Martha Randolph Carr Martha Randolph Carr, 7/28/2008 [Archive]

The Family Tree Project

The Family Tree Project

By Martha Randolph Carr

There are more than 200,000 people in the United States currently searching for each other without a lot of success. They are the alumni of U.S. orphanages and they are looking for the men and women who grew up with them on the campuses that used to dot America. They refer to each other as brother and sister whether the home was in Wisconsin or Georgia and their sense of loss is as profound as a mother searching for her biological son.

We are currently working on changing that status with The Family Tree Project, a non-profit group through the Shared Abundance Foundation that is creating a free web site,, where any alumni will be able to post photos and search for old connections. For many of these people they are looking for someone who they haven't seen in over fifty or sixty years but without much success. Many of the homes were shuttered in the 1980's and records were lost. There hasn't been a centralized place to gather old photos or search for names, until now.

We have already started a smaller version, a test site, of what we plan to launch this fall and have managed to reunite the first few people. All of us involved were initially surprised at the depth of gratitude. It was exactly as if we had reunited a parent to child. We came to understand that their personal history that was lost had been returned to them. They were reunited with those who spoke a common language that required no explanations.

Most of us who grew up in more traditional households have assumptions about orphanages that are based in the dark fiction of Annie or Oliver Twist but alumni like Frank Szemko who grew up at an orphanage in Long Island, the Brooklyn Orphan Asylum Society have a different take. Frank, who bought a home in the shadow of the old orphanage, which is now a government building, regularly gives talks to local groups about his childhood experiences. His mission is to reeducate the public about the truth of U.S. orphanages, past and present and bring some understanding to the topic. His greater desire though is to find all of the people he knew as children and family. His photos are already posted at the site and we have been able to reunite him with a few of his childhood pals much to his delight.

All of the alumni of orphanages are a group of people who were brought together through loss with the familiar definitions of their life suddenly removed. The old hometown, the friends and the family they had known were left behind, sometimes without notice. It wasn't uncommon for a well-meaning relative to tell a child they were going for a visit and while the child played with the new group of kids, the relative would slip away and leave the explanations to the orphanage.

But if the child had seen it coming, had known where the car was headed it would not have made it any less painful. As human beings we prefer what is known over any great change. And a child is still figuring out how the world works and needs a certain baseline of the familiar in order to easily continue to take in new information and build confidence. It's no small thing when all of your history is removed without your consent and you are now required to start over.

That's not to imply that their childhood at the orphanages was dire because as most of them have reported they were just the opposite. They were full of adventure and love and new family ties with other children who understood better than anyone the rich story of their childhood. Now we are working to bring them all back together.

But we could use your help. Spread the word to anyone you know who spent any amount of time growing up on the campus of a U.S. orphanage that the project to reunite them all is finally underway. Ask them to contact us at or email me directly and we will continue to post photos as we work on the larger site. Together we can all reach out and be of service this summer and you can be a part of the great reunions. Let me hear from you.

© 2008 Martha Randolph Carr. Martha's column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc. newspaper syndicate. For info call Sales at (805) 969-2829 or email

Martha Randolph Carr's latest book, A Place to Call Home about the reemergence of U.S. orphanages is available wherever books are sold. If you'd like Martha to come and speak to your group visit: Author's email: or visit Download Martha Randolph Carr's black and white mug shot photo.

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