By Alexander Germanis
If there is one symbol that sums up the entire meaning of the Christmas season, it is that of a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger in the desert village of Bethlehem.
The pure innocence of the Christ Child encapsulates all that is good, peaceful, and hopeful about Christmas. To this day, when any newborn is brought into this world it should be a reminder of that innocence—a similar symbol of hope and healing.
For more than a century, The Baby Fold has sought to engender those feelings through their work, bringing help, hope, and healing to little children, to families, and to the community as a whole.
Starting the Mission
Even though The Baby Fold has been a presence in the community for 121 years, its origins still remain “fascinating,” as CEO and President Clete Winkelmann puts it.
Nancy Mason, the owner of a 10-room house at 309 North Street in Normal, was impressed by the work carried out by the Methodist Deaconess nurses who ran the hospital that is now known as Carle BroMenn Medical Center. “With her children grown and her husband having passed, Nancy’s interest in charitable work increased,” Clete states. “So, Nancy opened her home as living quarters for both active and retired deaconesses. In 1899, Nancy deeded her home to the Methodist Episcopal Deaconess Society who envisioned the home as a hub for trained deaconesses to seek out and care for persons with unmet needs in the community.”
The needs made themselves clear as, slowly, the home became an orphanage, leading to a rebirth of sorts on May 1, 1902. It was then The Baby Fold was chartered with the state and three years later was operating solely as an orphanage.
“Infant after infant arrived at the home for care, some dropped off by a bereaving or ill parent, others brought by local authorities after abandonment,” resumes Clete. “Some stayed temporarily until a parent could once again care for them, and many were given over to the deaconess women with the request that they be adopted.”
Need outgrew the space just nine years after its inception, so The Baby Fold moved to open lots on Willow Street where its main campus remains today.
Living the Mission
“The Baby Fold has a long history of excellence and is a well-respected leader in child welfare,” Clete states. “Since I came on as CEO in June of this year, I have found this agency everything I expected it to be—filled with incredibly dedicated people who are making transformational changes in the lives of children and families.”
Soon after he arrived, Clete began asking the staff about the “why” of their work. What drives them to do what they do? While it is a way to get to know the staff, he says, “it also refreshes my own vision, commitment, and passion for the work.”
Clete’s “why” is embedded in his own childhood. The Baby Fold is, in a sense, a way of coming full circle for him. “I have realized over the years that my life would have been significantly different had my birth parents not made the ultimate sacrifice in placing me for adoption,” he declares. “I was blessed by being adopted into a caring family with loving parents. Their adoption decision changed the trajectory of my life for the better.”
“To honor those sacrifices,” Clete continues, “I’ve dedicated my career to social services because so many children and families don’t have the same opportunities that I’ve enjoyed. It’s one tangible way that I can give back.”
Arms Opened Wider
Although The Baby Fold has always centered on the care of children and families, they have also seen the needs of the community change and evolve over the last century. Partnering with and stewarding people who can help them serve children and the community continued with The Baby Fold Superintendents Reverend William and Gwendolyn Hammitt in 1939.
Beyond modernizing the facilities, staffing, and record-keeping, “Rev. Hammitt also fiercely advocated for the rights of children in the adoption process,” Clete says. “His work as a member of the State Steering Committee for Adoption Reform and later statewide welfare legislative committee directly led to the passing of new adoption laws in 1945 and 1949.”
Then becoming widely known as an adoption agency, The Baby Fold began working with expectant mothers and opened a nursery to care for developmentally challenged children. Thus began their long history in special education services, culminating in Hammitt School (est. 1983), the well-loved Summer Camp (est. 1979), and Hammitt High School (est. 2002).
Reaching out to the broader community in the 2010s, The Baby Fold began its Community School initiative with Fairview Elementary and Cedar Ridge Elementary, repurposed its Oglesby Avenue (the former Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s School) building for intensive special education services, and expanded the Healthy Start program into Champaign County.
The current decade has seen The Baby Fold expand into a multi-faceted agency. “We specialize in the care of children and youth with emotional and behavioral disabilities, or are at risk for a variety of reasons,” Clete says. “We focus on improving the lives of children and families by building safe, loving, healthy environments through foster care, adoption services, special education, family, community services, and more. We are in the ministry of transforming lives and doing whatever it takes to help a child.” This includes the Caregiver Connections Program meant to help providers in daycare, preschools, and home care identify children who may need additional resources for their behavior or social-emotional well-being.
