The Orphan Train: Our Story

trainwindow

I married a Kansas boy back in 1996. “The 1900’s” my daughter likes to call it. ūüôā I knew he was Italian and German in ethnicity, but he was oh, so very¬†American in culture. Through and through. People were intrigued a boy¬†from the heartland¬†and a girl from New Jersey found¬†each other.

But we did.

As a girl, I lived¬†between¬†Philadelphia and the shore until we moved north into New York City’s shadow. As I mentioned, I knew my husband’s paternal ancestors were from Italy, but I never gave much thought as to how they landed in Kansas. I guess I assumed they traveled west in search for land like all determined pioneers – by their own choosing, their own power, their own sheer will.

But they didn’t.


Pause and identify a real, live six year-old in your life right now. Picture her face. Say his name.


He was just six years-old and the son of Italian immigrants.

His parents had¬†made New York City their home, for I imagine they didn’t have the means to continue their journey beyond the City That Never Sleeps. Oh, the irony of that nickname, for it reflected the tension within his parents’ hearts. I’m talking about¬†the fear¬†that keeps you up at night and doesn’t let you rest.

Jim Perona’s father died shortly after he was born. And his mother was left a widow raising six children. An immigrant in poverty. Grieving. Desperate. Confused that this new world hadn’t delivered like she¬†had hoped.

I ache as I write this, for little Jim, my husband’s grandfather, never knew his dad. Never knew the man with hope. Never knew the man who took great risks to start a new life. Never knew the man that walked right onto¬†the path of the unknown.

Jim’s path looked very much like his dad’s, but it wasn’t his own choosing.

You see, at the age of six, his mama hugged him tight and put him on the¬†Orphan Train, never to see him again. I’m not sure how I got through 13 years of school and four years of college and never knew about this era in U.S. history. But, I kid you not, the first time I heard¬†of the Orphan Train was¬†while watching Samantha, an American Girl movie, with my own daughter when she was six. She was so tiny and fragile and needed her parents so very much at that age…

But it’s true. Over 100,000 children¬†sleeping on the streets of New York were placed on the Orphan Train from the¬†1850’s and the 1920’s. And some parents in poverty who couldn’t possibly feed their children led their tiny sons and daughters to that boarding platform, too.¬†The¬†goal was to rip¬†these kids out of hopelessness and place them into new lives in rural America.

But still… Jim was only six.

streetorphans

train1

train2

Have you ever judged people¬†in poverty for their decisions? Have you ever measured someone’s choices by looking only through your lens of comfort? Yeah, me too.

Jim’s¬†story ended well, for after staying at¬†an orphanage in Atchison, Kansas, he¬†went to live with a family in southwestern¬†Kansas. It was common back then for¬†orphans to be indentured on contract to work for families. But these people eventually became Jim’s real family and the rest, I guess¬†is history… a history we’ll never really fully know.


And here we are, resonating with parts of Jim’s story…

Some of you don’t feel a day wiser¬†than six, and you’re begging God for wisdom to navigate¬†this mess.

If you don’t have all the wisdom needed for this journey, then all you have to do is ask God for it; and God will grant all that you need. He gives lavishly and never scolds you for asking. James 1:5

Some of you have been ripped from your norm and placed into a new story whirling with risk and fear and mystery.

When you pass through the waters,
    I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
    they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
    you will not be burned. Isaiah 43:2 niv

Some of you feel rejected. Or forgotten. Or not known.

The Lord your God is with you,
    the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
    in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
    but will rejoice over you with singing. Zephaniah 3:17 niv

Or maybe you’re living like an indentured servant — striving, striving, striving — trying to earn your way into the family.

Are you so foolish? Do you think you can perfect something God‚Äôs Spirit started with any human effort? …Now it is absolutely clear that no one is made right with God through the law. Galatians 3:3, 11

(And why — when we need wisdom, when¬†we’re forced into something we didn’t choose, when we feel rejected and betrayed — why do we feel shame? But that’s another post for another day…)

I titled this post “The Orphan Train: Our Story”. And by “our” I meant the Peronas —¬†my husband and my children, and therefore me, for I’m somehow grafted into it all.

But really, it’s all of our story, yes? For we all need wisdom, and we’re all living stories we didn’t write, and we’ve all felt unknown, and we’re all tempted to live motivated by others’ approval and acceptance.

But I promise you, we are not alone in the deep, deep water that taunts of drowning. We are not consumed in the fire.

I see your stories. And I see your wounds. But you are absolutely not identified by your brokenness, for we are His sons and daughters.

