It sounds like a Louisa May Alcott novel: A devout Christian husband and wife open their home and their hearts to take in a few abandoned children. Money is tight, but no one is ever turned away, even if it means some of the boys have to sleep in a tent in the back yard.
The story isn't set in Civil War-era Massachusetts, but in Juneau, with a 70-year time span.
Lyle and Helen "Aunty" Johnson founded the Juneau Children's Home in 1930, taking in half a dozen children whose parents couldn't care for them. The home endured some 30 years after Aunty's death, though its name changed to the Alaska Youth Village. Over the years, others stepped in to take the reins of the home, which was supported by the Assemblies of God until it closed in 2000.
On Sunday, about 60 people came from around the state and country for a reunion. Some lived in the home as children, others served as staff.
Evelyn Peterson and her husband Gus ran the home after Aunty's death, from 1964 to 1968. The Petersons flew in from Seattle to attend the gathering.
Speaking to the crowd, Evelyn recalled the anticipation of Christmas and how she and Gus encouraged the children to make wish lists, hoping that they'd be able to grant all the requests. One year, 26 children asked for bicycles.
"I thought, who's going to send us bicycles?" she remembered, shaking her head.
But the wish lists, which were always made months in advance, went out to Assemblies of God parishes down south, and in late October, bicycles began arriving.
Come Christmas Eve, it was Evelyn's task to put names on the bikes.
"We had the exact number of girls' bicycles that was on the list and we had the exact number of boys' bicycles on the list," she said tearfully. "You know, every week the Lord answered one prayer, and even when we didn't pray and we needed it."
The home grew from 19 children to 48 in the four years the Petersons ran it. On Sundays, the whole family would troop to the Bethel Assemblies of God church.
"They loved to go because they had special Sunday clothes," Evelyn said. "They did not look different from any other child."
The clothes came from mission barrels sent by other churches, and most were brand new.
"The Assemblies of God supplemented us so that we could survive," she said.
She said while she was at the home, the state contributed $90 per month for all teenage children, and $45 per month for the younger ones. The home had children from age 4 through 18.
Jean Hughes, Lyle and Aunty Johnson's daughter, flew in for the reunion from Soldotna with her husband, Edward, who was one of the first children Lyle and Aunty took in.
Edward Hughes' mother was blind and deaf, and his stepfather abandoned the family.
"We spent a lot of nights without supper, went off to school without breakfast, stayed in school all day without lunch. So I'd go downtown and steal an orange or a candy bar because I was hungry," said Edward, now an Assemblies of God minister. "The greatest thing that happened was when my mother went to the hospital."
That's when the Johnsons took in Edward and his siblings.
"He likes to joke that we've been married for 55 years and lived together for 65, and doesn't explain it," Jean Hughes said.
Dave Dapcevich came to the reunion as a former resident and a former staff member.
Before Dapcevich, now a Sitka accountant, arrived at the Juneau Children's Home in 1957, he couldn't depend on a cooked meal, clean sheets, or even a roof over his head. He was 8 years old, and his father was a single parent. Dapcevich doesn't like talking about what circumstances led him to the home, but did say that he and his brother had caused the family to be evicted more than once.
"I was a handful," he said.
Dapcevich only spent three months at the home in 1957, coming back for a seven-month stay in 1960. And like many of the children at the home, he resented his new caretakers.
"It's a painful thing for kids. The kids always blamed (their troubles) on the home. We wanted to believe in the parents," he said.
But something stuck, enough that in 1975, wanting to give back to the home, he returned as a staff member for three years.
"There was a stability here that I longed for later in life," Dapcevich said.
Masha Herbst can be reached at email@example.com.
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