most cases, the shelves over the desks were empty. A PR rep later told us that was because the children often arrived with virtually nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Though there were plenty of books in the common areas of the house, few children come to the school with their own personal collection of books, or even a single beloved one. Their clothes are provided for upon arrival, but memorabilia and cherished items, those are things a child acquires over time through gifts and treats — a luxury few of them ever had. Clutter is a problem that comes with middle class or higher status, not with poverty.
And while I still felt shell-shocked at the idea of a parent sending such a young child away to school (even if in some cases, it was an act of purely unselfish love), the story of MHS seems to be predominately happy. Both in a documentary and via clips on the school’s web site, one can see and hear over and over again how MHS transformed lives. There is a light in the eyes of these alums as they talk about how the school changed the direction of their lives that tells even more than their stories of leading healthy, productive, successful lives. Many students return to work or volunteer for the school in some capacity later in life — grateful for the love, education, and opportunities provided to them. And that is the sweet part of the bittersweet story. Listening carefully to their words, I realize that more than anything, what changed the course of their lives was the understanding that someone — including the long-deceased Milton S. Hershey — believed in them. Someone cared enough to create this school and to expect them to make something of themselves. This gave them the power to believe that they could achieve more than their original set of circumstances might have allowed.
After the tour, we bundled up in coats and made the short trip to a group home of similar aged girls to have the cookie exchange party. Some walked, a blogger named Linda and I ended up driving over in a van with Mrs. Hughes and her daughter. This gave me an opportunity to ask what life was like as a Houseparent. Our time was brief and the answers were unsurprising, but it helped fill out the picture. After 18 years of serving as a Houseparent, Mrs. Hughes has seen a few changes — at one time kids stayed with the same housefamily throughout their school career, rather than “aging out” of a home by a certain grade as they do now. She feels like she was able to form a deeper bond with children under that model. Recently a child had to leave the home because his emotional state was questionable and he needed to be somewhere where he could get the assistance he needed. While her fifteen-year-old daughter has known no other life, her older children — now on their own — had a harder time adjusting to the new way of life when they first became Houseparents. When I asked about how involved the students’ parents were, she said some were very involved, others barely communicated with their children.
Though she had no hard statistics, she did think the issues of bullying and drug use were significantly lower at MHS than in the town’s public schools due to the regimented schedule of student life at MHS. Since she took care of younger boys, she didn’t know much about teen pregnancies but said she only recalled about hearing of one case in recent times.
Although the children referred to the houseparents at both houses quite formally as Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so, I also noticed how often they would come up to their houseparents for a quick hug.
A Holiday Party Like No Other
“Are you ready for some cookies?!” asked one of the PR firm representatives. The ensuing squeals of delight were nearly deafening. After a brief discussion of who should go first, the boys or the girls, the boys politely deferred to the girls. They picked up plain tins and lined up for their allotment of six cookies and were instructed that they could decorate the tins at the craft table.
A young girl named Angel struggled with tying a ribbon onto the round tins, so I stepped in and asked if she’d like some help. We selected a sticker to secure the ribbon on the bottom of the tin and I tied a clumsy bow for her and showed her how to fluff it for maximum effect. I then asked if she’d like some glitter glue, and when we found the glue pen a bit tough to squeeze, I offered to do the squeezing while she put her little hand over mine and guided it into the shiny swirls she desired. She turned down the offer of Hannah Montana stickers, opting instead to adorn the tin with smaller Tinkerbell stickers. Then she selected a T0:/From: gift tag.
“Are you going to eat the cookies or are you saving them to give to someone?” I asked.
“I’m going to give them to my Grandma! When I see her at Christmas Break!” she said. The crafter nearby, a pretty blonde named Grace, joined in, “that’s just in 10 days!”
I asked where her grandmother lived. In Dover, RI.
She asked for help in spelling “Grandma” and in her best handwriting carefully filled in the To: section of the gift tag.
“She’s going to really enjoy this,” I said. Angel smiled. It struck me how many of the children were using their tins as gifts for loved ones, rather than immediately gobbling up the enticing sweets.
The children also made cards and seeing that there were plenty of cookies, were invited to a second round of adding cookies to their tins. Angel sought me out to re-tie the bow on her tin. After doing so, I asked if she would be willing to take a picture with me, and she was. Remembering how much I loved to take photos as a child, I entrusted my beloved digital camera to another girl, and showed her how to take a photo. Quickly other children asked for turns both to have their picture taken with me, and to hold the camera and take photos. Though my camera is rarely far from my hands, I knew that if they should drop it, it would be far less painful for me to replace it than it was meaningful to them to hold it.
Grace came up to me and handed me a homemade card and a bag of cookies. I oohed and aahed over them and reached out to hand them back. “No, I made those for you!” she said. I tried to protest, letting her know that I had some cookies of my own from earlier that day, but she reiterated that she had filled the bag specifically for me. Decades ago I learned that there are times when it is far more appropriate to accept a gift graciously than to try to refuse one out of principle. I thanked her enthusiastically and both items carefully made their way home with me the next day.
I have no idea if the day the women from many states arrived on their doorstep will have any meaning to these children next week or even years from now, but I know that I will forever remember this evening, this school, this sneak peek into a world I didn’t know existed prior to my trip. And while yes, I did actually receive some cookies at this cookie exchange party, for me what I received was far greater. I got to see a spirit of generosity that has survived a century, and the proven results of what can happen to young lives when someone — or many, many someones — decide to make it their life’s mission to make a difference. That is the best gift I’ve ever received at Christmas time in my life.
It certainly was unlike any cookie exchange party I’ve ever been to.
Disclosure: This experience was part of an expenses-paid behind-the-scenes tour provided to me by The Hershey Company, Hershey Entertainment and Resorts and their PR company. However, this was not payment for writing nor did it unduly influence what I wrote about. I plan to write additional posts based on my experiences during this trip. You can see my tweets and tweets of other bloggers on the trip on Twitter using the hashtag #Hershey.