During the day, kids were running around on a hilltop, entertaining themselves while their mother was nowhere to be found. With no shoes to keep their feet warm and dry, and rags they used as clothes, they played until their hearts were content.
At night, as the stars scattered throughout the sky, those handful of kids — all siblings — would pack into a single bed to rest their eyes before the dawn of a new day.
Living in a two-bedroom barn, that was Mary Barnette’s life until she was 7 years old. Then one day, when Barnette and her siblings were outside going through their normal routine, a lady picked the kids up and drove them to the Hillcrest Children’s Home in Wheelersburg.
“Some neighbor must have saw all of us running around up there on a hill because we were always out playing,” Barnette said. ”Somebody must have turned us in because one day some lady pulled up in a car and picked us up, and we ended up at the home.”
Barnette didn’t see her mother again for two years and she only saw her once a year afterwards.
“I did ask her one time why she didn’t come and see us sooner,” Barnette said. “She told me she didn’t have any way of getting around.”
It didn’t have any bearing on Barnette, who said she was elated to be at Hillcrest. For the first time in her life, she had a warm place to sleep. She had her own bed. She had her own towels and wash clothes. She finally had the things that she had longed for at her own home.
“I liked it there because I felt safe,” Barnette said. “I went to school and went to church. We did all the things we were required to do, but we also got to do what we wanted to do.”
Aside from the normal everyday luxuries, the holiday season was especially magical for Barnette. Everything from Santa Clause to the holiday music, Barnette soaked in the spirit of the season.
“It was great for me. I was little and I appreciated what we had,” Barnette said. “I never had Christmas at home because we were really poor. I think Christmas was one of my best holidays. They had the biggest Christmas tree I’ve ever seen. It was full of lights, just the most beautiful lights. I really enjoyed that because I had never seen it before until I got there.”
Barnette said she later found out that the home always asked the community to help support the children by providing Christmas gifts. As a child, however, she believed they were from Santa himself — although she admitted she was a little scared of the jolly old guy in the beginning.
Besides Christmas, Barnette said Hillcrest celebrated the other holidays with the children, such as Thanksgiving and Easter.
“It was wonderful,” Barnette said. “When Easter came, we always went out and went Easter egg hunting. We did mostly what other kids did.”
For Barnette, the Hillcrest experience was life altering, perhaps even “lifesaving.” She admitted she’s heard some of the negativity surrounding the children’s home, but from her point of view, it was mainly justified when someone was disciplined.
“The girls that didn’t like it made their own problems,” Barnette said. “They were trouble makers basically. I was mainly quiet, most of the people liked me.”
Barnette left Hillcrest in 1954. She bounced around from place to place, never settling down. When she was 18, she moved in with some relatives in California before finally moving back to Kentucky to stay with her mom. Wherever Barnette settled, she never felt like she fit in with the scene.
“My life just went downhill,” Barnette said. “I tried to make the best I could of myself because I never had the experience most people would have. I’ve been on my own most of my life. Being 18 back then is like being 14 or 15 today, you just didn’t have the knowledge that all the kids have today. The only knowledge I had is what I got from the children’s home.”
Barnette finally built a family in Michigan but, she admitted the only reason she had a life to build was because of Hillcrest.
“I’ve had a rough life but at least I had a life,” Barnette said.
Barnette’s life might not have turned out how she envisioned, but she was no longer that scared 7-year-old girl looking for food or looking for a warm blanket in the middle of the night.
“I knew it was best for us when we went to the home because we had food to eat, we had clothes, we had beds,” Barnette said. “I felt like I was Cinderella when I was in the home because I had things I never had at home.”
Now, every time Cinderella reminisces about her past, she remembers the enchanting moments, and the everlasting bonds she formed with her brothers and sisters.
“Today, when we all get together, we all have different memories of each other,” Barnette said. “We all have different values of each other, from what one person was to another one. That’s how we always felt about each other. We always have something good to say about each other. When you’re little like that, your memories never fade. Your memories always stay with you.”
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