BY DANIEL VICTOR
Of The Patriot-News
There was never much space between 4-year-old Grace Stanley and her mother, Louann.
They routinely slept snuggled against each other. During the day, Grace rarely left Louann’s side. Grace talked, talked, talked, winning affection with her infectious giggle and near-permanent smile.
Grace was Louann Stanley’s little baby.
She still is. But when Louann sent Grace to the Milton Hershey School in Derry Twp., entrusting a surrogate set of houseparents and an $8 billion organization to feed, clothe, shelter, educate and nurture Grace until she graduates from high school, she had to learn to let go much earlier than most parents.
As Grace learns her ABCs, has her first crush, earns her driver’s license and gets accepted to college, Louann will experience the journey, starting this year, through phone calls and occasional visits.
Grace is the third child Louann, of Shiremanstown, has sent to the school. Everything is free to the single mother, who has entrusted the girls to the school because she must care for a fourth daughter, a mentally handicapped 10-year-old who requires near-constant attention.
But Hannah, 7, and Brianna, 14, didn’t start at the school when they were as young as Grace. This year, Louann knew, would be tough.
At the end of enrollment day on Aug. 4, their final day together before Grace started school, Grace was more interested in playing with her new friends and toys than spending time with her mother.
“I guess I’ll just leave if you don’t want me here,” Louann said to Grace.
Her tone was playful, but it was a difficult goodbye.
Without her mother, Grace struggled to fall asleep her first night.
When Grace is comfortable, she’s a clown, she giggles unceasingly and she often gives hugs.
On the morning of her first day, Grace wasn’t herself.
While listening to elementary administrators explain the school, she climbed into her mother’s lap and burrowed her head in her chest. Louann repeatedly kissed Grace on the forehead.
Administrators warned parents that the children were likely to have a tough time at first. To ease Grace’s transition, the school told Louann not to come back for four to six weeks and to call only once a week.
“Focus on your dreams and goals,” said Myron McCurdy, a home administrator. “Don’t give in to the temporary pain and sadness.”
Grace met Kara Brady, an assistant principal at the elementary school. Brady told her that she’s beautiful, and Grace gave her a hug.
By lunchtime, the real Grace was emerging.
She met Kyle, who is in her prekindergarten class. They cheerfully chased each other, both carrying balloons, until their parents made them go.
They went to the student home, a spacious but warm place with rooms for eight girls. Grace tried each of the toys in the recreation room.
Now, having met the girls with whom she would live, Grace couldn’t be bothered with her mother. “Who wants to do puzzles with me?” she asked the girls.
Louann took the hint. She asked Grace for a kiss and a hug. Grace quickly complied, told Mom she loved her, and then ran off with her new friends.
Worried about Grace’s sleeping habits, Louann left a pillow in Grace’s cubby. She told the houseparents, Linda and Dennis Van Scoyoc, to give it to Grace only if she needed it – Louann had sprayed it with her perfume.
“My heart is very heavy, but I know she’s going to be taken care of,” she said.
A mother’s battle
In those first weeks, when she couldn’t visit, Louann considered pulling Grace from the school.
“I just missed her presence and her hugs and her kisses and her giggles and her smiles and talking to me,” she said. “She would talk from the time she got up to the time she went to bed. I wouldn’t get one minute of peace because she just didn’t know how to be quiet. I said, ‘Can you be quiet for one minute?’ And we timed it, and she couldn’t do it. It was killing her.”
But Louann knew she was doing this for good reason. She works from home – she does real estate work and tries to sell candles on the side to boost her income – until Diana, 10, returns at 3 p.m. from Broad Street Elementary School in the Mechanicsburg Area School District. Then she devotes her time to Diana; her daughter’s needs have made it impossible to get a full-time job, Louann said.
She and the girls’ father divorced. The girls occasionally visit him.
Some family members thought Louann should have sent Diana to a special school and kept Grace, Hannah and Brianna at home.
“I wanted them to get the best I could give them, and that really is why I sent them there,” she said. “I can’t give them as much as they’re getting there.”
In many places, there’s a stigma attached to “giving up your child” until the school is understood, said John O’Brien, the president of the Milton Hershey School.
Most students enter the school in their middle-school years, so Grace will have an advantage by joining so early, he said. The “Ivy League treatment in kindergarten” can better form self-confidence, he said. “It just then becomes a way of life,” he said. “So that the Milton Hershey way, which is all about character strength, is imbued in a deep and enduring way.”
