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There really is no place like home for the ISSCS “Homers”.

East of Beech Street and north of Fort Jesse Road in Normal, there’s a neighborhood that looks different from the rest. Old brick homes — some occupied, some empty — line quaint, tree-lined lanes surrounding the Normal Community Activity Center.

Across the parking lot from the activity center is another brick building – this one far more dilapidated – where a gymnasium once stood.

The gym is closed but shares a wall with an old swimming pool. This site is home to the Happy Splashes Learn to Swim School, which has been in operation since 1989.

At the center of the 80-acre site, now called One Normal Plaza, is a statue honoring the original use of this unique site: the Illinois Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s School, or ISSCS, as the former residents referred to as ” Homers” are known to call them.

Before becoming ISSCS, the Illinois Soldiers’ Orphans Home was established to care for children orphaned by the Civil War. Owned and operated by the State of Illinois, the facility remains dedicated to caring for the children of veterans who died in wars. But over the next century, thousands of children came to the school’s ominous administration building for all sorts of reasons.

“I was made a ward of the state,” said Yvonne Borklund, who joined the ISSCS in 1947. She now lives in Florida and along with several other homers spoke to WGLT on September 17 – in their first reunion since the pandemic began.

“I was 8 years old when I came,” she said. “I turned 9 when I was in reception. We went to receive every two weeks before being sent to a hut. My mother was allowed to come and my birthday present that year was a hairbrush.”

Unfortunate circumstances brought the Homers to the ISSCS, but the people who attended the reunion agreed that living there was for the best. By the mid-1930s, all imaginable activities were available to children. There were all kinds of sports and trades such as woodwork and metalwork, plus Friday night movies, scouting programs and a 4-H club.

“There was never a time when you couldn’t find someone to shoot hoops with, play tag with, or just get in trouble,” said Bernie Latta, a Twin Cities native who lived at ISSCS for five years.

Latta’s father was stationed in Iwo Jima and returned home when Latta’s mother died in 1945. Strolling around the grounds, Latta recalled the day his father took him and his sister to the courthouse in 1954.

“I heard the judge say, ‘Okay,'” Latta said, and “a guy in a black suit came over and said, ‘Bernie, let’s go.’ He put me in the car and dropped me off here. That’s when I found out I was getting out of here.”

Latta’s sister didn’t stay as long as he did. And while many ISSCS children were placed there with siblings, that wasn’t always the case.

Yvonne Borklund has four siblings. She came to the ISSCS with two of her sisters, who were later placed in foster care. One returned to ISSCS and the other graduated from high school in foster care. Her oldest sister was too old for ISSCS and placed in a home in Peoria, while her brother, who had a disability, was placed in a nursing home in Lexington.

“They kept trying to get me to go into a nursing home and I wasn’t in on it,” Borklund said. “I wanted to stay here and I’m so happy and glad I did.”

As the former Homers age and inevitably die, those who remain remain determined to come together. Reunions began in the 1980s and were primarily staff gatherings. When they died, the reunion became an event primarily for Homers. The youngest alumni are in their 60s.

A pale red brick home gleams on a bright sunny day.  A heaven and hell board is engraved in the pavement in front of the hut.  Two people walking in the distance are talking.

In an area at the southern end of the compound called “the Villages” lived the middle school boys. Hopscotch boards were etched into the sidewalks and can still be seen today.

generational differences

Linda Busing joined the ISSCS in 1967 and left in 1974. She now resides in Secor, IL, west of El Paso. Her experience at the school differed from Borklund’s in both big and small ways: Borklund’s clothes were exhibited by the state. Busing had a clothing package and regularly shopped at the Eastland Mall with her cottage parents. In Borklund’s day, everyone was taken to the university high school by bus. Busing went to Normal High School. Borklund’s visits to her parents took place in the administration building. Busing went home to see her parents.

“It wasn’t a very nice experience for me,” Busing said. “It was really dysfunctional.”

Busing said many Homers are very aware that they are not like other children.

“I knew I was a Homer and I connected to it,” she said. “Looking back, I have no problem with that. I am thankful for. It taught us life skills that I wouldn’t have gotten at home.”

learn life skills

Bill Merchant – or Billy as he was known at the time – lived at the ISSCS from 1952 to 1960 and was Latta’s housemate. He now lives in Kansas. Merchant said ISSCS prepared him for life after high school in a unique way.

“I remember leaving here and joining the US Navy. We were used to living in cottages with 15 or 16 boys and it was a very easy transition from here to the military than going from a private home to the military,” he said.

Borklund said adjusting to life after the ISSCS is more difficult for women.

“We weren’t prepared,” she said. “My gym teacher at middle school accepted me. To be honest, I don’t know where I would have gone. I was very lucky in that regard. When I finally got my own apartment, I was afraid to go anywhere or to be with anyone. I was very sheltered.”

Final years of the ISSCS

In later years, ISSCS was in decline. Linda Busing predicted fewer than 100 children were still there when she left in 1974.

A brick and stone house is derelict and overgrown with weeds and ivy.

Many of the former ISSCS cottages have been converted into private homes. Some are uninhabited and derelict, like this house at the north end of the campus where high school-age boys lived.

“I don’t know if I was wise before my age, but I was very aware that the kind of kids that came here were different, more needy and more psychologically challenging,” she said. “I wanted out”

Busing dropped out and went to a nursing home for her senior year of high school.

“It wasn’t the best experience, but it wasn’t the worst either,” she said. “Then after the foster home I was on my own. That was the beginning of my adult life.”

What the Homers most want to tell people is that ISSCS has been good for them. It was their home and they are all grateful for their time there.

“Coming here is like coming home,” Borklund said. “because this was my home for a very long time.”

The Illinois Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s School operated normally from 1869 to 1979. State officials closed the school due to deteriorating facilities and rising costs. The 96 remaining residents were placed with foster families or with parents, relatives or friends. One was hospitalized, one was handed over to the correctional facility and two were never found.

From 1998 to 2009, the ISSCS Historical Preservation Society worked to preserve the school’s history, published the book A Place We Called Home in 2007, and raised money for the statue’s unveiling in 2008. The State of Illinois placed a historical monument on the site in 2002 recognizing the ISSCS’ place in Illinois history, and a small exhibit of photographs and artifacts is on display at the Normal Community Activity Center.

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