Breaking Barriers and Providing Stability
More than 20 years ago, Jonathan and Melissa Akers lived in New York City and worked in corporate America. After their daughter was born, they moved to the Pocono Mountains where they became involved at their daughter’s school.
That’s when they discovered their passion for working with children and learned about an opportunity to transform the lives of young people from impoverished backgrounds as houseparents at Milton Hershey School.
“Jonathan and I wanted to work with children in some capacity, but we didn’t know how. When friends told us about Milton Hershey School, I couldn’t believe something like this existed,” Melissa said.
They visited the MHS campus, a home and school for more than 2,000 students from low-income backgrounds, and connected deeply with the school’s mission. After facing family struggles throughout their childhoods, Melissa and Jonathan use these experiences to form a shared understanding with their students.
Since 2000, the Akers have supported and nurtured students at MHS as houseparents—working in all three divisions. Their longest tenure was caring for high school girls. They spent 13 years in that role. For the past two years, the Akers have done the same for young girls and boys in elementary school as flex houseparents.
“The heartbeat of the school resonates with us because of our own personal backgrounds,” Melissa said. “We tell students that we could have been candidates for Milton Hershey School. The struggles we understand so internally help us encourage the kids.”
As houseparents, the Akers focus on building a safe space where students can find stability and a home away from home. Through open conversation and individualized support, they help students develop life skills such as advocating for themselves, persevering through challenges, and managing their emotions.
“We focus on their strengths and what they each bring to the student home. As we connect with them, we allow them to be goofy,” Melissa shared. “But some of them are very broken, and it takes [time]. When their walls start out so thick but they begin to smile … it’s a great feeling.”
With such a long history at the school, the Akers have built lifelong connections with their students. Every school year, they welcome more students into their family and encourage them to realize their full potential.
“We’re making a difference. That’s huge. Every morning when I get up, I have a smile on my face,” Jonathan said.