I met David Emmert because I knew I wanted to write a novel based in my husband’s hometown. Well, “met” is a bit of a stretch, but after reading about Mr. Emmert and his life’s work, I felt as if I knew him.
I imagine David Emmert to be an amazing man. He taught art at Brethren’s Normal College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, in the late 1800s. But he not only taught his college classes. He also had some hand in a Sunday school class of college students who desired to follow after God and to help those in their community. The little group banded together to form an Aid Society and were often found ministering to the needs of impoverished children. In 1881, they came up with a plan to establish a “Home” for the most needy of the children. The plan was proposed at a mid-week prayer meeting, and when they left that night, they had twenty cents in the collection plate, a promise of twenty-five dollars more, and a committee given the task of finding a house. In 1883, they established the Home for Orphan and Friendless Children in Huntingdon, PA.
The minute I discovered this story, I knew I had to write about it. I fell in love with this man, this place. A man who not only saw a need and sought to fulfill it, but one who led by example, pouring himself into the establishment and maintenance of the Home for many years. A man who encouraged not only the participation of his students in the work–he “recruited” the first matron of the home from the college students, a woman preparing for ministry in South America, and asked her instead to take on a role as “missionary to children”–but who brought together an entire community in the effort as well. In fact, the Board of Directors of the Home consisted of a member selected from each church in town, a real example of unity in the Body of Christ.
Of course, all this did not mean that the effort was easy. First, the Home was not was situated on the usual orphanage model. In thecharter of the Home they state as their objects “To afford a temporary refuge for homeless and dependent children. To secure good homes for children in private families.” While this foster/adoption model would become more normal as the Progressive Era took root, they were a bit before their time, which meant, I’m sure, a lot of trial and error. Second, as with any charitable endeavor, money was an issue. In 1894, just a decade after its establishment, The Daily News reported about the Home that “the financial outlook, we regret to say, is not very encouraging.” But Mr. Emmert and others persevered. By 1909, the Home affiliated with the Pennsylvania Children’s Aid Society of Philadelphia and Mr. Emmert represented the board of managers in enlarging the scope of the Home to include children in the surrounding Juniata Valley area.
The actions of Mr. Emmert’s life show his heart for children and for God. He lived out James 1:27: Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. I don’t know about you, but people like David Emmert make me look more closely at those around me and listen more intently for the voice of God to show me where I can be His hands and feet. Writing the story in A Home for My Heart is a small piece of that journey. And while much of the story in A Home for My Heart is fiction, I pray it captures Mr. Emmert’s heart in a way that would make him smile.
(Thank you to Nancy Shedd and the Huntingdon County Historical Society website for information about the Home for Orphan and Friendless Children.)