"UCAN is very close to her heart, and I remember growing up and hearing my mother tell stories about it all the time," explains Myra Epping when speaking of her mother, Jo Epping, UCAN therapeutic youth home camp director from 1944 to 1947.
"My mom and dad met while going to school at the University of Illinois. My parents got married in Baltimore and when my dad shipped out for the war, my mom decided to move to Chicago. I always remember her telling us how happy she was working at UCAN," Myra says. "When I think back on the camp and realize that it was just her and the kids out in the country, with no car or means of communication, I realize now it must have been an amazing experience."
UCAN's Therapeutic Youth Home was very different back then. Jo remembers that some of the children's parents were in prison or had died, and that other children had been placed there because their parents simply could not take care of them. It was difficult to get staff because better paying jobs were available at manufacturing plants. Most of the staff members were elderly. Jo remembers her first day: "There was this young boy at the home who came into the dining hall and just stared at me. He had never seen such a young woman working at the home before." Jo says that children at the home treated her as a mother figure, and, "I truly cared about them."
Jo took the children to Three Oaks Camp in Koontz Lake, Ind. for three months each summer. (The camp at that time was owned by UCAN, but was sold in the 1950s). She took the children to camp in shifts, with the boys in the first half of the summer and the girls in the second half. There was a camp cook, and Jo had a small team of older boys who would help her with chores and tasks. The camp kitchen did not have a working oven, so Jo used a discarded gasoline stove that had an oven to bake muffins and pies with the kids. She also came up with the idea of building a barbecue pit out of leftover bricks, and remembers that the children enjoyed grilled cheese sandwiches made on it. For entertainment, Jo sometimes took the children to a theatre three to four miles away, while other times they would play Monopoly or swim and row boats in the lake.
One of the boys at the camp named David (names have been changed to protect identity). "He was very special to me and helped me out with chores." Jo was reunited with David some years back when he found her through a local newspaper. Myra explains, "My parents moved to St. Louis, and she got a call one day from a former student at UCAN, who asked if she was the same Jo who had worked at UCAN. She put David in touch with my mother. We realized that for [these people], she was an important person for them when they were children. She is in touch with them and it is a very precious connection."
Jo recalled being at the camp on VJ Day, the day that Japan surrendered and World War II came to an end; that day, boys from the camp returned from town and announced the end of the war. For Jo it was an extra special day because she knew her husband would be home soon.
Jo left UCAN in December 1947 when she and Jack decided to start a family. After having Myra, she went back to school in 1966 at the age of 50 to get her master's in social work from George Williams College in Downers Grove (today the University of Aurora). When she moved with her husband to St. Louis, she started working as a psychiatric private practitioner, and later held public speaking events at schools. Her husband of 60 years died a few years ago, so Jo moved back to Chicago.
Myra feels her mother has a special connection with children. "She leaves a mark on people." Further, "Her face lights up when she talks about UCAN; all those children live in her heart," Myra explains. It seems she lives in theirs as well.