"In the late '60s, a woman who had tried to commit suicide three times stood in a prayer line in Chicago, weeping and asking God for something special.
"Before the young minister prayed for her, he said, 'Sister, I have never heard of anyone asking God for what you are asking him. You are asking him for a house for children no one wants.
"But the minister said God would give her that house. A house sitting on a hill."
"The woman was Doris Jordan, and she and her husband, Rev. Shole Jordan, found an old farmhouse on 59 acres of high ground in Momence, where they filled it with foster children -- children no one wanted. They were my parents."
That's how Vurnice Maloney begins her life story. The founder of Garden of Prayer Youth Center — which culminated from her parent's farm — Maloney has had an intangible effect on youth. She's graceful and humble, with a smile as big as her heart. And she believes she was put on this earth to help people, particularly at-risk kids. She is YES magazine's 2017 Woman of the Year.
At age 74, she is the mother of two adult children, Michael and Marcus, and two adopted children, Reginald Kennedy and Jeremy Patton, and is grandmother to three. But she has raised hundreds of kids during the years.
The Garden of Prayer Youth Center is the only African American social services and child welfare agency in Kankakee County, providing housing for homeless teens, individual and group therapy, mentoring, tutoring, job readiness, life skills training, after-school programs, social recreation and therapeutic respite.
They have five locations: three early education/day care centers in Kankakee, Aroma Park and Hopkins Park; the Momence Farm group home; and the C.A.R.F. accredited Jordan Community Center HOPE Behavioral Health in Kankakee.
"It's definitely a calling and you can never get enough money for it because after a while money doesn't matter," Maloney said. "It's people that matter. ... It's all about letting them know there's somebody who cares."
An ordained minister, registered nurse and licensed foster parent, she has developed and written grants for five agency programs, including My 2nd Home, Youth in Crisis and Teen Reach. Garden of Prayer was voted the most comprehensive after school program in Illinois by the After School Alliance Network in 2010. They were given the Governor's Home Town Award and Governor's Cup Award in 2004. The Department of Children and Family Services gave them a Program Excellence Award for the My 2nd Home program in 2000, which aimed to prevent child abuse with therapeutic services, family counseling, group therapy, mentoring and respite to families. She said My 2nd Home, which ended in 2010, kept 19 kids from returning to DCFS.
"We can't save every child," she said, but that doesn't stop her from trying.
Maloney was born in Mississippi. She has two sisters and a brother, along with four other siblings by adoption. Her parents were sharecroppers. She attended a one-room schoolhouse and remembers picking cotton at 6 years old.
When she was 12, they moved to Chicago, and in 1978, her parents secured that farm in Momence. It was in deplorable condition, and during the years, repairs topped $300,000, some done their own money and some with grants. Her parents started a summer camp there, bringing church groups from all over so kids could experience life on a working farm.
"My parents would open their doors to whoever," she said.
Maloney attended Thornton Nursing School in Harvey and received her bachelor's degree in mental health from Governors State University. She worked at St. Francis Hospital in Blue Island, the Tinley Park Mental Health Center and, in 1974 after she moved to Momence, Shapiro Developmental Center until 1993, the last four years as a director overseeing a staff of 80.
That year, her parents retired and left the farm to her and her sister. Maloney knew she wanted to help kids but didn't know how she and her family would survive giving up her full-time job at Shapiro. She asked her husband, secretly hoping he would say no. But he responded: "If God wants you to ..."
So, she left Shapiro, and Garden of Prayer officially was named. During the years it grew, offering more and more services. They restructured with the mission of improving the well-being of at-risk kids, adults and families by providing educational and mental health services that puts them on a pathway of success. It received a nonprofit status in 1995 and in 2005 became a licensed child welfare agency through the state of Illinois.
Garden of Prayer helps kids and families in so many ways. Maloney tells the story about taking a young man to get his driver's license, which allowed him to secure a job. And the single mother of three, all of whom had been diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Garden of Prayer provided her with a mentor and therapist. Today, one of the kids is a doctor, another went into the service and the third just graduated high school.
Although they get funding from various state agencies and grants, keeping the doors open always has been a problem. There were times Maloney wasn't sure she could keep Garden of Prayer going. She flipped to a page in her Bible where she once wrote, "I have 32 kids and no food." That day, a truck showed up at the farm with food, a donation from a local minister.
"Even when funds stopped, we kept going," she said. Somehow — often with her own money — they have been able to continue their mission.
'I can see change'
The day cares, after-school programs and behavior health services Garden of Prayer provides are important to the community, but the Farm House always will be near and dear to Maloney's heart. It has spots for nine at-risk young men, with a staff of 18 to 20 working various shifts: therapists, a program manager, floor staff, case manager and Maloney serving as nurse.
The goal is to transition them into adulthood. The boys are expected to take care of the house, go to school and carry their grades and volunteer. One of the traditions has been to produce a Christmas dinner for the older adults at Presence St. Mary's adult day care in Kankakee.
There have been four generations of kids who have gone through the Farm House, and Maloney said part of its success has come from the family environment boys are exposed to, as opposed to the cold feeling of institutionalized care. Maloney lives right next to the farm with her husband, Franklin, and visits every day.
"A kid can't survive without a family," she said. "To be a home — [it's like ] mama's there. I'm still next door. They see me as Mom."
They cook together, laugh together and overcome struggles together. Maloney fusses over the boys when they're getting ready for prom. She tells them when their behavior isn't acceptable. And while the Farm House is funded by DCFS, Maloney said no amount of money will save these children. The only thing that will is love. They just want someone to care.
Some of the boys don't make it, but most do, graduating high school and even college. There also have been a number of men, such as Allen Cook, of Momence, who grew up through the program and are now employees of Garden of Prayer. Cook is a social worker at the Farm House.
"What keeps me going is when I can see change in the kids," she said.
Maloney served as executive director from 1995 until 2006, when son Michael took over. But she remains active in the organization, as well as numerous community organizations. She has been involved with the Kankakee Juvenile Justice Council, Aunt Martha's You Services, Pledge for Life Partnerships and many others. She and her husband, also an ordained minister, used to hold Sunday services for inmates at Statesville and Joliet correctional centers in Will County.
Maloney said they are working on opening a group home for girls, something she's been praying about for eight years, ever since the night she drove a young girl home from a Garden of Prayer program. They pulled into the driveway and the girl grumbled, "Oh, no. He's here," referring to her mother's boyfriend. There was no reading between the lines. It was all Maloney had to hear.
"We need a second house, for girls," she said. And just like He always has, she said, God has begun to provide what's necessary for one. They have a building secured and are beginning to look for funding.
Maloney said she couldn't do it without her large and loving staff who work just as hard and passionately to help at-risk kids and families. And that life story? It's part of the book she's writing, cultivated from journals she's kept during the years and her Bible inscriptions written next to scriptures.
"When I read it, it builds up my faith to continue," Maloney said.