'Emotional and nostalgic' tour of the Larkin Center in Elgin for former employees

There was the boy who dragged a tree branch into his room, saying he was going to water and grow it.

There was that really likable kid, the one all the staff members had a soft spot for.

And way back in the 1970s, though the details are fuzzy, there was the girl who gave birth in her room.

Those were just a few of the memories shared by six employees of the former Larkin Center in Elgin who got to tour the property one last time Friday morning before it's converted into affordable housing. The center, which closed in 2013, had a contract with the state to provide residential care and counseling, mostly for youths with behavioral and emotional problems.

"I'm just flooded with memories," said Michael Mayer of Huntley, a child care worker at the Larkin Center from 1976 to 1985. "It was truly a way of life more than a job."

"We had a lot of camaraderie among the staff," said Mark McConnaughay of Elgin, who started in 1975 as a recreation worker and then became a teacher who worked at the Larkin Center until it closed in 2013. "A lot of us had just come out of college very idealistic. The kids had problems but I think we made it a very good place for the children."

The three-story historic building at 1212 Larkin Ave. dates back to 1912 and sits on 3.4 acres with three other buildings, including a former dormitory. The venture started as an orphanage in the late 1890s and took the name "Larkin Center" in 1971 when it expanded its services to adults. It closed in 2013 due to financial difficulties. A Chicago organization briefly provided some services there until the site was shuttered for good in 2014.

The Chicago nonprofit Full Circle Communities bought the site to convert it into affordable housing including for people with disabilities. The main building will be preserved and 12 new ones will be built; construction will start in July or August and will last about a year, Full Circle Vice President Lindsey Haines said.

The former employees said they are glad the property will remain standing and once again serve a good purpose for the community.

The main building is structurally sound but suffered damage after being closed and neglected for years, Full Circle officials said. There was peeling paint, plaster on the ground and discarded items like a wooden cabinet and a turned over fridge.

The tour was organized by Karen Schlack, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Elgin and a member of the Fox River Valley Initiative, which endorses the redevelopment project. Her parishioner Bob Hoffman worked at the Larkin Center and knew others who wanted to go back one last time, Schlack said. Full Circle Communities gave the tour its blessing and Elgin police provided an escort.

Hoffman, a former residential supervisor who worked there for 17 years, said returning gave him an odd feeling. "It seems weird. It seems smaller than what it was like," he said.

Dottie and Gregory Rouse met at the Larkin Center and got married in 1986 when they still worked there. "It was emotional and nostalgic," Dottie Rouse said of the tour. "Looking back, there are so many things that we did with the kids and for the kids."

As for what the youths would say about it, Dottie Rouse said she's received positive feedback from a few of them over the years.

"I truly believe that for many of them, if not most of them, they had a stable environment for the first time in their life. They were fed, they were cared for ... " she said. "I have to believe it was a stable, safe environment for most of them."

McConnaughay said things started to go downhill when the youths who came to Larkin Center were increasingly more troubled and violent, and the staff wasn't fully prepared to deal with that. That led to more police calls and eventually higher turnover among staff, he said.

"Toward the end it got to be really bad," he said.

Still, McConnaughay said, "It was an amazing place to work."

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  "I'm just flooded with memories," said Michael Mayer of Huntley, center, an employee of the former Larkin Center in Elgin. Here he is pictured talking to Elgin police officers Kevin Snow, second from right, and Bob Engelke, far right, during a tour of the building Friday morning. Elena Ferrarin/
  Bob Hoffman of Elgin worked at the Larkin Center for about 17 years until the mid-1990s. He's pictured here in a former dormitory building where a dry erase board still displays a daily schedule. "It seems weird," he said. "It seems smaller than what it was like." Elena Ferrarin/
  Michael Wingader of Integra Realty Resources took photos for an appraisal of the Larkin Center in Elgin during a tour of the 1912 building on Friday morning. Elena Ferrarin/
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