Hephzibah is celebrating its 125th anniversary celebration with a series of stories about the children and families whose lives were transformed by our programs and services, as well as some of the “Hephzibah Heroes” who help make our mission possible. We hope you find these stories as inspiring as we do!
Peter Murphy, the subject of this story, talks about his journey from an orphaned five-year-old in foster care to a beloved residential counselor who has helped more than 2,000 other vulnerable youngsters find hope and healing at Hephzibah Home.
The year was 1982 and it was shaping up to be the worst year ever for five-year-old Peter and his older siblings John, Marita and Anne Marie, who had just lost their single adoptive mom, Elizabeth, to pneumonia.
Peter, now 46, remembers that loss vividly. He and Anne Marie had been at home watching Bozo’s Circus with Elizabeth when her breathing became labored. After a fierce bout of coughing, she looked over at her youngest child and whispered his name. Peter looked up at her and they locked eyes.
“Then she passed over,” he says quietly more than four decades later. “It was the first time I felt emptiness.”
In the aftermath of their mother’s death, the four orphaned youngsters were placed in temporary foster and group homes. The children were all in good hands, but they were reeling from the death of their mom and the loss of the comforting presence of their siblings. When night fell, they lay alone in unfamiliar beds, wondering if they’d ever be together again.
“I felt so lost at the time,” Peter confides. “My temporary foster family was very kind and loving, but I missed my brother and sisters terribly.”
Meanwhile, Mary Anne Brown, Hephzibah’s executive director at the time, was also lying awake at night worrying about the sibling group’s future. The children had just been referred to Hephzibah for placement through the agency’s newly launched Foster Care and Adoption program and Peter was now living at Hephzibah Home. Would she have to split up the siblings permanently to find them forever families? She had to find a better way.
Brown mentioned the children’s plight to her friends, Dennis and Bunny Murphy, who had already adopted three children. Although Peter, John, Marita and Anne Marie were not related by blood, the Murphys felt that the children should be placed in the same foster/adoptive home because they’d been living together as a family before Elizabeth’s death. When Brown voiced her concern that it would be difficult to find a foster family willing to adopt and raise all four children together, Dennis and Bunny Murphy said quietly, “We will do it.”
FROM HEARTBREAK TO HAPPINESS
Those four simple words changed the lives of four extremely vulnerable youngsters and forged Hephzibah’s first forever family.
“I still remember the day that Mary Anne Brown drove me over to the Murphys’ house in her yellow convertible to introduce me to my new family,” says Peter. “I was the first of the siblings to arrive. When we pulled up in front of the house, a child jumped out of the bushes and ran toward me, screaming ‘I have a new brother! I have a new brother!’ That was Michael, one of the three children who had already been adopted by the Murphys.”
That joyous greeting caused something to shift inside of the five-and-a-half-year-old, dislodging the grief that had blunted his other emotions. Peter describes it as the moment when everything began to change for the better.
“I had always been an active, outgoing kid. But during the six-month period after my mom died and before the Murphys took us in, I had become kind of an ‘inward’ person,” he explains. “I wasn’t able to process what had happened to me or put the hurt into words, so I spent a lot of time alone, throwing a ball up in the air and catching it for hours on end, day after day.”
Michael Murphy’s enthusiastic welcome reawakened Peter’s innate optimism and zest for life.
“I felt that warm, happy feeling again,” he confides. “Those feelings of love and acceptance that I’d felt before my mom died came flooding back when Michael jumped out of the bushes. I leaped out of the back of the convertible and I was just a little boy again, excited and happy and ready to have some fun.”
When Peter’s siblings arrived, his happiness was complete.
“I was thrilled that we were all together again. But I was also excited to be a Murphy because I felt loved and accepted. I had everything I needed and wanted—and I knew that I was home.”
Today, Peter and his siblings see Dennis and Bunny Murphy as the stabilizing force in their lives. So it makes sense that Peter is carrying on their good works by serving as a stabilizing force for other vulnerable youngsters as a residential counselor at Hephzibah Home.
Peter found his way back to Hephzibah at the age of 19—purely by chance.
“I was a Triton College student at the time and I was riding the CTA Green Line train from Ridgeland Avenue to Harlem,” he says. “I was studying for a test later that day and I happened to look up from my textbook just as the train passed a building with a lot of windows. The building looked familiar, but I didn’t know why. So I got off the train to check it out.”
As he climbed the stairs of Hephzibah Home and opened the red brick building’s double white doors, that vague sense of recognition began to coalesce into a memory.
