The School with Heart

updated 11/28/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/28/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

Thanksgiving is almost here, and 12-year-old Taylor Krimm is eagerly anticipating pumpkin pie, a house full of kids and a family tradition of trimming the Christmas tree. "I can't wait," she says. "Our tree is huge. It's so much fun to put the light up at the top."

It's a classic American scene—only Taylor's home isn't like most others, and her story is anything but typical. An orphan since age 5, she was shuttled between relatives for most of her young life. A year ago, however, she came to Mooseheart, an unusual residential school in the Fox River Valley, 40 miles west of Chicago, where kids whose families can't take care of them get a shot at success and a place to call home. In Taylor's case, that means living in a two-story Colonial-style house with 10 other students and three "family teachers"—Jo Wolz and Pete and Alice Daneels, paid by the school's sponsor, the fraternal order Moose International, to provide for their daily care.

But the Daneelses and other Mooseheart family teachers do much more. "We tell them this is a place to feel safe and loved," says Alice, 28. "We have family-style dinners and talk about school, the news and everything that's happening around Mooseheart. We go to a pumpkin patch in the fall, give them their own Christmas ornaments." Indeed, it's that focus on the little things—ordinary kindnesses most kids take for granted—that makes Mooseheart extraordinary, experts say. When 16-year-old Manseray Abdulahi was growing up in Africa, all she wanted was a doll—so every Christmas the couple get her a collector's doll, one of them an African princess Barbie.

The bonds forged in the Daneels home go beyond the usual school-day activities. One of Taylor's favorite pastimes, for example, is playing with the Daneelses'16-month-old son Josiah, whom she treats like a little brother. "She loves Josiah. She'll spend hours playing with him," Alice says. "We spend a lot of time with her, doing things when the older girls are doing things that are too mature for her."

Similar stories unfold in all 30 family homes, which house a total of 225 Mooseheart students—from a handful of toddlers through high school seniors—on a 1,000-acre campus. It's no holiday camp. The classwork combines a standard curriculum with vocational training, and the ambience is highly regimented, designed to bring order to children who have often grown up amid chaos in unstable homes, crime-ridden neighborhoods and foster care. Not surprisingly, many arrive with behavioral problems. "People will get here and just act like crap," says Jake Stegeman, 15, who has been at Mooseheart 15 months. "But I've noticed they get a lot better." Mooseheart treats problem kids with a heavy dose of tough love, combining affection and support with discipline, including a handbook that spells out 182 basic social skills—how to make an apology, how to take no for an answer. Students carry a 4-by-6 index card on which they accrue points for demonstrating social skills—to be traded for privileges like trips to town—and lose points for falling short. "I probably could do better," Jake admits. "I still get negatives."

Kids who still have family connections go home to relatives a few times a year and for two weeks during the summer. But for many, the strongest ties have nothing to do with blood. "My family teachers aren't my parents, but they look after me as parents," says Manseray, whose mother died in Liberia when she was 6. "When Alice is at my volleyball game, she's loud. She yells, 'Bump, set, spike that ball!' I consider her my mom. I don't really have that."

Students Share Their Stories

MANSERAY ABDULAHI, 16
CLASS OF 2008

Seven-year-old Manseray Abdulahi left war-torn Liberia with her father and two brothers after her mother died. Settling his family in Cedar Rapids. Iowa, her father, Gus, worked long hours as a nurse and feared that his unsupervised daughter and her two brothers—Karidu, 18, and Oumaru, 11—might fall prey to gangs and other bad influences. In the fall of 2002 he sent them to Mooseheart.

My dad got scared because our neighborhood was dangerous—someone got killed in front of our house. After school I'd just come home, eat, watch TV. It was hard. Then some Moose members told my dad about Mooseheart.

I was homesick when I first got here. Then I got used to it. It took a month. My family teachers are great. They cheer me up and play games with me. They care about you, look after you, tell you what's right and wrong. Back home I was a C student. Here I'm a high-B student. The family teachers and people around you help you with things you need. All the time, you have your head in a book.

I have a lot of goals. I want to be a doctor, a nurse or a chiropractor. For a while, my dad [who has since moved to North Carolina] wanted to take me out of here, but I told him I wanted to finish high school. I can achieve more here. After high school, I want to live with him while I go to college. He says he feels proud.

JAKE STEGEMAN, 15
CLASS OF 2008

Jake Stegeman was born in a Chicago suburb but lived a nomadic life with his crack-addict mother, who was eventually murdered. He doesn't know the whereabouts of his father. In July 2000 Jake was adopted by his grandparents. A school counselor described him as "impulsive, disrespectful and troubled." In August 2004 his grandparents sent him to Mooseheart.

My mom would just leave her crack pipes lying in the closet. Once—I was 6 or 7—I tried to smoke it. I went to school on and off. I got into fights. My mom wrote a letter telling me she was in rehab, and I said, "Oh, goody." But she ended up getting killed. My grandparents adopted me, but we always had arguments. Grades. Oooh, I remember some big fights about that. They expected a lot of me because my IQ is supposed to be high. I couldn't control my anger. I'd cuss out the teacher. When my grandparents started talking about Mooseheart, I agreed to go just to make them shut up.

But here I am. It's a good place. Maybe for the first few months it's a little rough. We have a book that teaches 182 skills for youth. You get four skills a month to work on, like following instructions, interacting with the opposite sex. In the short term, they kind of make you mad. But it really does help.

Halfway through my first year, I started to get some really good friends. Friends at Mooseheart are different; you live with them 24/7. They become your family. You can count on them because they're going through the same things you are. My behavior has gotten a lot better. I have a 3.4 GPA now. I plan to do something with English literature and writing. I don't know where I'd be right now if I wasn't in this place.

TAYLOR KRIMM, 12
CLASS OF 2012

Taylor Krimm came to Mooseheart in November 2004. The sixth-grader ranks first in her class and has earned many rewards for her schoolwork and behavior.

Before my parents died, I did whatever I wanted. Then, when I moved in with my aunt, I had to follow this and that rule. We fought all the time. I hit her last nerve.

At first I didn't want to be at Mooseheart. I had to get used to all these girls and three adults in the house. It's really a tight fit. Sometimes I don't like the chore board.

Back home I used to hang out with the wrong crowd; I had all the troublemaker friends. Here I hang out with a better crowd. When one friend started getting into trouble at school, the Daneelses told me to encourage her to be a better person—it's starting to work. My roommate and I spent about an hour decorating our room. I'm an animal lover, so I have posters of animals all over my room.

When I have free time, I go to the library. I'm a big bookworm—fantasy and mystery. I'm a really smart kid; I knew multiplication by the time I was in kindergarten. At Mooseheart I have more opportunities to get into advanced classes. The words are bigger than back at home. I want to be valedictorian. I want to go to Yale, and if I can't get into Yale, it's definitely going to be Princeton. I've wanted to be a horse trainer, but I've also wanted to be a teacher, actor and singer. I keep changing the dream.

Lauren Comander in Mooseheart,III.

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