One by one, they walked up the hill to the white clapboard church they knew so well.
And in their own way, they felt the same as the man who said, “If it wasn’t for this place, I don’t know what would’ve happened to me.”
The event was the Miracle Hill Children’s Home Reunion, which takes place every two, then every three years. Former residents – young adults to almost retired – come back to the 130 acres in Pumpkintown in Pickens County to see many of the people who took them in when no one else wanted them.
Sharon Tiano arrived in 1964 when she was 12 with her 11-year-old sister and 8-year-old brother. Her mother told them they were going shopping for school clothes.
“We ate lunch, went down to the office and the man said ‘are they staying’ and she said we were,” Tiano said.
Then her mother, grandmother and aunt, drove down the hill.
“Sometimes you don’t get over it,” Tiano said. “I regret how she did it, but it was the best thing.”
Miracle Hill got its name while the first building was being constructed in 1958. The walls were up, but the roof wasn’t. And the folks prayed that a storm passing through would spare their work. It rained everywhere but on that building, they said.
Then, dormitories housed the children, the children of abuse, neglect. Troubled and unwanted, they found solace and a home with dorm parents like Miss Pat, who seemed to know a little something about everyone who walked into the chapel.
“I had her as a dorm parent when she was 7 and now she’s a grandparent,” she whispered as a woman walked in.
The former residents were asked to talk about what they remember.
“When I came to Miracle Hill I moved up in life,” said a man who lived there for 10 years and for the longest time sat on the steps on Friday afternoons waiting for parents who never came back.
“Everything we have learned we have taught our children. It goes on for generations,” one woman said.
“I came here at six months,” another man said. “I learned the value of hard work and the love of country and God.”
Reid Lehman, the president of Miracle Hill Ministries, which includes the Rescue Mission in Greenville and a number of other shelters, grew up on the property because his father was the director. He said the best part of growing up there was he met his wife.
Today, 40 boys and girls live in what are now cottages straddling the Oolenoy River. Another 45 – 38 younger that 6 – live with foster families.
Lehman said the philosophy in its simplest term could be described as effective parenting. The longer, more complicated version, is they use a matrix developed by Cornell University that relies on rewards and expectations rather than punishment and criticism.
He said it is not uncommon for people to leave the protected and prim world of Miracle Hill and veer off for a bit. It’s a disappointing part of the work, but through the years he has seen the same phenomenon happen again and again.
Former residents remember where they came from. One man said he got locked up not long after he left and sitting in jail thought of the lessons he’d learned.
“I’ve never been in jail again,” he said.
Tiano had her struggles, but raised three daughters, largely on her own, held a job and cared for her mother in the last years of her life. Now she’s 58, a barber in a shop where politicians tend to gather in Goose Creek. She’s remarried – two years to a man who brought his youth group from their church to work at Miracle Hill for a week before the reunion.
Tiano teared up thinking back on her life, and stood proudly as she pointed down the hill toward the small cemetery.
“This is home. My wish is to be buried right down in that cemetery,” she said.