The Baby Fold continues to expand how it can serve the next generation and build a solid foundation of health for new families and babies. Recently, they have added a doula program for expecting parents enrolled in the Healthy Start program. This program will train doulas to fill every meaning of their title. “The Greek word doula means ‘caretaker of the caretaker’ or ‘the one who mothers the mother.’” Clete expounds. “That’s just what our doulas will do. They’ll walk beside parents as they develop their birth plans, amplifying their voices at doctor visits and throughout their pregnancy. Doulas are training in the stages of labor and child development and will also be trained in perinatal mood disorders and postpartum depression.”
To Give and Receive
It would not be possible to reach and help the 1,200 children The Baby Fold does every year without the “gifts of time, treasure, or talent,” from those in the community. Without them, “the Baby Fold would not be the agency it is today,” Clete admits.
Dedicated volunteers also make up a significant part of The Baby Fold’s efforts, exhibiting and sharing a wide range of skills and expertise. “We have great appreciation for their time and talents as it truly expands our capacity to serve children and families,” expresses Clete.
Sacrifice and hard work truly bring forth blessings, as witnessed by Clete and the staff: “When a child with autism learns to communicate her needs for the first time, when the cycle of abuse is broken in a family history, or when a family remains intact and their children can safely remain in their homes, blessings are all around us.”
Those blessings have a way of trickling down to the well-being of the overall community, specifically for the next generations. Investing in children’s care means they and their families have the necessities of life, emotional and physical safety, loving communication, and loving relationships. No time is more critical for the emotional and psychological development of a person than childhood, and an emotionally healthy child is more likely to become a healthy adult. “We have the data and science-backed therapies that make this transformation possible,” Clete assures. “Supporting agencies like The Baby Fold is an investment in humanity and in the overall health, prosperity, and sustainability of our community as a whole.”
Room in the Inn
More than 2,000 years ago, a certain couple sought for a safe, secure place to bring a newborn into the world. In a town concerned with other matters and overwhelmed with people, this couple and their soon-to-be-born child were turned away because there was no room for them.
There are still small children in need of room. But through the tireless efforts of The Baby Fold, its staff, volunteers, and those who contribute to its mission, the room will be found. Whether in the safe surroundings of a new home or by filling the void in an aching family’s heart, that room will be found and similarly filled.
The Baby Fold’s historic campus is located at 108 E Willow Street in Normal, Illinois. A 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, The Baby Fold accepts monetary gifts, IRA charitable rollovers, stocks and securities, donor-advised funds, employer matching gifts, estate gifts, farmland and property, and even cryptocurrency.
The Baby Fold also accepts new, in-kind items such as diapers, baby clothes, safety items, school supplies, and more. These essential resources support the immediate needs of their clients in a cost-effective manner.
To find out how else you can help or how The Baby Fold can help your family, please call them at (309) 451-7202 or visit www.thebabyfold.org.
Here is an example of how the
individualized care that The Baby Fold provides blesses the lives of others:
The Baby Fold’s special education program successfully pairs expert curriculums with personalized attention, so children grow into the very best version of themselves. Recently, our dedicated staff unexpectedly witnessed that growth during a graduation ceremony. One student at The Baby Fold’s Hammitt Junior-Senior High School wasn’t slated to speak at the graduation ceremony, but an outgoing senior had something he needed to say. After politely raising his hand and asking permission to address the crowd, Baby Fold staff quickly turned off the recessional music and watched as he took the podium. Unable to communicate when he first entered The Baby Fold’s autism program in 2007 at the age of 3, Zack’s unscripted, nearly 2-minute address, captivated the onlookers and astounded his teachers.
Speaking clearly, Zack addressed those who made an impact in his life, thanking many teachers including “Miss T.C. for always helping me throughout the years with speech skills; I could not have learned to speak without her,” and Miss Cheryl for “never forgetting who I was.” Zack acknowledged the “rocky” periods he experienced and the care from Baby Fold teachers and staff who encouraged him throughout the years, giving “a lot of moral support this year when I severely needed it.” In closing, Zack left his peers with advice on the power of communication and sharing. “While it may not be everyone’s preference, you must know that it is great to actually talk to someone when you need it because you never know when someone could actually help you out. I learned that this year and I learned hiding your intentions rather than speaking them out with someone can make you just worse.”