About the Guest
He was one of the last "lifers" raised in an American orphanage. Businessman Rob Mitchell tells how his mentally unstable mother left him at an orphanage after his father abandoned them. Rob recalls the institution where he would spend the next 14 years, and the few people in his life then that showed him love and compassion.
He was one of the last “lifers” raised in an American orphanage.
Bob: Most children take it for granted the fact that they’re growing up in a home with at least a mother or a father if not both. Rob Mitchell took that for granted.
Rob: I was seven years old in second grade the night I lost hope. I remember clearly it was a bitter Illinois winter and I had to face the reality that night that my mother wasn’t normal. The doctors were not going to fix her. My father was never going to come back. No one was going to rescue me. When hope dies it’s a terrible horrible sound. When I finished crying I made a vow, no one is getting my heart again. I will be tough no matter what.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday August 12th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I am Bob Lepine. Today Rob Mitchell joins us to tell us about growing up in an orphanage as a castaway kid.
Welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. Don’t you think that if you grew up in a stable intact home you tend to take for granted what the benefit of that was to you growing up? You just tend to assume.
Dennis: No doubt about it. You don’t even know what others are missing. You may not have it all but you had enough pieces of the puzzle for the most part the picture emerges but for those who grew up in maybe a broken home or one where a father or mother were absent or taken from you by death. That can result in some people feeling the loss of some of the elements that an intact marriage and family supply for a child.
Bob: The story we are going to hear this week is one of those stories that gives us a picture of what happens when that foundation is not in place.
Dennis: That is right. I heard our guest Rob Mitchell a little over a year ago at the Orphan Care Summit V. Rob shared his story that’s found in the book Castaway Kid with about 750 folks.
Rob, I want to first of all welcome you to FamilyLife Today but also I want to tell you I sat listening to your story and I thought “Wow! What a call for a little boy at the age of three to have to endure and go through.” It wasn’t the way life was designed by God to be experienced. It really wasn’t. First of all welcome to the broadcast.
Rob: Thank you.
Dennis: I am glad you’re here. Take us back to when you were three years old and those first emotions that you felt around some of the most unbelievable circumstances that a three year old could possibly experience.
Rob: You know three year olds aren’t suppose to remember much but I’ve learned that kids in crisis, we either block it out, we never remember or we never forget. My father abandoned my mother and I in Chicago. Put a gun to his head, pulled the trigger, and blew out part of his brains.
A man with a master’s degree from prestige’s Northwestern University lived the next 26 years in a mental hospital. He could walk but he couldn’t talk. He could put food in his mouth but because of the bullet damage not always chew and swallow and put his pants on but not remember where and when to go to the bathroom.
Bob: Now did you witness him shooting himself?
Rob: I don’t have clear memory of that.
Bob: As a three year old you knew that something terrible had happened in your family.
Rob: Something was wrong...
Dennis: In his own background did he grow up in a home where there was a great deal of instability?
Rob: He grew up in a wealthy section of Atlanta in Buckhead. The family belonged to country clubs. He lived a privileged childhood.
Bob: So, what happened to him? Do you know?
Dennis: That caused this?
Rob: A lot of it was the stress of a very dysfunctional marriage. My mother had enormous emotional and psychological problems that she had masked. As you know in marriage those masks come down and three months after my father’s failed suicide attempt she drug me by train to Chicago, Illinois to Princeton, Illinois and abandoned me at an orphanage.
Bob: So at three years old you wind up at the front door at an orphanage and your mom says here is my son. What do you remember from that event?
Rob: Actually, I remember that day clearly. There were piles of snow on the ground. My mother’s dragging me faster than my three year old legs can walk. I am whimpering. I am scared. Something’s wrong. My mother’s yelling “Shut up, Robby. Shut up!”
She drags me up this big building and commands me to play with another boy with blocks. I reach for a block and he steals it. I reach for a block and he steals it. I turn to my mother for help and she’s gone.
A woman whose name and face I don’t remember says “Your mother’s sick Robby. She is taking a train back to Chicago. She will come get you when she’s well.” She didn’t say goodbye. She didn’t say I love you. She didn’t say I need some time to get my act together. She just disappeared.
