Mercy Home for Boys & Girls will launch its “March for Kids” fundraising campaign at this Saturday’s Forest Park St. Patrick’s Day Parade. That’s only fitting. The home was founded by an Irish priest in 1887 with a mission to provide shelter to the many Irish street kids who roamed the city. 

There is another Irish connection to this year’s drive, which is being led by Molly Riley, who was manager and part-owner of Molly Malone’s Irish Pub from 2001-2006.

Riley signed up businesses along Madison Street to collect donations. She also mobilized about 50 volunteers, wearing their signature green and white aprons, to collect donations from parade-goers. They are passing out shamrock pins and stickers to those who give. Fundraising is crucial to Mercy Home, as almost 100% of their funds come from private donations.

Riley mentioned a suggested donation this Saturday of two dollars. The money raised will go toward the home’s $30 million-dollar annual budget. This money is used to provide full-time care for 80 boys at their facility at 1140 W. Jackson Blvd. in Chicago and for 40 girls at the former Walgreen mansion at 11600 Longwood Drive on the South Side.  

“With all the terrible things going on in the streets, Mercy Home is part of the solution,” said Riley. “We take kids from violent areas. Most are from the South and West sides.” Many of them are teenagers who have suffered, or witnessed, unspeakable trauma. “We help them feel like there’s hope in the world,” Riley said.

Coming to Mercy Home is completely voluntary for “kids who have decided to change their lives.” Many of them have to abide structured rules for the first time in their lives. The home provides them with college dorm-style rooms and three meals a day. They transport them to and from school and provide them with the counseling they need. The residents range in age from 11 to early-20s and the typical stay is two years. There is an aftercare program for those, age 18-22, who are transitioning to college and independent living.

“Some were homeless but many of the kids go on to successful careers,” Riley said. “Some are serving on our board.” Their inspiring stories of success against all odds are contained in the new book, Years of Mercy, written by the Rev. Scott Donahue, who has been president for 10 years. The book chronicles the incredible turnaround of young people who sought help at Mercy Home and found salvation.

“A lot of kids are coming from their grandparents,” Riley noted. “They’re struggling in school but want to succeed. Therapy helps them move forward from the trauma they’ve experienced. We help them recognize their gifts, to become more self-reliant and successful. We are guests in their home and get to know them. We’re very moved by their stories.”

Besides raising money, the March for Kids raises awareness of the many services Mercy Home offers. Riley hopes it leads people to tell others who might have a need for Mercy Home. “We must publicize Mercy Home,” Riley said, “because there are other kids out there who need help.”

March for Kids first came to the Forest Park St. Pat’s Parade in 2006. Since then, rain or shine, volunteers have hit Madison Street with their collection cans. Riley partnered with Radana Shanahan this year to recruit businesses to place collection containers inside their shops, restaurants and bars. 

For 130 years, Mercy Home has been there for every needy kid who had the courage to knock on the door.  

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.