The Wichita Children’s Home is 125 years old. Think of the thousands of children who have been helped and the number of lives saved.
I have known several kids who have stayed at the Children’s Home, but the one that sticks in my mind is the girl I met in fifth grade. I attended Alcott Elementary, which is a half-block from the Children’s Home, so we often had students come who were staying there.
This was in the days when kids stayed longer at the facility. Thankfully, today there are emergency foster parents who are called. But as a 10- or 11-year-old, it amazed me how they could be in a strange place, in a new school, surrounded by people they didn’t know and then – poof! – be gone. And they were basically forgotten by kids who lived in the same house and slept in their own bed every night.
But I’ve never forgotten Belle.
We were in Mrs. Childs’ fifth-grade room many, many decades ago. Belle showed up one day in the middle of the year. She was the skinniest girl I had ever seen. She was taller than anyone else in the class, and her enormous, sad eyes seemed to take up most of her face. But the thing that struck me was that she didn’t talk. Ever.
She wore the same dress every day, and her hair needed some attention. When I told mom about her, I suggested I bring her home so we could give her a perm and get her a new dress and maybe, just maybe, make her smile, even if she wouldn’t talk to us.
Mom said she’d be happy to do that but she didn’t think the staff at the Children’s Home would allow it.
When I talked to Belle, she would look at me with those big brown eyes and nod her head or shrug her shoulders to answer my questions, and she’d give a meek wave for hello and goodbye. She was never called on in class, so I asked our teacher if maybe Belle was “missing her voice box.”
Mrs. Childs told me she could speak but chose not to, and we were not going to force her.
Belle stuck by me at recess, and she chose me as her art partner when we wrapped yarn around an orange juice can to make a pencil holder. But still, not a word. And very rarely a smile. Even my best jokes didn’t bring much reaction.
After being there only about two weeks, Belle didn’t show up for school one day, or ever again. I put her pencil holder on my desk until the end of the year.
Mrs. Childs didn’t have any information on where she went, or she wasn’t at liberty to tell me. I was sad until I decided she must have been adopted by some wonderful people who gave her a happy home and love and a perm and many new dresses which turned her into a smiling, talkative girl who loved to tell my jokes.
It would be so interesting to know what really did happen to that frail little girl with the big sad eyes.
My mom took me to my first fashion show in the Innes Tea Room. It might have been little sandwiches for lunch and models walking the runway in tailored suits and dresses, hats and gloves, but for me, age 8, it was a life changer.
Write and tell me your memories of downtown Wichita.
Reach Bonnie Bing at firstname.lastname@example.org