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This weekend marks the 100th anniversary of Mooseheart near Aurora.  It’s not an orphanage, but a safe haven for kids in need.  Mooseheart’s rich history includes the Konrad family — yes, our Paul Konrad. And as Ana Belaval reports, Paul has a soft spot in his heart for the place his mother called home.

“When I think of Mooseheart, I think of it as a place that brought hope and care and love and safety for children who were really in a needy situation,” says WGN Meteorologist Paul Konrad.  “God bless the people who had the heart to think of a place like this.”

“I always felt so protected, ” Paul’s mother Molly says.

Molly Mellon  lost her father when she was just 7 years old.  Her mother had to go to work to support her five kids, and they all hopped a train from Rochester, New York to Mooseheart, Illinois.

“I was so traumatized because my father had died.  And we came on this train to Mooseheart,” she said.

Mooseheart welcomed the whole family, Mom and five kids.  Molly thought they’d live together on the thousand acre grounds.  But almost immediately they were separated by age and gender into group homes.  Molly shows us around: “So this was the first building that I lived in, Tennessee Hall.  There used to be a huge stand of holly hocks.”

Their mother worked at Mooseheart, caring for other children. But to see her own kids, they needed a pass to visit her one hour a day.  “The house mother came to the door and we said could we see our mother?  And she said she’s no longer here.  She has gone back to New York.  She suffered a nervous breakdown. And so we turned around and then we had to say good-bye to each other before going (she starts to cry.) Ana says, “Now you didn’t have anybody.”  Molly repeats,  “Now we didn’t have anybody.”

Molly cried herself to sleep every night. But after that traumatic first year, she began to thrive at Mooseheart, participating in sports, cheerleading, and even posing for Mooseheart promotions. She left at 18 with a full nursing scholarship, but came back a year later to marry Don Konrad at the House of God. And when the Konrads had a family of their own, every Mother’s Day, they would bring all seven kids to visit the place she called home.

“I wanted them to be able to just see that this was a place that even though it was difficult for children that came here, that you could be happy and grow up and still have a happy life and something to look forward to,” Molly said.  The message stuck.  All of Paul’s sisters came along on this sweltering day to be included in their Mom’s story.

One hundred years ago, James Davis, envisioned a safe haven for families of Moose Lodge members who died.  He led a drive to purchase a thousand acres in Aurora, Illinois, and began spreading the word.  This idyllic landscape would house a farm, school, and 30 group homes where children lived with house parents.  They took in all ages, infant to 18, and gave them a second chance at childhood. Their motto has always been; “Enter to Learn; Leave to Serve.”  It’s no longer exclusive to Moose members.  And Executive Director Gary Urwiler says all children in need are welcome:  “Kids from all spectrums,whether it be grieving, maybe kids who experienced abuse, maybe unsafe neighborhoods.  You name it we’ve seen it.”

Like Molly, tragedy brought Urwiler to Mooseheart.  His father passed away at his feet when he was 5 years old.  He’s now spent 32 of his 44 years here: “When I drove by the field, entrance I was excited, I was really excited and didn’t really know what was behind the gates, just knew it was a new start.”

Recent Mooseheart graduate Monica Gutierrez, wanted a new start too: “I wanted a chance to be someone.”  Gutierrez got that chance.  She and her brother are both Mooseheart graduates, and are the first two family members to go to college.  Abi Alade will be a sophomore in the fall.

“We get called orphans a lot.  But there are a lot of people here who still have their parents.  I still have my parents,” Abi said.

Abi and her sister came here four years ago because of a difficult  financial situation at home.  “I’ve changed a lot I’ve become more outgoing.”  Ana says, “I can’t believe you were isolated.  You’re so friendly and outspoken.”  Abi responds,  “Ya- that’s what Mooseheart has done for me.”

Both Monica and Abi join the hundreds of success stories over the last century who are proud to call Mooseheart home.  Molly Konrad wouldn’t trade her life at Mooseheart for the world. “ I’m very happy that God blessed me and my family and brought me here.”

Paul Konrad describes his mother as happy and filled with joy: “If I had to put my 4 kids into a home somewhere and as I talk to my Mom- I asked her I said  if you had to do it again and you had children- would you leave them here?  And she said, absolutely!”

The public is invited to spend the day at Mooseheart this Saturday beginning at 11am.  There will be a carnival, live music, and a spectacular fireworks display.  They’ll also re-dedicate Mooseheart and break ground on a $10 million school renovation project.

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