Children’s Home Society celebrates 118th birthday

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September marks the 118th anniversary of Children’s Home Society & Family Services, making it one of the oldest nonprofit organizations in St. Paul. The anniversary is particularly noteworthy for St. Anthony Park residents because the organization has been located there since its inception, staying in the neighborhood through a variety of changes.

Children’s Home Society is a full-service agency that focuses on helping children and families. Services have evolved over the years to meet the changing needs of the community. Founded in 1889, Children’s Home Society merged with Family Services, Inc. in 2003. The merger allowed for individual and family counseling services to be added to Children’s Home Society’s expertise in domestic and international adoption.

CHS’s stated mission is “to help children thrive and to build, strengthen and sustain individual, family and community life.” According to Kristine Huson, the organization’s many services have in common a focus on effective parenting. “We are very able to adapt our services and leverage our expertise wherever we see the need in a community arise,” she said.

The society began as a result of the orphan train movement in the late 1800s, when orphans and displaced immigrant children from the East Coast were dispersed throughout the country by railway.

“A lot of those children ended up back in the same situation; they were on the streets needing the basics of life in a new town,” said Beth Naugton, CHS development officer. “The Reverend Edward Savage said, ‘We are going to stop that train here (in Minnesota); we are going to get those children medical care; we are going to house them, feed them, clothe them, and then we’re going to make suitable matches with people who want to be parents,’” Naugton said of the organization’s origins. So began the CHS process of placing children in sound families through screening and education.

Residents of St. Anthony Park might not be aware that the CHS’s original building still stands, just behind the organization’s Como Avenue location, known as the Toogood building. What is now the St. Anthony Park Home was originally an orphanage built by the Society in 1889.

“If you go into the nursing home, there are still remnants of days gone by when it was an orphanage, from the dormer rooms up on the third floor, down to the kitchen in the basement,” said Naugton. “You can just imagine a horse-drawn wagon being backed up to the door to bring supplies and milk. A lot of adopted adults will come back and want to take that walk down memory lane.”

In the 1950s, when social welfare standards deemed it necessary for children to be placed with families, Minnesota began developing a foster care system, making the orphanage obsolete. The original building was sold. The property on the corner of Como and Commonwealth, the Toogood building, was donated to the Society by a local family, and all of the adoption services were moved there at the building’s completion in 1959.

CHS has undergone a series of physical changes over the years. When Park Bank vacated the space between the Toogood building and Muffeletta, the rapidly growing agency decided to build a walkway adjoining the buildings, allowing for more expansion space. Later the old bank building was torn down during renovations to the Toogood building. At the same time, CHS began construction of its new building on Eustis.

In 2001, CHS moved its adoption services to the Eustis site. What remains on Como is a portion of the Society’s services.

“We found out during a feasibility study that our donors did not want us to sell the Toogood building,” said Naugton. “It was too nostalgic. Too many adopted individuals and their parents want to go back to that building and to the exact room where they met.”

Although the Toogood building may not have as prominent a role in CHS’s continued growth as it used to, the building housed the organization during some of its most important years.

“At about 70 years old, which is how old the organization was when it moved into (Toogood), we had placed more than 8100 children,” Naugton said. “Moving into the new location allowed us to broaden the function of the agency and what kind of programs and services we could provide by being in that professional environment.”