A pandemic that never seemed to end, racial tensions and a war that started with a conflict in Crimea. It all sounds so familiar.

The 1850s was a pivotal decade. In the United States, tensions over the institution of slavery became prominent and dramatic events hastened the nation's movement towards civil war. In Europe, great powers fought the Crimean War. In Cleveland and the rest of the United States, we faced the third of seven major cholera epidemics.

On January 22, 1852, the ladies of the Martha Washington and Dorcas Societies, led by social reformer Rebecca Rouse, met at the Old Stone Church in Downtown Cleveland to lay the groundwork for an orphanage, following the cholera epidemic. By April, the fledgling Cleveland Orphan Asylum had opened its doors to 11 children in a house at the corner of Erie (now E. 9th) and Ohio Streets, briefly receiving public funds for sheltering children from the City Infirmary.

In the 17 decades since, Beech Brook has been serving children and families who have often been disproportionately impacted by epidemics, pandemics, poverty, abuse, neglect, drugs, gangs and social change.

From the Cleveland Protestant Orphan Asylum’s twenty-seventh Annual Report. September 30, 1879.

Sometimes people ask where all our children come from. They come from hunger, from cold, from nakedness, from neglect and abuse. Their poverty is not of their own misdeeds….

This is still true today. I have been thinking a lot about social justice recently and how our work is connected.

Social justice is the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities.

The first sentence in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence speaks to this: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”

And Americans overwhelmingly believe in the concept of equal opportunity. Surveys consistently find 90% of the public agreeing that “Our society should do what is necessary to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.”

But when we mistreat groups of people, we are betraying one of our founding values. Most of us recognize that when we mistreat certain racial minorities, religious groups, ethnic groups, women, etc., we are not keeping our promise of social justice. These grievances are all legitimate and need to be continually addressed.

But children, the most innocent group among us, have been persistently mistreated throughout history.

Often, they have the smallest voice.

They suffer the most at times of war and during pandemics. They take the brunt of the consequences when social policy allows them to languish in poor schools because we fail to fund them, and when we refuse to do anything about gun violence, even as our children are being gunned down in school and on the street. They feel the disproportionate burden of abuse, neglect and poverty.

The children who bear the biggest burdens don’t really have an equal opportunity in life. They often experience social and emotional problems which may persist into adulthood and then we act surprised when they do not succeed. And then we punish them for their misdeeds and failure.

This is not social justice. And in many ways, through the services we provide at Beech Brook, we are trying to prevent or remediate these injustices, so all children and families realize that equal opportunity we have all been promised.

Throughout our history, we have been “moving upstream” to address these issues. And while reflecting on our history of good deeds, it became evident that this was the thinking from the beginning.

I think Superintendent Abraham Shunk said it best in 1876:

We must keep in line of sympathy and thought with the young. We need more wisdom, more cheerfulness, more fruitfulness. These are elements that every man should seek for in his daily experience. The good farmer, with whom we like to place our boys, knows full well the value of trenching and enriching the soil. Success in agriculture and horticulture is in exact proportion to the amount of labor and stimulus given. Let us have less of the pruning knife and more root culture; less repression and more encouragement.

There are few things to which we need to train ourselves more diligently and conscientiously than the habit of giving cheer and encouragement.

Happy 170thBirthday, Beech Brook! There will be many more to come. And as Superintendent Shunk would say,

“The foundations of the Cleveland Protestant Orphan Asylum (Beech Brook) have been laid broad and deep. It is not a thing of today, yesterday or tomorrow. It has done good work in years past and will do good work in days to come.”

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