Nov. 20, 2015: Learn from the past to make a difference for the future, by Shaley George

Shaley George
Shaley George

The Orphan Train Movement took place from 1854 to 1929 and transported 250,000 children from the East Coast to rural communities. There were more than 30 organizations that placed children out through “orphan trains” and in the end, all 48 contiguous states and at least 10 countries, spanning five continents, received children.

Today there are more than 2 million descendants of orphan train riders in America and one in 25 Americans has a connection to a rider. Yet most people have no idea the movement ever took place.

For many decades, being an orphaned or adopted child carried with it a stigma. That discouraged the orphan train riders and their families from talking about their experiences, whether good or bad. This is why for many years the countless effects of the Orphan Train Movement on families and society went unnoticed. It wasn’t until one woman, Mary Ellen Johnson, stepped forward to record the history of the movement that the impact became visible. Thanks to her and those who continued in her footsteps, the children now had a name — Orphan Train Riders — and their lives were shown to have had great purpose. Without Mary Ellen, the Orphan Train Riders would never have known how special and important they were to this country.

Just as the Orphan Train Movement relied on volunteers stepping up to take children into their homes, the National Orphan Train Complex relies heavily on volunteers — and that means much more than just giving tours.

Our volunteers do a variety of jobs around the complex, but they love interacting with our visitors the most. There is something about the orphan train history that enables our visitors to open up and share their stories about adoption, foster care and family. It is because of the connection our volunteers forge that our visitors go away spreading the word about the Orphan Train Movement!

They also go away with the understanding that people, especially children, are resilient and that to make a difference in this world all you need to do it step up, volunteer to help and give a part of yourself to someone in need. It is amazing what one person can do just by speaking up.

Charles Loring Brace, the founder of New York’s Children’s Aid Society in the 1850s and the man considered the father of the orphan trains, changed the lives of thousands of children. Mary Ellen Johnson saved those children from being forgotten. As the founder of the National Orphan Train Complex, she is the best person to describe our mission:

“Many of the orphans had sad experiences, but most overcame hardship, low self-esteem and whatever other hands fate dealt them. Our philosophy is one of hope and optimism. The orphan train riders went on to establish homes and families, to become good parents to their children and contribute to the development of this part of the country. That story needs to be in our history books; it needs to be taught in school. You can make a difference in this world regardless of your circumstances.”

— Shaley George is the curator of the National Orphan Train Complex.


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