Going home, getting healed: Residents of Fargo orphanage reuniteFARGO – Jay Bergquist of Fargo was only 3 years old when he lived in the North Dakota Children’s home for orphans. Though he was only there for about six weeks, he still remembers it. One of his most vivid memories is of getting in trouble for swearing and being sent to bed without supper. But his older brother, John Sanaker of Cambridge, Minn., took pity on his younger sibling and snuck him some food.
By: Tracy Frank, INFORUM
FARGO – Jay Bergquist of Fargo was only 3 years old when he lived in the North Dakota Children’s home for orphans.
Though he was only there for about six weeks, he still remembers it.
One of his most vivid memories is of getting in trouble for swearing and being sent to bed without supper. But his older brother, John Sanaker of Cambridge, Minn., took pity on his younger sibling and snuck him some food.
Bergquist and four of his siblings went to the orphanage after their mother died giving birth and their father fell into alcoholism, Bergquist said.
Before being taken to the Children’s Home, they had been knocking on neighbors doors, begging for bread, he said.
Bergquist and his siblings were adopted by separate families and raised as only children.
Bergquist said he is very grateful to the Children’s Home because he was adopted by a wonderful family. Though his adoptive father died a year after adopting him, his adoptive mother kept him and raised him as a single parent.
“I got just a wonderful mother,” he said. “She just loved me dearly.”
But Bergquist said not all of his siblings were as lucky. Some were not adopted but were just taken into foster care and used for labor, he said.
Sanaker said he was 4 or 5 years old when he stayed at the Children’s Home, but he doesn’t remember much about it.
The brothers recently got together with others who had spent time in the Children’s Home through a reunion planned by The Village Family Service Center.
The Village was founded as the North Dakota Children’s Home Society by Rev. C.J. McConnehey in 1891.
The orphanage was located on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 10th Street in south Fargo until 1957 when it moved to a two and a half acre plot of land with between three and five cottages and a huge playground across from what is now Essentia Health, said Gary Wolsky, The Village Family Service Center President and CEO.
At that time, the name was changed to Children’s Village.
In the early 1960s, foster care replaced orphanages, and in the early 1970s, Children’s Village ceased being an orphanage and became The Village Family Service Center, Wolsky said.
The Village still handles adoption services, including a reactive attachment program, but it also offers individual and family counseling services, employee assistance and financial counseling. It also operates the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program and runs the Nokomis Child Care Centers.
“Last year, we served about 75,000 people,” Wolsky said, adding that The Village is not church-sponsored and has no national affiliation.
“Part of the reason it’s as successful as it has been for 121 years is because of a community that understands and respects the need to provide top-shelf services to kids who didn’t get a fair shake,” he said. “We get support from all 53 counties in North Dakota, people who donate money, businesses that partner with us and probably about two-thirds of Minnesota.”
For its adoption services, The Village partners with Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota.
“We’re still very involved and dedicated to finding good homes for kids,” Wolsky said. “That hasn’t changed.”
About 24 to 30 former Children’s Home residents participated in the reunion, Wolsky said.
“The size of group was very nice because this is a rather intimate and emotionally difficult process for some of these folks because you don’t end up at our door unless something has gone terribly wrong,” he said. “It was wonderful to watch the bonding. It was kind of therapeutic in some ways. We didn’t really see that coming.”
The idea for the reunion came from former residents, he said.
“We’ve had adoption reunions in the past, and we’ve had different get-togethers, but this was the first time in a very, very long time that we’ve gotten folks together who actually lived there as orphans.”
Sanaker said it was great to get together with people who could understand what he went through.
“I wish we would have had it earlier,” he said.
Bergquist said the reunion was tremendous.
“It’s a great thing to have and a great tradition to start,” he said.
Chuck Sheldon, who grew up in Washburn, N.D., and now lives in Bismarck and Mesa, Ariz., lived in the Children’s Home for a few months when he was 4 or 5 months old, he said.
He was born in North Carolina and said he doesn’t know how he ended up at the Fargo orphanage and he doesn’t want to know anything about his biological parents.
“I had wonderful, wonderful parents,” Sheldon said. “This place matched me up with two people who loved me to death. I have had a blessed life because of these folks and because of my parents.”
Sheldon said the reunion was a chance of a lifetime. The highlight was meeting Dorothy Lund Nelson, whose family lived and worked at the Children’s Home when she was growing up. Lund Nelson helped care for many of the children while she was there. Sheldon said it’s very likely that she rocked him when he was a baby.
“My heart felt warm inside and I got the biggest hug from her,” he said.
Lund Nelson, who currently lives in Rochester, Minn., has written a memoir about her life in the Children’s Home, “The Home We Shared: History and Memoir of the North Dakota Children’s Home at Fargo, North Dakota.”
It’s out of print, but there are a few copies selling on Amazon.com for between $32.73 and $244.66.
She’s thinking of reprinting the book, Lund Nelson said.
“All of a sudden, we’re finding people who want to read it,” she said.
Lund Nelson lead activities in the playroom as a preteen and rocked and fed the babies as soon as she was responsible enough to hold a child, she said.
She also worked the night shift at the orphanage while she was in college, she said. One adult was always up all night in case any of the children needed them, she said.
The hardest part was when a child would be adopted, he or she just left and didn’t get to say goodbye, not even to their own siblings, Lund Nelson said.
“Often, they were just told they were going to go get their tonsils out,” she said. “It was a whole different generation. Things weren’t talked about like they are now.”
She said the reunion has been just great for reconnecting with people she cared for as children and people who remember her when she was a child.
“Many of the orphanages or children’s homes of that day had bad reputations, but I think the North Dakota Children’s Home was well run,” Lund Nelson said. “The children were well-fed and the whole state took an interest in making blankets or sending clothes. At Christmas, there were always loads of new things to give out.”