Our Journey to Houseparenting at Milton Hershey School
By Erika and Brian Roberson, MHS Houseparents
Different roads lead students, staff, teachers, and houseparents to Milton Hershey School. Sometimes those roads are winding, bumpy, and every so often full of heartache or tragedy. Others are smooth and pleasant, as if leading directly to the historic, tree-lined lanes of campus. That journey to houseparenting at MHS shapes us despite our resistance to its trajectory and our difficulties with its obstacles.
In 2010, we began our MHS story, not as houseparents, but while trying to become parents ourselves. During our career as teachers, we encountered students who forever changed us — from those who lost a parent at an early age, those who faced homelessness, to those who didn’t have a safe home. In our own marriage, we had tried for years to have children of our own but were unable to do so. With medical procedures, tests, countless follow-ups, and therapies, it became clear that it simply wasn’t in the cards for us to have our own biological children.
At the time, we were living in Boston. We explored the notion of adopting or fostering older children. That process is a lengthy one: home studies, background checks, credit checks, and even audits of our driving records. We settled on a particular agency and expressed a desire for older children, especially those who identified as LGBTQ+. Having grown up in the church, we strongly believe that every child deserves a home, a caring and nurturing environment, and parents to love them and care for them. We started the process. Midway through, life threw us a curveball.
Erika’s mother had cancer.
We put our dreams of children on hold. Supporting Erika’s mom superseded everything else. Looking for jobs near Erika’s family in Lancaster, Pa., we came across MHS. As we began exploring what MHS offers potential employees and students, that road began to straighten.
We pursued houseparenting, rather than continuing our journey with foster care or adoption, simply because we were so impressed by the environment that MHS provides for students. The application to onboarding process is extensive, and rightfully so. Interviews by a myriad of people and background checks were done, but it was the visit to MHS that cemented this decision for us.
We visited in October 2014, and what we saw were other people like us — all sorts of journeys leading to MHS, and all sorts of experiences once arriving. MHS staff all share a Commitment to Mission, one of the MHS Sacred Values. One singular mindset seemed to guide everyone we met: the continued actualization of Milton and Catherine Hershey’s dream of a home and school for children.
After talking with longtime houseparents during our visit to campus, we realized that similar lifelong relationships naturally develop in the houseparent-to-student relationship like what we were looking for when considering becoming foster parents.
MHS provides medical, dental, and psychological support to students who need those services in-house, eliminating the need for students to travel to dozens of appointments. The school also provides stability for houseparents, which allows for the efforts to be focused on caring for the students.
During our visit, we saw a community of houseparents caring not only for the students but also for each other. Finding this community is one of the biggest difficulties as a potential foster parent, but at MHS it is baked into everyday life.
Erika’s mother passed in 2015. Her loss created new heartache for us. The love we felt from the community of houseparents was palpable. Tragedy connected us to both students and adults who had faced the loss of a parent. Fortunately, we learned resilience within this community rather than alone.
We were able to truly heal and become even better versions of ourselves than we dared dream. Colleagues and students have gone through similar tragedies since. Our own journey has guided us to provide that same support to others, as was provided to us. The Golden Rule had come alive for us and our students and has quietly displayed its might.
It has taken years to develop our roadmap of hope, difficulty, tragedy, resilience, healing, and growth. Our houseparenting journey is inextricably entwined with the legacy of our Founders. Hopefully, this legacy will live on in the hundreds of students for whom we have cared in our time as flex houseparents and in a student home of our own. As flex houseparents, we cared for students for only a few days. In our own student home, we cared for some students throughout the entirety of their middle school years.
Maintaining relationships with former students is an additional benefit. They occasionally visit, or sometimes they send an email or direct message. They know that they are always welcome. Hopefully, they know in some way our student home is always their home, so that our founders’ legacy lives on.