At first, Grace didn’t make it easy on her mother. Grace felt overwhelmed by the rules she had to learn, such as putting away her toys or sweeping the floor.
“I’m too little,” Grace tearfully told her mother on one of their weekly phone chats in August. “I thought I was grown up, but I’m not.”
Her new home
In class and at home, Grace made progress.
“Grace participates well in whole group settings and is eager to answer questions and learn new things,” her teacher, Lisa Rundle, wrote to Louann in September.
She was well behaved and made friends easily. For show-and-tell, one student brought in a stuffed animal that she had named after Grace. During recess, Grace played with most of the eight students in the class.
As the students chose seats before science class, one girl told her: “I’m sitting next to you because you’re the bestest girl.”
At the student home, one girl nicknamed her “Giggle Gracie” because of her frequent giggling fits. Since she was the youngest, the girls looked at Grace like a little sister, houseparent Linda Van Scoyoc said.
She was becoming more affectionate, initiating hugs with the Van Scoyocs instead of simply allowing them. She had no problems falling asleep.
Initially, she shared a room with her sister Hannah. But Grace was relying on Hannah too much, rarely leaving her, so they were separated three weeks later.
And Grace missed her mom. After each visit with Louann, Grace would struggle to readjust to the home. She’d cry after getting off the phone with her mom.
“They have to grow up fast sometimes,” Linda Van Scoyoc said.
The Van Scoyocs have been houseparents for 26 years but have never had a child as young as Grace. They have two children themselves, one of whom lives at the home.
Their purpose isn’t to replace Grace’s parents, but the children need to feel at home and feel loved, Linda Van Scoyoc said.
Linda Van Scoyoc gathers them before dinner each night to read them a Christian-themed story. They hold hands in a circle and pray before their meal. Over dinner, the girls meticulously follow table manners. They get ice cream and cookies for dessert only if they’ve been displaying good behavior that week.
As it approaches 7 p.m., Grace climbs into Linda Van Scoyoc’s lap in the living room for a bedtime story. Grace brushes her teeth, and they walk back to Grace’s room.
There, Linda Van Scoyoc tucks her in, prays with her and turns out the lights.
Back in Shiremanstown
Home for a long Thanksgiving break, Grace was playing with her sisters better and not talking as much, Louann said.
She was more willing to help and less whiny, Louann said. As Diana played on her own and Hannah watched “Hannah Montana” on TV, Grace joyfully played with her room full of toys.
At night, Hannah and Grace fell asleep with Louann. After Grace fell asleep, Louann carried her back to her own bed.
Around 2 a.m., Louann heard the pitter-patter of feet. Grace returned to the room and squeezed between her sister and mother.
Grace excitedly talked about her friends, houseparents and teachers while she was at home.
When it was time for Grace to return to school, she and her mom hugged, kissed, said “I love you” and parted ways again. For the first time, Grace didn’t cry.
“I know the school is a good place, and I know everything is wonderful, but she’s my baby,” Louann said.
“I know someday she’s going to tell me it was the best thing I ever did for her.”
INFOBOX:ABOUT THE MILTON HERSHEY SCHOOLThe Derry Twp. school for disadvantaged children was created by the town’s founder, Milton S. Hershey.
* WHAT IT PROVIDES: Free education, housing, medical care, clothing and food for the students, whose families must show need. The school spends $76,000 per student per year.
* ENROLLMENT: About 1,700, and the school has pledged to increase enrollment to 2,000 by 2012.
* WHERE THEY’RE FROM: Last year, 28 percent of the students came from Dauphin, Lebanon and Lancaster counties. Three of four students are from Pennsylvania.
* HOUSING: The children live in homes with eight to 12 other students, with a set of full-time houseparents in charge.
* THE STAFF: About 1,000 full-time employees.
* THE HIERARCHY: It’s mandated by Milton Hershey’s deed of trust. The Milton Hershey School Trust owns 30 percent of The Hershey Co., the candy-making company, and fully owns the Hershey Entertainment & Resorts Co., which runs Hersheypark, among other properties.
The Milton Hershey School Trust is run by the Hershey Trust Co., which makes private investments and runs the nonprofit M.S. Hershey Foundation. That foundation runs the Hershey Theatre, the Hershey Museum, the Hershey Gardens and the Hershey Community Archives. The Hershey Trust Co. is worth $8 billion and is intended to keep the school running forever.