Post Note: On June 25, 2017, I gave this speech during the HopeTree Services “Old Kids” Reunion on the campus of what was called the Virginia Baptist Children’s Home. I share this with you in tribute to all of my “Home” Brothers and Sisters and to my husband and daughter for their love and support.
Become a Rainbow…
By Pam B. Newberry
In October 1962, my two brothers, Archie and Ralph, and I took a journey up the winding road that was to become our home for the next ten or so years. Being three years older than Archie, I was destined to graduate from Andrew Lewis High School in 1971 after living nine years at “The Orphanage.”
That’s what we called it back then. We were proud to be “The Orphans.” It stood out against “The Town” kids. This was not really a bad thing. We wore the “orphan” badge with pride. It symbolized for many of us the way things were. Pure. Simple.
Last year, Carla Jones Yuen, spoke about the things she did not learn while growing up here on “The Hill.” She spoke eloquently about the power of the teachings we received. I, like her, did not learn the things she mentioned as well. Things like–racism, selfishness, self-pity, and cynicism.
Today, I want to share with you what I saw modeled by the adults who chose to serve the Virginia Baptist Children’s Home then. And, from what I’ve seen around campus, and from what I’ve read in the quarterly publication, The Caring Times, the adults still model strong attributes of care, love, and mentorship under the auspices of HopeTree Family Services today. These adults work to transform at-risk youth into functioning and proud citizens. Those citizens are you. Each of you will fight to defend and show the respect and gratitude for what these adults strived to do for us during our life here and after.
The men and women who came together, provided shelter, food, water, medical care, and a safe place to sleep at night for no other reason than because they saw the need. Think of the many souls that have walked this campus since it’s founding in 1869. Countless boys and girls whose lives were changed, whose futures were altered because the adults felt the need to offer kindness to lost children. Those children were lost, through no fault of their own and often were thrown aside. These adults were rainbows that came into our lives during turbulent winds and turmoil to provide us with a beacon of hope.
When my brothers and I came to “The Home,” it was a direct result of our Aunt Louise and Uncle Albert. They had wanted to care for us. Our mother was declared mentally ill the spring before when she tried to kill us. Our father, we had no idea where he was or if he was still alive. Aunt Louise, our mother’s sister, along with Uncle Albert had decided they would raise us. They had always wanted more children. Their daughter, Martha, was in college when we went to live with them. We only got to stay there a few months. Not long after school started that September in 1962, Aunt Louise was diagnosed with a kidney disease. None of the other siblings of our mother were able to or wanted to care for all three of us. Aunt Louise insisted we were not to be split apart.
In walked the Virginia Baptist Children’s Home. I remember the evening in October when Uncle Albert sat me down beside him and explained we would be going to live in a place called Salem. He showed me a pamphlet with the picture of the campus on the front. The “Old Main” building stood before me like what you could imagine Hogwarts must have looked like to Harry Potter the first time he saw his new school.
Uncle Albert did his best to explain to me that Aunt Louise and he loved us. But, they could no longer give us the care and security we needed. He said that the best part about living at the Children’s Home would be that we’d have a chance for a real education. We’d be able to go to college.
I sat there unmoved. I didn’t want to leave them. My brothers sat at his feet playing with their toys. Archie was six, Ralph had just turned five, and I was all of nine. I barely knew what going to school meant, let alone going to college. All I knew was that I didn’t want to leave them. When we started the journey a few days later, Aunt Louise had packed a picnic lunch. She said it would be a long way from their home in Bluefield. In 1962, the road from Bluefield to Salem was over the old mountain roads of 52 to 460 to 11. There was no Interstate 77 or 81 at that time. The drive was hot and long.
Somewhere along Main Street in Salem, Uncle Albert pulled his car over, put the car in park, and turned around to look at us sitting in the back seat. “Kids,” he said. “We’ll be going down that street over there and will be heading up to your new home. I want you to promise me that you will show your best behavior. When Aunt Louise and I leave, you must not be sad and cry. It will make it hard on you, if you do.”
I’m not sure how we did it. But, when Uncle Albert and Aunt Louise left, neither one of us cried, at least not where anyone could see us. Archie and Ralph were placed in the Twins Cottage. You know the one with the twin sisters that cared for the little kids. Me? I was put in Hobday, an all girls’ cottage with Mrs. Hypes.