“I was immediately hit by a comforting smell that I remembered from a long time ago—a smell that I associated with home-cooked food, happiness and warmth,” says Peter. “I asked the woman at the front desk what kind of a place this was. She told me it was Hephzibah Home, and I said, ‘I think I used to live here.’”
He left his name and phone number with the receptionist, asked if “the boss” could give him a call and headed back out through the double doors.
“I had walked maybe 50 steps when I heard someone calling my name,” he recalls. “When I turned around and saw Mary Anne Brown, the memories came flooding back—and the tears started flowing.
“Mary Anne took me back inside, we chatted for a while in her office and she asked me what I was doing with my life. I told her that I was going to Triton to become a PE teacher or coach and she asked me, ‘Well, do you want to work here instead?’ I began working for Hephzibah two weeks later.”
That was 26 years ago. Today, when Peter talks about his work caring for young survivors of severe neglect and abuse at Hephzibah Home, it’s obvious that he sees his work as a calling.
“Within six months, I knew it wasn’t just a job anymore,” he says. “It was a way to help other children in the same way that Hephzibah and the Murphys had helped me.
“Dennis and Bunny filled the emptiness that I felt after my mom died in so many ways,” he adds. “My mom was always cooking and my dad was always riding bikes and playing sports with us. They taught me to be the person I am today: self-disciplined, gentlemanly and noncombative. Even their discipline was gentle. If I broke a rule or had a bad day, they would say, ‘Tomorrow, make sure you do better’ as they tucked me into bed at night.
“That’s the kind of person I try to be with the children at Hephzibah Home. I have so much empathy for these children. The only thing that I don’t have in common with them is the neglect and abuse. But I remember the feelings of loss and sadness in the months after my first adoptive mom died. That’s what the children at Hephzibah Home go through every single day.”
After more than two decades of helping traumatized children heal, Peter allows that the work can be intense.
“Once I go through the doors of Hephzibah Home, my own life is no longer important because I have 10 different spirits and identities to listen to, love and support. The minute I arrive, I hear the kids screaming ‘Peter!’ and then they are all jumping on me at once. I’ll have two kids hanging on my ankles and more hanging from my arms and I’ll pretend to be King Kong for a couple of minutes to make them laugh and then say, ‘Okay, guys, I’m happy to see you too.’ Like every member of Hephzibah’s child care staff, I am totally here for the kids, to give them someone to laugh with and learn from and, when necessary, a shoulder to cry on. This is a really emotional job. If you can’t deal with emotions on an hour-to-hour or sometimes minute-to-minute basis, this job isn’t for you.”
“Every time Pete comes into work, he changes the mood,” says Program Coordinator Regina Harbor. “His energy is always happy and jolly. He’s a jokester and a fun person to be around. Whenever he’s working with children who are struggling, he goes in with that positive energy and the kids often forget why they were angry or sad. If those feelings persist, they will open up to him and tell him what’s going on.”
Peter’s own early hardships—from the loss of his biological parents to the death of his first adoptive mom—also give the children hope. When they hear Peter’s story, they often feel less alone and more optimistic about the future because this cheerful, compassionate, playful adult is evidence that hard times aren’t forever and happy endings are still possible.
“I think that being a ‘Hephzibah kid’ has helped Pete learn patience and really get down and help these kids on a different level,” notes Harbor. “I’ve seen him share tears and parts of his own story with the children when they are in crisis. This has helped them open up to him so that they can process their feelings. Pete builds relationships with these kids that continue long after they leave Hephzibah Home.”
“I’ve been where they are, so I really appreciate and admire these kids for their strength and their ability to keeping moving forward, despite their losses,” Peter confirms. “I was 12 or 13 years old before I began to process my grief about Elizabeth’s passing. The Murphys really shored me up during that time. Just like the Murphys did with me, I try to shore up the children at Hephzibah Home as they grieve their losses and show them that they, too, can heal and do amazing things with their lives.
“Every evening, before I leave to go home, I tell each child, ‘I believe in you. You did a good job today and tomorrow can be even better. Always keep your head up and stay positive and shine bright on your path.’ I’m always trying to think of new ways to share the love and support I got from Hephzibah and the Murphys with the next generation.”
MAKE A GIFT
For 125 years, Hephzibah Children’s Association has helped children thrive and families flourish. Your donation today will make a difference in a child’s life and allow us to continue to help children heal and families succeed. Please give a gift at https://www.hephzibahhome.org/hephzibah-holiday-challenge-2022/