The rest of that day I remember is just rising up with three year old clumsiness and just screaming, “No! No!” I ran to the nearest door but I’m too short and I don’t know where it goes anyway. This strange woman says “Quit crying or I’ll spank you.” I can’t quit crying. My mother has abandoned me. She picks me up and spanks me over and over and over again until the pain of being spanked is worse than the pain of being abandoned.
That night I wet the bed and she spanks me again. As punishment puts two brown rubber sheets on the bed and makes me lie between them all day long. I remember them being hot and they squeaked when I moved. I remember the voices of a strange little boy and strange boys at the place I was abandoned laughing at me because I was a peepy baby. Then my memories go blank for awhile.
Dennis: I want to go back here for a moment because today for the most part we don’t have a lot of orphanages. This was how many years ago?
Rob: This was 1958.
Dennis: Across the nation the Christian community had provided a great number of orphanages to care for what really has become the foster care system, I suppose.
Rob: Yes. The number of whether they are called orphanages or children’s homes or residential care units had plummeted greatly. For reasons I can’t explain and I’m not being bitter on it the Church seemed to have walked away from this kind of ministry starting in the 80s and 90s. I don’t know if they were abdicating to the Department of Social Services but the numbers of units according to Focus on the Family are half of what they were 40 years ago.
Dennis: There was a woman in your life who was safe. Her name was Gigi.
Dennis: What did she do to communicate love to you?
Rob: I was my mother’s only child and my mother was Gigi’s only child. Gigi was a very poor woman in Chicago. She worked in the great Marshall Field’s department store down on State Street. She had a two room apartment in Chicago not a two bedroom, a two room.
People like my mother play weird power games that nobody can understand from the outside so she did not even tell her mother where I was. I don’t know how long it took Gigi to find me but Gigi would take the train and come down once a week to see me for years.
The whole thing was almost a 14 hour process. Gigi saw herself as to old and poor to raise me. The honest truth is she was afraid of my mother as well. If Gigi had me my mother would have hammered her when she was on the streets. I didn’t realize that till much later in life. What Gigi did give me was some consistency of love. What I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt is that Gigi prayed for me zealously. I thought it was the exercise of a foolish woman for many years but I knew she prayed for me zealously.
Bob: She would come to visit you and then get back on the train and go back to Chicago. That would seem almost like a weekly dawning of hope followed by a weekly crash of disappointment.
Rob: It was. It was like a weekly abandonment. She didn’t see herself as strong enough to deal with me but I have clear memories of crying over and over again and saying “Please take me with you. I’ll be a good boy! I won’t eat much. Just don’t leave me here!” At least I had somebody who loved me but it was very, very hard to frame as a kid. “If you love me why are you leaving me?”
Bob: What was your routine like living in an orphanage from the time you were three?
Rob: There are two adjectives that describe growing up in an orphanage: very regimented and desperately lonely. The bell rang at seven but before the bell rang a wonderful dorm mother named Nola came into our lives and she would get up every morning and go to the closet and lay out the clothes for the boys she had.
There is a photograph in my book Castaway Kid of twelve little boys. I am the four year old on the left and if readers will notice I have rolled up pant legs and suspenders as do half the boys because every day we wore somebody else’s clothes. Kids like us are abandoned with nothing but the clothes on our back.
It’s a level of poverty that still exists in America. Most of the children’s homes I visit and talk to the kids have what they call the locker room. The bell would ring at seven. There were 10 to 16 little boys’ age three to ten on any given day stampede to the bathroom, two toilets, it wasn’t pretty.
Rob: Clamor in the locker room, get dressed. I remember Nola telling me once that she would have eight, nine, ten year old boys so traumatized they did not know to tie their shoes. We would line up like a ragtag army, punching and shoving. Breakfast at 7:30 a.m.; lunch is noon; cookies and juice after school; Supper is 5:30 then they lock the kitchen. So if you’re hungry at 8 o’clock at night, tough! Drink tap water.
Bob: So, did you go off to school?
Rob: We went to public schools.
Bob: Then back to the orphanage when it was done?
Bob: What was it like being a public school kid when everybody knows you live in the orphanage?
Rob: It’s one of the struggles and there are bullies everywhere in the world. On every school ground in the world and bullies want to put you down in order to lift themselves up. Kids like us are easy targets.