That night, as I lay in my bed in a room with five other beds, I faced the long wall of closets. I began to cry and tried hard not to make a sound. The tears would not leave me alone. I felt someone touch my shoulder. I turned over thinking I would see one of the girls I was sharing the room with. There was no one there. And then, just as softly as possible, a voice said, “You will be alright. Believe.” I could not tell who was speaking to me, but I heard the words that would change my approach to life.
I’d like to tell you that my years growing up at “The Orphanage” were all wonderful. They weren’t. I had moments of despair. I dreamed about returning to my Aunt’s home. It wasn’t long after we were at the Children’s Home that I got word from Uncle Albert that Aunt Louise had passed away. It seemed our fate was sealed. We would never have a “real” home. For a few years, I went through the motions of doing as I was told, hating my life, and hating those around me. Mrs. Hypes would paddle me when I misbehaved, which was often. She would assign me hall scrubbing duty or laundry duty. The worst was when I had to water the huge, scary green ferns in the sunroom.
One day, I was in the main living room area that also had a piano, doing my chores of dusting and cleaning. One of the big girls came into the room, sat down at the piano, and started to play beautiful music. It happened to be a song she had just heard on the radio. I asked her how she knew how to play it. She said she took piano lessons. I asked what I could do to get to take piano lessons. She smiled at me, and then she knowingly said I’d have to behave.
I tried my best. And, yes, I got to take piano lessons, too, right here in this chapel. That one small kindness from an older girl, who took the time to say something valuable to me, was my first rainbow in my cloud. Who was she? She was Billie Burton – I learned that yesterday! Thank you, Billie! I didn’t know what her rainbow would mean to me at the time. I’ve learned it over many years of being an adult. You see being a rainbow in someone else’s cloud is a very important thing. Maya Angelou, the American Poet Laureate, spoke of being a rainbow in someone else’s cloud in order to help them learn how to be resilient—to endure.
Rainbows and more
While living here on “The Hill,” I encountered more than my fair amount of rainbows that helped me clear away the clouds. I can say I have had a multitude of rainbows in my life. I cherish each one. Like Ms. Angelou said to her daughter, “…you may not control all the events that happen to you.” My brothers and I surely didn’t control our coming to live at “The Orphanage,” but I wouldn’t trade the nine years I was here for anything in the world. It shaped me into who I am today. It was because of the many rainbows. Mrs. Hypes with her strong way of believing the bible verse, “…spare the rod, spoil the child,” was a needed rainbow for me. My soul called for guidance.
Later, Mr. and Mrs. Guy Cabiness were my houseparents when I moved to the brother-sister cottage named Robertson. They, too, showered me with rainbows when I least expected them. Once, while in church at Salem Baptist, I was angry over something someone had done to me that was wrong. I said a cuss word. It got back to Mr. and Mrs. Cabiness. Mr. Cabiness was also a pastor. It was on Sunday when I swore. He gave me a spanking with his belt that afternoon. I was fifteen. The worse part, I had started dating their son, Keith. I was devastated.
But, that particular rainbow taught me the value of learning the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” My wisdom came from learning not to react the way I did for something that was said that was false. I couldn’t change that it was said, but I could learn to react differently.
Later that summer, I had tried out for cheerleading. I’d made it. But, I needed to purchase my uniform and special Saddle shoes. We were given an allowance for clothes. I had enough for the uniform, but I didn’t have any money to spare to buy the shoes. It was clear; I’d have to turn down being a cheerleader. The next Sunday, I came home from church and sitting on my bed were those shoes. There was a note. I can’t remember the exact words, but it said something to the effect of, “Go be a Cheerleader. Be ‘orphan’ proud. We are of you!” There was no signature. There was another rainbow.
Mrs. Angelou went on to tell her daughter to not allow negative events in her life reduce who she was. She said, “Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud. Do not complain. Make every effort to change things you do not like. If you cannot make a change, change the way you have been thinking. You might find a new solution.” Whoever gave me those shoes was a rainbow to me during a very cloudy time. You inspired me.
