When William H. Chavanne contemplates his childhood, he sees a future for today’s children whose parents cannot care for them.
At 76, the time he has left to affect the future for kids is narrowing. So Chavanne has dedicated his days to one project he can complete and to another project that others likely will have to finish — if it’s even possible.
A shy man whose adult life has been spent avoiding publicity even while he quietly affected public policy as former chief of staff to Anthony J. Celebrezze Jr., the late Ohio attorney general, and later as an influential Capitol Square lobbyist, Chavanne wants Ohioans to remember where he and 13,500 other children came from.
Chavanne believes it still is a place where many children belong, where they can feel the warmth and security and love of family, where they can play and be educated and be nurtured into productive citizens.
That’s Bill Chavanne’s experience. From 1945-55, starting at age 8 until he graduated at 18, Chavanne lived with 500 other kids at the Ohio Soldiers and Sailors Orphans Home near Xenia, renamed the Ohio Veterans’ Children’s Home in 1978. Founded in 1869 as a home for children of veterans killed or disabled in the Civil War, “The Home,” as its alumni call it, closed in 1995, well after society adjudged that deinstitutionalization and foster care were better for indigent children.
Like other children of veterans who lost parents or whose parents could not care for them, Chavanne grew up in The Home, living in one of many cottages on the 500-acre grounds with other children and an adult caretaker.
It was a self-sufficient community funded by the state and veterans’ groups, with academic and trade schools, a hospital, chapel, power plant, laundry, a farm and butcher shop, greenhouse and employee housing.
In high school, the children split their days between academic and trade classes: “A lot of us didn’t go into the trades, but trade school taught us we’d have to work and how to work,” Chavanne recalled.
The Home became known for its academics, band and sports teams, winning six state track titles and fielding a number of undefeated football teams.
Raised by a caring staff, Chavanne said, “I felt like my childhood was a normal as anyone else’s . I had a very stable environment with people I trusted. I wanted to be there and they wanted me there.”
Chavanne and other alums raised money to commission a book by Columbus historian Edward Lentz, A Home of Their Own, with a companion video.
Chavanne worries that The Home’s buildings eventually will be torn down and that “50 years from now, people might not know there was an orphanage there.
“I decided a cemetery would be very, very difficult to get rid of,” so he created a nonprofit to raise money to preserve the tombstones of the 117 children and employees buried behind the chapel and to build a monument to the orphans who died serving in the military. Chavanne said he figures it will take $100,000 and he set up a website to collect donations: www.orphanshomeohio.org.
“That is my biggest goal and the goal I need to finish,” Chavanne said. But he has a more ambitious one: “This is probably a losing battle, but I’m going to try to see if I can get an orphanage going.”
Chavanne believes Ohio’s foster-care system is “built to fail” — that too often it shuffles children through a chain of temporary homes and foster parents, from one school to another, undermining the stability children need, causing them “not to trust adults.”
He chafes at the $44,000 cost in Franklin County for a yearlong placement in foster care, and wonders if those tax dollars might be better used to put a kid in an orphanage like where he grew up.
“People say it couldn’t be done today. But it can be done — if there is the money.”
So Chavanne has been talking to state lawmakers about funding an orphanage, so far getting good reaction but no commitments.
His own life attests that sometimes the best new way could be the old way.
Joe Hallett is a senior editor at The Dispatch. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org