My first early memory of being singled out actually was from the teachers. You would walk into a room; they would look for your folder and say “Who are you?” I am Robby Mitchell. They pick the folder up and look inside and say “Oh!” Kids like us hate “Oh!” because it says all the things we don’t want to hear. “Oh, you’re one of them.”
We got in lots of fights and we all had our own “hot buttons”. My hot button was “what’s wrong with you Robby? You must be so bad even your parents don’t want you!” Then you see red and the fights on and you end up in the principal’s office. Who always said the same stupid thing “What were you thinking?!”
The honest truth especially for boys because we just get angrier and angrier as we age in the system is when someone punches our button we truly check out. We really often don’t remember what happened. I am not saying that’s right but its real.
Dennis: Did you hear from your mom during these years when you were growing up in the orphanage? I mean any letters? Any form of communication?
Rob: When my mother appeared it was chaos. My first memory of her was about three years after she abandoned me. I am on the play ground and someone hollers and says “Robby your mommy’s here.” I go running up and I am so excited because kids like us always want to go home. We think somehow if we can get home our lives will be better. You know, over and over again when I talk to kids in foster care, I say are you safer where you are or whatever you call home?
They all say “Here, I am safer here.” I am persuaded that kids will take poverty if they are loved, rags if they are wanted and homelessness if they can belong. We want to go home.
So, I race up and my very first memory of hugging her leg was how bad she smelled because alcoholics and substance abusers smell bad. She is talking crazy out of her mind, yelling and cussing at Nola. Nola was a good person and she didn’t deserve this, my dorm mother. I remember thinking” Quit screaming mom and let’s just take the train and let’s go home! I want to go home!” She looked down at me and says” I got to go.” She didn’t say I love you. She didn’t say I miss you. She didn’t say I’m sorry I haven’t been here for three years. “I got to go.” And she just walked away. She did that over and over again. Show up, unannounced, chaos. “I got to go.”
Dennis: I am picturing that little boy at that point, slowly hope was dying…
Dennis: …that you were going to go home. That you would ever have the family that you had lost. Did you ever have the hope that you would be adopted by another family?
Rob: That gets complicated as all of our stories do. My mother had legal custody of me until she kidnapped me in third grade. We hid like cockroaches in the streets of Chicago until the police finally found us.
Now those in the social welfare system hate the phrase I am about to use but it’s how kids like us view it. Somebody owns you as a kid. Biological parents are your legal guardians but once they lose that somebody else has to own that.
One of the strange parts of my story is that when my mother lost legal custody of me, one of my wealthy family members on the Mitchell family side in Atlanta took legal custody of me but they wouldn’t let me be adopted. So, I fell through a crack and ended up living at that orphanage for 14 years.
Bob: From age three to age…?
Bob: …Group home? Same boys the whole time?
Rob: No, kids like us come and go daily. Usually showing up like I did with nothing but the clothes on our back. Publisher at Focus on the Family material said” He grew up with other friends in the orphanage” I edited it and said “No, we were not friends we were co-sojourners. There is a difference.”
Kids came and went so fast you had to be there a week or two before we bothered learning your name. One of the things we never did was ask the other boy his story because then we might have to tell ours. We not only didn’t want to talk about it as little kids it was very hard to even frame it and process it.
So, usually the only way you learned someone else’s story was when they erupted in rage and some of it came out. You know, like “My dad promised he would take me home at Christmas!” Then he would blow up and punch holes in the wall or something.
Bob: Did you have any stable relationships over that 13 to 14 year period?
Rob: The one most important was a wonderful dorm mother named Nola. Her photograph is in our book. Nola was a single gal in Bible College in Northern Minnesota when she felt called to take care of kids like us. Nola was quick to laugh; quick to hug and quick to spank and I got all three.
Rob: She was no nonsense. One of the things I remember, back to the routine, was that every night she would get us into our pajamas and bring us back to our one living room and that was bible story time. Nola was very serious about Bible story time and she did not tolerate goofing off. She would put the littlest boys on the couch next to her, the bigger little boys on the floor. I have very, very vivid memories of her holding a Bible story book in one hand a smacking a missed behaving boy with the other. We saw no theological conflict with that what so ever.