There were many others who did kind things at different points that to describe them individually would maybe not seem so large, but when joined with all the other acts of kindness loomed large—people like Teddy and Mr. Halstead. Teddy taught me to be the good cook that I am today. I will never forget those early morning hours. In the beginning, it was my job to go around campus at six in the morning to wake up the big girls so they could cook breakfast. Later, I was one of the girls that cooked. Mr. Halstead. Well, what can you say about him? All you have to do is mention his name and those of us who grew up with him know what is meant. He was a guiding light of love and hope to all of us. My memories of him are his smile. I felt safe and okay when in his presence. Mr. Halstead is with us here today. At 90 years young, he is still the beacon of light and hope. Thank you, Mr. Halstead.
Rainbows off The Hill
There were also people who touched our lives that did not work upon “The Hill.” One year, I had a Big Sister from Roanoke College. She would come and take me to downtown Roanoke. It was such fun. I learned what it meant to ride a bus across town, to walk into a store like Miller & Rhoads and to be able to purchase something with money I had earned baby sitting. There were the families we would visit during the various vacations or holidays. Two Christmases, I got to visit the same family in the Norfolk area. The trip required me to take the train. What a wonderful memory. The last year I went to visit the Cecil family, I was allowed to go to the Winter Ball. They had purchased me a gown and a rabbit fur stole with matching puff—more rainbows that encouraged me to dream, to reach for the stars.
We had good teachers that taught us, too. One was Mr. Basham, my Algebra teacher. He watched me struggle. He kept encouraging me. My grades were not great. As a matter of fact, I had a high school guidance counselor suggest I shouldn’t apply to college. He said I wouldn’t do well. At the time, I was in love with a classmate who had applied to VA Tech. I decided I’d apply there, too. I remember that interview on campus. I was scared to death. Mr. Halstead, I believe he took me to that interview, was always the encourager. He encouraged me that petrifying day as he instructed me to be myself.
You know the funny part? I got accepted into Tech, and the guy I was in love with didn’t. Mr. Basham congratulated me the next day I went to school. I told him I wasn’t sure how I’d do, but I’d do my best. After graduation from high school, the next time I saw Mr. Basham was when I was awarded Virginia’s Mathematics Teacher of the Year in 1993. What a thrill it was to see him in the back of the room clapping for me. What a rainbow he was in my life.
And then, there was Franklin Hough. Oh, there were times we kids didn’t care for him. All “Dads” go through a point when their children do not like them. I had that time with Mr. Hough. Later, after many years away from “The Hill,” I realized what a valuable lesson he gave me. How many of you went on the church circuit? You know what I mean. The fund-raising speeches, singings, and other related trips we had to do to help encourage the Baptist churches to tithe to support us orphans. I hated getting up in front of those churches and speaking—mainly because I was scared to death. But, you know what, without those experiences, I wouldn’t have the career I do. I would never have considered trying my hand at writing. Each of those trips was a rainbow in my cloud. As a result, I’ve spoken in front of countless classrooms, several thousand participants at conferences as a keynote speaker, and I wrote a book, and then four. And now, I’m in the midst of writing my second trilogy.
The value of growing up at the Virginia Baptist Children’s Home cannot be overstated. It was indeed what has shaped me into who I am today. My husband, Albert, and our daughter, Julie, often tease with me about being an orphan. But, it is a badge I wear with pride.
Oh, I had my moments where I couldn’t come back. I went a long time thinking I had made it on my own. After our brother Ralph died, I softened some, because Ralph always loved it here. Archie and I grew closer. Overtime, we have learned a great value in having our shared memories. When our mother and our father passed, we learned the value of having each other.
And now, I’ve learned the value of my “Home” family, too. Reconnecting with Laura, Ollie, Bonnie, Billie, Debbie, Linda, Walton, Stan, Terry, Larry, Carla, Valerie, Beverly, Tucky, Mike, Jackie, and so many others have made those rainbows become more brilliant and sustaining.
Oh, and those piano lessons I took while living here, you might like to know that for my first piano recital at Longwood Mansion around 1967, I played “Over the Rainbow.” Providence, indeed.
I leave you with a challenge – Do as those adults did for us and become a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.
More info: If you would like to read more about Pam’s journey, you might enjoy reading her memoir, The Letter: A Page of My Life. For excerpts, click here and for purchasing in e-book, paperback, or audio formats, visit Amazon.