For more than a century The Baby Fold has fulfilled its mission to the most vulnerable children in our community– but that is not how The Baby Fold started.
Nancy Mason Opens Her Home
Nancy and Allen Mason were pioneers in Normal– moving here just after the Civil War. Nancy Mason – a faithful and generous woman – gave her home to further the work of the Methodist Episcopal Church. She opened her home to be used by the active and retired Methodist Deaconesses that operated Deaconess Hospital – now Advocate BroMenn Medical Center.
A Growing Need
The local Deaconess women saw a growing need in our community – care for orphaned and abandoned children. Orphan trains dispatched from the east coast brought children to towns all across the US. At each stop the children would get off and stand on the platform while families – typically farm families – selected the children they wanted to take home. This provided homes for many older children who could help on the farm, but not for infants and toddlers. In 1905, the Deaconess Society sent a new graduate of their Training School, Nellie Randle, to Normal to get the Mason home organized as a home for young children.
Tompie Asher Takes the Helm
When Nellie Randle was hospitalized with pneumonia, the Deaconess Society sent another Deaconess, Tompie Asher, as a temporary replacement. She came to Normal in 1908 and her assignment lasted 27 years. She brought the agency through WWI and into the midst of the Great Depression. “Mother” Asher cared for orphans and toddlers with very few resources except for a spirit that would never give up and support of the community and churches. In 1910, the Board of Trustees met and decided to move to 4 lots on East Willow. The home was considered to be virtually in the country and had no running water, no electricity and no access to paved roads.
Around the turn of the century, The Baby Fold aggressively sought adoptive homes for children, particularly those who were especially vulnerable– children with special needs, minorities and sibling groups. Adoption laws were almost nonexistent. People would simply come to The Baby Fold nursery, select a child, and take the child home.
The Hammitts Bring Change
In 1939, Reverend William and Gwendolyn Hammitt were named as Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent and they got busy making significant improvements to the agency. The first order of business was to improve the physical living areas. As soon as the building improvements were underway, they focused on hiring trained professionals to staff specific functions such as nursing and social work. Then they began working with Illinois Governor and State Legislature to improve adoption laws.
Over the next several decades, The Baby Fold would undergo significant changes in both services and facilities. In 1966 The Baby Fold began a residential program for children with emotional and behavioral challenges. Providing special education was a natural outgrowth for children living at The Baby Fold. In 1971, Special education services were first offered through the Child Development Center, which later became Hammitt School.
The Baby Fold Enters the 21st Century
Illinois Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s School (ISSCS), a well-known Normal, IL landmark, was founded in 1865 as a home and school for civil war orphans. The Baby Fold purchased and completely renovated the historical building in 1999, renaming it ‘The Family Center’ to house foster care and adoption services, family support services, clinical services and to provide a training center for staff and gymnasium and chapel for the children. In 2002, Hammitt School was expanded to the high school and junior high school levels.
Adapting to Meet Emerging Needs
In order to meet the growing community need for special education, The Baby Fold repurposed the former Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s School, transforming the space back into a school once again. In the fall of 2018, Hammitt Junior/Senior High School students moved into the new space from their rented location on Towanda Avenue.
In 2019, Hammitt Schools continued to expand and opened up a third location on Kays Drive in Normal. This space helps to accommodate a growing need for special education services in McLean County and 40 surrounding school districts.
The Baby Fold serves school children outside of Hammitt Schools through the Community Schools Program. Community Schools grew from Fairview Elementary to include Cedar Ridge in 2017 and District 87’s Sheridan Elementary School in 2019.
Today, The Baby Fold is a multi-faceted agency specializing in the care of children and youth with emotional and behavioral disabilities, or at risk for a variety of reasons. We focus on improving the lives of children and families by building safe, loving, healthy environments through foster care, adoption services, special education, and family and community services. We are in the ministry of transforming lives, and we never give up on a child.