Abused as a girl, she returns to spot of her salvation to help others
After enduring every cruel word, every beating and every abuse that spewed from her drunken, violent stepfather, the little girl named Kathryn went to bed with a simple request: "I always remember praying to God, 'Get me out of here!'"
She never dreamed the answer to her prayers would be Bartlett.
"Bartlett was really nothing," she says, remembering that cold January day in 1973 when a Department of Children and Family Services social worker drove her from a courtroom in Chicago to a state institution called Herrick House in the wilds of Bartlett. "I felt like this was the boonies."
More than three decades later, a twist of fate has delivered Kathryn Benton back to those same grounds, where she volunteers, teaching art to three houses of DCFS girls with intellectual disabilities and mental illnesses.
"Some of the girls are very talented artistically," says Kathryn, 50, noting that the girls worked all summer sanding, painting and sealing large wooden murals that graced the Maryville Academy campus in Des Plaines for an open house in August. "We put on different kinds of music, depending on their moods. Sometimes we'll listen to hip-hop, and sometimes we'll listen to classical. They come and they just want to create."
The bright, cheery art room with hand-painted messages of peace, happiness and love at Maryville's Casa Salama facility in Bartlett were made possible because of the way social workers back in 1973 nurtured Kathryn on these same grounds.
"It was a haven for kids like me, getting out of home situations that were pretty traumatic," Kathryn says, explaining that her mother made a poor choice in marriage.
"Her third husband was a very evil drunk. I don't recall him not being drunk," Kathryn says, recalling how she and her two brothers were beaten and abused. "I was terribly frightened to tell for fear he'd kill us cold."
Their mother finally witnessed an incident, and the stepdad served time behind bars. When he got out, he returned and the abuse continued.
"Our mom loved us dearly," Kathryn says. "She just didn't know how to get away."
Kathryn thought she did.
"I started to become a runaway," she says, explaining how she'd spend long days roaming the city from Lincoln Park Zoo to the Museum of Science and Industry, taking advantage of museum free days or climbing a fence at Wrigley Field to see the Cubs. She'd sleep on friend's couches and spent the last three nights on her own in her sleeping bag in the lobby of an apartment building.
When the state got involved, her mother agreed to send her to the home in Bartlett.
"It hurt," Kathryn says, "but she knew she couldn't get away, and she knew this was best."
Originally chartered in 1921 as a summer vacation camp for children, the huge, white Herrick House became a convalescent home for children with rheumatic fever throughout the 1940s, '50s and into the '60s, when it became a temporary home for DCFS children.
"The Herrick House looked like some kind of hospital out of the 1940s," recalls Kathryn. She remembers that even though the white, metal beds in the girls dorm were uncomfortable leftovers, "someone had taken time to make homemade curtains."
She spent the second-half of her eighth-grade year at Herrick House, swimming in the lake, fishing, seeing her first skunk, acting in a couple of plays, being on the receiving end of "encouraging words, hugs, just a lot of good stuff for a kid like me," and realizing her potential as an artist.
"You're just a free spirit and we want to encourage that," she remembers hearing from a young social worker named Charley.
"I felt safe here. I felt encouraged," Kathryn says. "I felt that even though my parents had all this trouble at home, there was hope for me."
That summer, with her mother's blessing, Kathryn went to live with a principal and her math-teacher husband in the South suburb of Thornton. Those parents, and their house full of kids and foster children, became her family. While she always visited her birth mother, who eventually moved in with Kathryn and died earlier this year, Kathryn says her foster family gave her the opportunity to do well in high school. That allowed her to study art at Mount Vernon Nazarene College in Ohio, where she met her husband and raised a son and daughter while working as an art teacher.
When her second husband accepted a job in Colorado in 2001, Kathryn carved out a wonderful life in Denver. Last summer, her husband's career brought them back to Chicago. Their geographic and financial needs led them to a house in Bartlett, which immediately rang a bell.
"I Googled Herrick House and found the address," Kathryn says, remembering the long lane off Bartlett Road. "I drove back here and said, 'Where's the house? It's not the same.' But then I saw the lake."
The old building with the large dorms had been torn down and replaced with three smaller buildings for the girls at Maryville's Casa Salama, a residential home for girls with developmental disabilities.
"This," Kathryn says, "is an opportunity for me to give back."
Thrilled to have an art teacher volunteer doing such wonderful work with the Casa Salama girls, Maryville division administrator Evelyn Smith says she was "incredibly surprised" when she discovered Kathryn had been a DCFS kid on these same grounds.
"The first day, I told the girls in class because they asked me why I wanted to volunteer with them," Kathryn says.
"What a wonderful gift she's giving them," says Catherine M. Ryan, executive director of Maryville Academy. Ryan says Kathryn's return is a "special story" because it illustrates how abused but resilient children, such as the young Kathryn, can succeed in life with help from dedicated and caring people, such as the adult Kathryn.
"I don't want people to give up on our children," Ryan says.
"Isn't it interesting that after all these years, I find myself back in Bartlett, volunteering on the grounds where Herrick House used to be?" Kathryn observes. "The staff at Herrick House provided me safety, understanding and love. They taught me that, in spite of my difficult childhood, I had purpose. It's my sincere hope that I am doing the same with the girls of Casa Salama by encouraging their uniqueness, their talents and their gifts. They are amazing young women with so much to give."