Rob: Then she would take us to bed one by one, littlest ones first. No matter how much chaos was going on she would always end her prayer by saying “Remember Robby, God loves you and I love you.” It was pretty easy to believe Nola loved me but if her God loved me, how come my childhood is such a mess?
Dennis: That was one of the things I wanted to ask you about. For 14 years you’re growing up in a home like this and a human being finds ways to protect. Since, you don’t have someone protecting you, namely a father and a mother looking out for your best interest. You had to protect yourself. What was your method or mechanisms of how you protected who you were as a little boy?
Rob: I was seven years old in second grade the night I lost hope. I remember clearly it was a bitter Illinois winter and we had steam radiators and they blasted you out because they got too hot. They clanked because it was too cold. I had to face reality that night that my mother wasn’t normal. The doctors were not going to fix her. My father was never going to come back. Gigi for whatever reason I never understood it at that time wasn’t going to raise me.
No one was going to rescue me. I cried out. When hope dies I have heard and I don’t know how many of the little boys lose hope it’s a terrible horrible sound. You truly cry out with a groaning that are too deep for words.
Nola came and held me but then had to deal with another kid. When I was finished crying I made a vow that kids like us make all over the world. In my case it was, I knew the big boys would beat me, they had beaten me, they’re going to beat me and they were going to beat me.
I might cry out in physical pain but no one is getting into my heart again. I will be tough no matter what. What kids like us do is it’s the beginning of emotionally flat lining. Where we just don’t care and that’s the beginning of a dangerous creature.
Dennis: You just harden your heart and don’t let anybody in.
Rob: That’s right. You don’t trust. You don’t hope. You don’t love.
Bob: Did you become that dangerous creature?
Rob: I fought it but yes, over time. The longer you go through the system. I tried to blow my anger through sports but you keep growing up and you keep getting older and you keep getting tagged.
For example: There were good people in Princeton, there were, so don’t misunderstand that. There were also people who said my daughter is not dating a boy from that home. It was virtually impossible for us to date a good girl. They just said it out loud “No, you not dating him!”
By the time I got to be a junior in high school my anger had blown me out of sports. I was drinking heavy, doing a lot of Marijuana. I didn’t do anything heavier because I would have gotten kicked out to Juvenile Hall or someplace worse. Kids like us do drugs. We drink. We do inappropriate sex and we cut ourselves to either feel something or to dull the pain.
Dennis: You know Rob I am listening to your story and all of a sudden just listening to the cold harsh reality of a three year old boy. I want to use the word incarcerated.
Rob: That’s how we felt.
Dennis: For 14 years in an orphanage, even though that’s not what an orphanage is really doing. It really is trying to provide love and boundaries. I read James 1:27 and the drama in your life bring this passage to life. This is pure and undefiled religion in sight of our God and Father to visit orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
That’s a command, command of scripture. To go near the plight of the orphan, it’s not going to be squeaky clean. It’s going to messy. It’s not going to be under control. It’s not going to be predictable but orphans need to be loved.
Bob: Yes. I think most of our listeners know about our commitment through our Hope for Orphans Outreach to equip and encourage individuals and churches to be a part of that messiness, to engage in reaching out to and caring for the needs of orphans.
If you go to our website FamilyLifeToday.com there is a link there to our Hope for Orphans area of the website. Where you can find out more about what you can do individually, what you can do as a church. How you can be catalytic in your local church to help start an orphan’s ministry there. We really want to be part of the solution and see God mobilize and raise up tens of thousands of churches all around the country who care for the needs of orphans.
Again, our website FamilyLifeToday.com, the information you need about how you can be involved is there when you click the link for the hope for Orphans area of the website. We’ve also got copies of Rob Mitchell’s book which is called Castaway Kid. You can order that from us online if you would like or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to request a copy of Castaway Kid. Again, the website FamilyLifeToday.com or call 1-800-FL-TODAY.
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We are glad to have you as part of the family. We hope you enjoy the Weekend to Remember® and we hope you continue to listening to FamilyLife Today. Of course we hope you will be back with us tomorrow when Rob Mitchell’s going to be here again. We will hear the rest of the story how the orphan got adopted. That comes up tomorrow. I hope you can be with us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today Keith Lynch and our entire broadcast production team.
On behalf of our host Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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