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 Rally Goers Hear Emotional Testimony

January 28, 2009 - Hundreds of people hoping to keep the Indiana State Department of Health from closing the Indiana Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s Home took their fight to the Indiana Statehouse on Monday morning.

As the 10 a.m. start time for their rally neared, Home supporters – which included several current resident-students, alumni, Home employees, and members of the American Legion family – held signs protesting the planned closure of the Home high and raised their voices in a series of chants that echoed throughout the building. “Save our Home!” they cried out. “Save our children!”

From a stage set up in the middle of the main floor of the Statehouse, a dozen people addressed the crowd during the hour-long rally. The speakers included two current resident-students of the Home, five alumni, four legislators and a member of the American Legion.

Diana (Holden) Bossingham, a 1973 Home graduate and current president of the alumni association, was the first alumna to speak at the rally. She kept her remarks brief, but noted that the Home had saved her and other children from “unthinkable futures” and pleaded for the Home’s budget to be restored and for it to be brought “under the protection of the Legislature.”

Home alumnus Tim Brown, a 1955 graduate of the Home’s Morton Memorial School who went on to be a three-time Pro-Bowler for the Philadelphia Eagles and entertainer, came all the way from California for Monday’s rally. Without the Home, he told the crowd he doubted if he would have accomplished all he had in his life.

“I was very lucky to have a place like the Home to go to,” said Brown. While he said he was scared when he first came there as a 12-year-old in 1950, he credited the Home with affording him and his older brother, who went on to earn a Ph.D., opportunities they would not have had otherwise.

“I found a family there,” Brown said. “I felt comfort.”

Brown also stressed that the Home is not just for children with disciplinary problems. “I wasn’t troubled,” Brown said. “I was just poor (with) no place to go.” The younger alumni who spoke Monday also had compelling stories of success following their graduation from the Home’s Morton Memorial.

Brian Harris, a 1979 Morton graduate and co-valedictorian of his class, went on to earn his college degree at Indiana State University and is now a vice-president of Fifth-Third Bank. He has also served on the Home’s eight-member advisory board for 20 years. Harris told the crowd he had voted for Gov. Mitch Daniels. However, since plans to close the Home were announced earlier this month, he said he had e-mailed Daniels, asking for his vote back.

Another alumnus who voted for Daniels was George Kirksey, a 1996 Morton graduate. Unlike Harris, he said he wasn’t asking Daniels for his vote back, but simply wanted the governor to keep his word about leaving no child behind.

Kirksey presented Rep. Tom Saunders (R-Dist. 54) with a 58-page petition signed by people opposed to closing the Home. He asked Saunders to deliver the petition to Daniels. “Hopefully,” he said, “the Governor will read it.”

1988 Morton graduate Patrick Mildenberg gave one of the most emotional accounts of the importance the Home plays in the lives of the young people who live and go to school there. “Without the Home,” he said, “I cannot imagine what my life would be like today, but I’m sure it would be worse.”

Mildenberg, who came to the home in April 1983 and stayed until he graduated five years later, went on to join the military and later serve security detail in the White House. He credited the teachers and faculty at Morton with helping believe in himself and get “on the right path.”

“I cannot imagine there are no more than 100 students in the state Y who could benefit from the stable, safe environment that is the Home,” Mildenberg said.

The final alumnus to speak was attorney Everett Powell, also a 1996 graduate. Like the others that spoke before him, Powell attributed his achievements, which have included military service, a college education and a law degree, to the faculty and staff at the Home.

Throughout his remarks, Powell shouted out several times, “Can you hear us, now?” His rhetorical question, addressed to those who want to close the Home, drew loud and enthusiastic responses from the crowd.

Two current resident-students also spoke highly of the Home’s positive impact on their lives. Both said they had been at the Home for two years, with one saying it had been “the two most successful years of (her) life.” The other student, who said he had been in and out of the state’s foster care system since he was a young child, said the Home was “the first place that’s actually helped (him).”

Saunders and three other lawmakers, Sen. Jean Leising (R-Dist. 42), Rep. Scott Reske (D-Dist. 37) and Rep. Bob Barnes (R-Dist. 89), also spoke at Monday’s rally. Saunders said the decision to close the Home had been all “about money” and said that lawmakers had dropped the ball by not doing a better job of making sure the Home was better utilized.

Saunders said if a high per student cost is an issue – the ISDH had cited a per student cost of over $91,000 a year – then more children should be sent to the Home. Calling the place a “hidden jewel,” he said more needs to be done to see to it that children around the state who can benefit from what the Home has to offer are sent there.

“We make you productive children,” Saunders said. “We make you productive adults. Y We are doing a great job of turning out productive citizens in Knightstown.” Saunders said he took issue with the Health Commissioner Dr. Judith Monroe’s position that the Home is based on an outdated and ineffective model. “It=s a model that works,” he said. “And it’s worked for over 100 years.”

Leising, whose district includes the Home, told the crowd said she didn’t think the ISDH had looked “at all the other services being provided in the community” by the Home. For example, she noted that 10 public school districts now have students served by vocational education programs offered at the Home.

Like Saunders, Leising also said she thought the Home was underutilized, saying, “What we really need to do is find other kids who are failing in our foster system.” She said the Home’s superintendent told her they could take an additional 250 students right away.

Leising also took issue with the ISDH’s focus on low ISTEP scores at the Home to support their position that it’s not succeeding. If those test scores are going to be used to determine whether to close the Home, she said there are public schools in Indianapolis that are doing just as bad or worse.

Reske, a Democrat from Pendleton, told the crowd that he will be leading the legislative effort to keep the Home open. A veteran who served in the Marines for 27 years, he said he had “never cared more about a bill than this one.”

Reske said the legislation will accomplish two tasks: First, he said it will keep the Home open; and second, he said it would get more funding by allowing the Home to go after federal funding.

“Nothing is more important than you being here and contacting your legislators,” Reske told the crowd. “Y It’s the most important thing you can do.”

Speaking on behalf of the American Legion, Steve Short, the Indiana Legion’s department adjutant and chief administrative officer, told those in attendance, “We are all in this fight together with you.” While he said the Legion also believes in fiscal responsibility, he said, “We=re talking about successful lives, not dollars,” and promised the Legion would continue to “fight until the bitter end” to keep the Home open.


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