I remain haunted by the face of a little girl with light brown skin and deep brown eyes, maybe 4 or 5 years old, who came up to me last month while I was on a trip to Minneapolis. How she made it through the corridors of the homeless shelter I was visiting to the administrative offices, I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. Barely pocket high, I didn’t notice her until she tugged at the leg of my pants. What caught my eye was her nametag pasted against her disheveled dress, “Nobody.”
“Hi, who are you?” she asked, looking up through her pitch-dark hair, not really caring about an answer but obviously wanting attention. “I’m Richard,” I told her as I kneeled down to see her eyes at her level. As I kneeled, I couldn’t help but say to the little girl with the best of intentions while pointing to her name tag, “Your name is not ‘Nobody.’ You are ‘Somebody.’ What is your real name?” My assurance was not enough. “My name is, too, ‘Nobody,’ ” she told me without hesitation but with a smile that pulled at the heart, “because I am nobody.”
The distress I’ve felt in the image of her bright face that remains emblazoned on my mind is that no child her age should ever have such a namet ag, or find the wisdom to connect her inner soul with such a word, even if it is a game. But this little girl did. In that time and for that chance meeting, her name was “Nobody.” She was probably too young to have written the word. Perhaps an older child put the tag on her as a joke. No matter. She knew what her nametag said and meant, “Nobody.”
I didn’t realize “Nobody” was my reason for being there at that moment and in that place. I moved on, with a tug on my elbow, to meet with more important people, or so I thought, editors of the city newspaper. I was asked to be there in Minneapolis because a saint of a crusader for the dispossessed in that city, Mary Jo Copeland, had dared to recommend the development of an orphanage. If you are inclined to dismiss her proposal as unworkable, you aren’t from Minneapolis. This is a woman whose organization, Sharing and Caring Hands, started in a downtown storefront with a simple table and chair but now feeds a thousand downtrodden people daily, provides temporary housing for 500 otherwise homeless people (400 of whom are children), passes out $5,000 worth of socks and shoes (mainly sneakers) each month with no public funding. And she also spends two hours a day, five days a week, washing the feet of the homeless.
An opponent to her orphanage proposal, who had flown in from his policy perch in the nation’s capital and who never stepped foot in Sharing and Caring Hands, had made the press circuit the day before the scheduled announcement of the orphanage campaign. He, like Newt Gingrich’s critics of six years ago assured the press, “Children do best in good families.” “Duh,” I thought. What else is obvious? We are talking about children who have no families or, if they do, their families are contemptible. “Orphanages harm children,” he insisted. “Oh really?” I had to think on reflection. Did “Nobody” grow up in an orphanage? I did, and have always been thankful for the opportunity, as have tens of thousands of other orphanage alumni. Most of us have never thought to wear the little girl’s nametag. We have had the chance to be somebody.
Never mind, the critics know better than we alumni do, although the critics can’t distinguish an orphanage from a group home. They also know adoption and foster care are better options and would be threatened with extinction if orphanages ever returned.
The critics don’t seem to understand that people like Mary Jo Copeland who are on the front lines of the nation’s child-care problems are deeply emersed in daily combat with the myriad personal, social and economic forces that can rob people of their dignity. They see daily how many families are destroying their children, bit by bit. They know how the foster-care system helps many but is way overtaxed, given the shortage of foster-care families in many urban areas, and harms some children who spend their childhoods going from one placement to the next and who, accordingly, lose what most children take for granted, a sense of place and permanence and all too often see themselves as that little girl saw herself, as nobodies.
Ms. Copeland will prevail in Minneapolis, no doubt about it. Deeply religious, she is committed, and totally convinced God is on her side and that love and compassion will win in the end. She simply has seen too many “nobodies” fall through the cracks of the public welfare superstructure in her city, only to end up in her meal lines time and again. She has waited too long for the public child welfare system to reform itself. She proposes to take in 200 “Nobodies,” at no expense to the public, and give them what they do not now have, a home in which they can define themselves and become, just maybe, somebodies.
This fall the presidential candidates will strut and puff about the need to help children. Ms. Copeland will do something. Her children’s home won’t come close to supplanting foster care or adoptions, nor should it. The need for help is too large even in these prosperous times and her proposed program too small. But between now and the time public agencies can fill in the cracks in their systems, she, like leaders of other organizations from around the country who will gather this October in Philadelphia to plot the development of children’s homes, will offer some children some hope of a brighter future at no cost to the public treasury. The critics can’t stop that kind of progress.
Richard McKenzie, editor of “Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century,” is a professor in the Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Irvine.