Importance of Houseparents at Milton Hershey School
Milton and Catherine Hershey created a home and school to give children in need a stable childhood. They communicated what they wanted the school to be in the Deed of Trust, signed on November 15, 1909. How the children would be cared for was included in the document. Houseparents at Milton Hershey School have proven to be a vital part of Mr. and Mrs. Hershey’s vision.
“All orphans admitted to the school shall be fed with plain wholesome food; plainly, neatly, and comfortably clothed, without distinctive dress, and fitly lodged. Due regard shall be paid to their health; their physical training shall be attended to, and they shall have suitable and proper exercise and recreation.”
To that end, Milton Hershey also wanted “men and women who love children to care for and educate them.” He hired George and Prudence Copenhaver to be the first employees of the school. The Copenhavers served as Superintendent and Matron, educating the children, and taking care of all their needs.
As more people learned of the school and numbers grew, women called Matrons took care of the children. Since the students enrolled in the early days were between the ages of four to eight, it was felt that what they needed most was maternal care.
These early housemothers made a big impact on the young lives. A class of 1937 alumnus remembers the kindness of his housemother, Miss Barker, in the Kinderhaus home. She would invite them to sit on the floor in front of her radio and listen to a favorite program, “The Shadow.” Sometimes, they were treated to a piece of candy at bedtime and these rare treats were greatly appreciated. The alumnus knew that the treats, “were symbols of the love that Miss Barker had for the boys.”
As the school grew, new homes were constructed. These cottage homes housed up to 40 students and they were cared for by four matrons. The 1926 catalog about the school described homelife as “family groups.” In 1929 Milton Hershey created the farmhome program for grades 6-12 where students lived and worked on farms. Milton Hershey felt that “the country is the place for people—especially children.” Married couples served as houseparents, taking care of the students, animals, and crops.
The houseparent role became vital in the life of the students, not only with their care, but modeling behavior. In 1951, former MHS President Dr. John O. Hershey stated “we seek the services of trained adults of vision and understanding who will guide our youth by work, by precept, and by example.”
The school continued to grow and adapt to a changing society. During the 1960s, new homes reflected the style of family homes all over the country. The family station wagon carried the student home family to school and on camping trips and vacations. Going out to Sunday dinner at a local restaurant, one student home family attracted much attention when all twelve boys and the houseparents filed to their table.
Houseparents continue the important role of nurturing young lives. The relationships between houseparent and students do not end at graduation, but last many years, some walking brides and grooms down the aisle at their wedding.
In a 2006 graduation speech, Mason Langguth shared that it was in his sophomore year in a new student home where he found “what I had been missing my whole life…a family.”
In a 2018 Harvard Convocation speech, Langguth thanked his MHS houseparents.
“I am standing here today because of people like Mr. and Mrs. Bertrand from my student home, which was called Englewood. I arrived there with a discipline record that limited my opportunities at the school. But instead of just being disciplinarians, my houseparents said, ‘that isn’t who you are to us’. They broke barriers for all of their students in many ways; unconditionally, we were their boys. I would not be standing here today if I had graduated from a different student home. I had houseparents who cared.”
Although it has been almost 100 years since George Copenhaver described student home life as family groups, it is still true today with houseparents fulfilling Milton Hershey’s goal of educating and loving children.