Joanne Westafer’s childhood was like a fairytale, filled with long summer days outdoors and stretches of homegrown vegetables and roaming chickens in her backyard. It was a “happy, yet simple time” that she still remembers vividly today at age 88.
Joanne’s father was a “busy-body” who devoted his time and energy to her and her two younger brothers. He hung hammocks and swings among the locust trees on their property and cooked the family big breakfasts as a weekend surprise. At all hours of the day and night, he worked tirelessly on the railroad to prevent his family from suffering, as many others did, from the effects of the Great Depression. There were only 500 houses in Joanne’s small town, and her parents, who were both very active in the community, knew just about everyone who lived inside them.
Joanne says she gets her curiosity for other people and for how things work from her father. Although he only attended school until the fourth grade, he had a strong desire to learn. Any problem he faced, he had the patience to solve. He built their family home himself and even learned from his children.
“Each day after school, he made us sit down and tell him what we learned,” Joanne recalls. “He read to us every night, even when we were old enough to read to him. I had great, easy-going parents. As long as you behaved yourself, you were okay.”
Tragically, Joanne’s world was turned upside down when her father was killed in a train wreck when she was just 14 years old. Eighteen months later, her mother died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving Joanne and her siblings, ages 12 and 4, orphaned.
“It was the day before Easter,” Joanne recalls. “We were preparing things when she suddenly got sick and had pain. I called the doctor, and they sent an ambulance. Then, I called up my uncle to see if he and my aunt could come get my brothers and me. They said, ‘No.’”
What Joanne did next was remarkable for a young girl, just a glimpse into her new life, which would be filled with more responsibilities than a child should have to face.
“I packed up the boys, took our ration books, bought bus tickets and showed up at their doorstep,” Joanne said. “I said, ‘Here we are.’”
When Joanne walked into the living room of her uncle’s home, she discovered her mother had died.
“I was stunned,” she said. “It’s like I was living in a book.”
For the next three months, Joanne and her brothers stayed at their uncle and aunt’s home in Harrisburg, which was very different from their own “country way” of living. In addition, her uncle was quite opposite of the male role model she was used to.
“In three months, he spoke to me once,” Joanne said.
Looking back, she realizes that her cousins were grown and her aunt and uncle weren’t looking for more children to raise. Fortunately, in an effort to find placement for the children, Joanne’s uncle and aunt found the children’s home and dropped them off in 1945.
“My uncle never let us back in the house again,” Joanne recalls.
Ripped away from everything she knew, Joanne was the oldest girl to have entered the children’s home at the time. She immediately decided to give it a chance, not only for her brothers, but also because she knew they didn’t have many other options. “I adjusted very quickly,” she said. “At the time, there were orphanages, which were terrible.”
Joanne remembers noticing how well the other children were taken care of. In fact, her first roommate had braces, which to her, was unheard of. The children’s home provided Joanne with much-needed glasses and regular dental checkups. Most importantly, “I always felt safe,” she said.
Each day, the cook in each building rang a gong at 6 a.m., and the children did their morning chores before breakfast. Then, as a group, they walked to school in town. At lunchtime, Joanne remembers walking home for a quick bite to eat, then completing other small chores like washing tea towels. Evenings consisted of dinnertime and studying that was supervised by her matron (what is now referred to as a house parent), Miss Bashore. Thanks to the dedicated study time, all the girls had excellent grades, and report cards were hung inside the front door of the building.
Joanne fondly remembers the meals served at the children’s home and describes herself as one of the “biggest eaters” in the group. “We ate like horses,” she said.
At that time, all the food the children ate was grown or butchered on the property. She remembers sitting around big, round tables with the other children and eating freshly-baked angel food cake with fruit from the orchard as a special treat on Sundays.
“Once your initial fears wear off, it’s home,” Joanne recalls. “I feel that who I became was because of that place. They really looked after us.”
Joanne did wish there was one thing provided to her at the children’s home, and that was grief support. While today’s children are offered therapeutic sessions with a staff social worker, Joanne didn’t have the same luxury to help her properly grieve.
After completing her schooling through the children’s home, Joanne decided to attend college at nearby Millersville University. Her degree was paid for by the children’s home and a trust fund set up by her father.
Joanne bravely chose to major in biology, which not only challenged her mentally, but also challenged the status quo of that time. She was one of the only females in the major. During the summers, Joanne returned to the children’s home and worked in one of the dining rooms on campus.
After graduation, she married a young man, her late husband Jack, who she knew from high school, and had three children. Later, after studying to become a certified reading specialist, Joanne taught in the Elizabethtown Area School District, where current children’s home residents attend school, for 28 years.
After retirement, she and Jack welcomed three grandsons. Jack carefully listened when Joanne spoke about her past, and the two financially supported the children’s home with whatever they could give at the time for all 60 years of their marriage.
Joanne came home once again to Masonic Village with Jack in 1999.
As a child, one of her biggest chores was to clean the railings of the stairwell, along with its 12 flights of stairs, in the girls’ building. That building was converted into resident apartments after the children’s home moved to its current location in the 1990s. “When I came to live here, one of the first things I did was look in that building to see if the stairwell was still clean,” Joanne said. “It was. I can’t imagine a place that is better for the children and for the elderly than this.”
Joanne and Jack enjoyed several years of carefree living in their cottage before Jack passed away suddenly. Soon after, Joanne lost one of her brothers to Alzheimer’s.
When reflecting on how she has processed the losses she has experienced since childhood, Joanne says she simply had the drive to keep going.
“You have to keep going and to make the most of every day you can,” Joanne says. “When those things happen, you just accept it. You have to keep living. I know that if I kept carrying on after my husband died, he would say, ‘What’s wrong with you?’”
Joanne says her life events have made her “bull-headed,” but to anyone who meets her, it’s clear the tragedies she’s overcome have made her an inspiration.