by Bonnie Dugan
At the age of 15, after his grandmother fell ill and was unable to care for him and his siblings, Kenny Stone was taken away from his home in the city’s Logan section and placed at what was then referred to as Northern Home for Children in lower Roxborough in 1988.
For a full month he did not speak to anyone. He was scared and felt alone in a foreign environment. After some time, he finally started opening up. To this day, he remembers every name of every staff member who cared for him and helped him, including some who are still working at Northern, such as Michael Rhoden and Kevin Weber.
He never had any family members come to visit him. He never went home for the holidays. Northern became Kenny’s home, and the staff became his family. “I felt bad because it made me realize that I didn’t have any family to go home to,” Kenny said recently. “I felt worse for the staff because they had to stay there with me, instead of being home with their family.”
But Kevin Weber, who has been at Northern for almost 35 years and still keeps in touch with Kenny, doesn’t remember it like that. “We did as much as we could for them. A lot of them had nobody,” Kevin said.
One of Kenny’s favorite memories living at Northern was when Kevin took Kenny and the other residents on a camping trip, the first of Kenny’s life. “It was amazing. One of the most beautiful experiences of my life,” Kenny remembered. He laughed as he talked about a part of the trip when a bear was outside of their cabin, and Kevin made sure to keep the kids calm and safe. Those trips meant everything to Kenny and the other residents.
Another mentor of Kenny’s, who worked as a lead child care worker, was Gerald “Big G” Johnson, who let Kenny and the other residents know that it was OK to feel sad, no matter what the reason. He also reunited Kenny with his sister after he tracked her down working at a Burger King in the city. Kenny remembers the day that Big G surprised him and brought him down to see her. It was the first time he had seen his sister since he was 7.
“He was the first person I ever met who cared about me. I never knew that type of experience, to have a father. He showed me what a father was,” Kenny said emotionally.
Kenny remembers fondly one particular day that he was sitting with Big G, and a former resident came back to visit and introduce his son. The former resident thanked Big G for making him the father he was. Kenny hoped for the day that he had a child and could do the same thing. That day never came, however, because Big G died from cancer in the early ‘90s, just a few years after Kenny graduated from Roxborough High School in 1992 and transitioned into independent living. This was an extremely emotional experience for Kenny, who remembers the devastation he felt at the funeral. Kenny is still very close with Big G’s sons and refers to them as his brothers. He visits Big G’s grave every chance that he gets.
There were many programs at Northern that prepared Kenny and the other residents for their transition into independent living. They were each set up with bank accounts and received allowances for the chores they did around the home. For every extra chore, they received $2. Kenny did as many extra chores as he could.
Thanks to the partial savings program at Northern, Kenny was also prepared financially when he left. When he was working at a United Artists Movie Theatre downtown and living at Northern, half of his paycheck would go to the partial savings program, and when he left in 1992, it was put into his bank account.
In late 1996, Kenny enrolled in the army, explaining that he was searching for something more. After being stationed in South Carolina, he returned home in 2002.
In 2009 he had his own son, Giovanni, who was diagnosed with autism at an early age. Though he’ll never get the chance to introduce Giovanni to Big G, he credits him and the employees at Northern for molding him into the father he is today. “If it wasn’t for them caring about me, I probably wouldn’t be the type of person to care about anything,” Kenny said.
After his son was diagnosed with autism, he knew his son needed him more than ever, and now he is a huge advocate for autism awareness. Kevin is very proud of Kenny and presented him with the Alumni Award at Northern’s 10th Annual Children’s Awards last year at the Hilton Hotel on City Line Avenue. “He was a great kid and grew up to be an even better adult and father,” Kevin said.
When asked what he would tell children who are in Northern Children’s Services now, Kenny responded, “I would tell them don’t think that this place is a prison. Don’t think you are being punished. Take what they offer you. Take the advice. They’re there because they love you and care about you. Don’t ever feel like you’re alone. Don’t ever feel ashamed that you’re there because I was ashamed for years, but now I tell people all of the time that Northern saved my life. Just tell them thank you.”
Kenny now works as a security officer for AlliedBarton Security Services and recently received an award for achieving 10 years of quality service.
Bonnie Dugan is the Manager of Marketing & Communications for the Northern Home For Children, 5301 Ridge Ave., founded in 1853, which provides shelter and support services to children with disruptive behaviors. It provides medical, psychological and behavioral health programs to children. More information at 215-487-7591 or northernchildren.org