He endured the breaking that made us whole.
    The injuries he suffered became our healing. Isaiah 53:5

Pierced for us. Crushed for us. And by those very wounds, His wounds, we are healed.

Known. Chosen. Welcomed in as adopted children.

photo source | Wilson Lau

Find more details about the Orphan Train online.

How Picking Up Pennies in the Projects Became Meaningful

20090328_pennies_0010fb1(All children’s names in this post have been changed.)

It was a simple farewell gift, but I held it close to my heart after opening it — literally.¬† A penny in a frame.¬† Just one penny in a teeny, tiny frame.¬† All meaningful gifts have stories behind them.¬† And so, of course, this one had a story, too.

Years ago I was a director for a drug and crime prevention program.¬† While our agency also worked with school-aged children, my program was similar to Head Start, targeting three to five year-olds.¬† On paper we were a “Kindergarten Readiness Program” for at-risk children living in government-housing.¬† But in real life, well, we did all sorts of things.

Yes, we tried hard to uncover their pre-reading skills and their God-given ability to learn.  We welcomed their curiosity and praised every single effort.  We sang songs and showed them how to hold crayons for the first time.  We taught them how to function in a classroom environment.

But we taught them life skills, too.¬† We wooed good manners out of them and explained the importance of using them well into adulthood.¬† We gave them a safe place to make mistakes.¬† We extended natural consequences followed by unconditional love and acceptance.¬† We modeled how to love others.¬† And we taught them how to receive love.¬† (That’s the one that often broke my heart.)

I had ringworm for nearly two years straight.¬† It’s a skin fungus that’s highly contagious but really harmless.¬† Our kids often had it growing on their scalps, and it always surfaced on the front of my neck, my collarbone, my chest.¬† My boss finally had me fill out workman’s comp papers to fund my medicated cream.¬† I loved holding these forgotten kids, and their heads would rest upon my neck as we snuggled together.¬† I’m sure I was breaking the law by embracing kids who weren’t my own in an educational setting.

I loved them.

I remember walking Crystal home and hearing her mom moaning in the back room because she was high.

I remember hearing Jasmine’s sexual abuse story for the first time.¬† Her intense shyness made perfect sense after that.

I remember having conversations about Johnny with my brand new husband.  Could we adopt a boy our first year of marriage if abuse finally ripped him away from his mom?

On Mother’s Day I gave cards to my female employees — all college girls with no children of their own.¬† They played the role of mom at our Center way more than the role of teacher.¬† They had ringworm, too.

After two years, I was forever changed at the young age of twenty-five.  Walking into this small, unknown housing community made my world bigger.  It made my heart bigger, too.  But God provided a new job for my husband two states away, and so we packed what little we owned and hugged our friends good-bye.

Leaving the kids, as you can imagine, was incredibly hard.  I had to trust my co-workers would take care of them.  On my last day at the Center, one of my employees held out a tiny gift.  It was a framed penny.

You see, we walked our kids to their apartments each day after our program.¬† Bits of random trash and discarded coins were always under our feet along with the potholes and weeds.¬† I could never walk by pennies without picking them up… it just felt weird to ignore them.¬† From the asphalt into my pocket would go these beat-up, dirty pennies.¬† My co-workers laughed at me.

Heather first planned to frame a new, perfect penny.¬† You see, her gift was merely going to be a reminder of the hours we’d spent together.¬† But it didn’t look right to her resting there in all its shine.¬† Her heart was too deep.

So she removed beauty and inserted a penny from the neighborhood instead.¬† It was filthy, discolored, scratched.¬† It was so bad you’d be embarrassed to buy something with it.

“It’s our kids,” she said.¬† “They’re neglected and thrown away and forgotten.¬† But their Maker sees them and picks them up… just like you could never pass up a coin on the ground.¬† This is to help you not forget.”

Fifteen years later, I have compassion on their moms now, too.¬† They were probably thrown-away children before they had their own babies.¬† I wish I would have shared coffee with them each morning before I started loving on their kids.¬† I’m sure I could have learned a lot from them.

And, well, I finally see how desperately I’m the one who really needs the Great Rescue.¬† I’m the one who needs to be pulled out of life’s forgotten neighborhood, out of the struggle, out of eternal hopelessness.

Time sort of has a way of revealing your need for grace.¬† Falling short in relationships.¬† Losing sight of our purpose.¬† Living consumed by smaller chapters and forgetting God’s Great Love Story.

He pulls us out of it all.  Out of the filth.  Out of the brokenness.  And He gives us value, transforming us by His own beat-up and wounded Son.