My girlfriends recently came to visit, and I had a wonderful time showing them around my city… but I think the highlight of the trip was when Cheri and I met up with Juliet Yera (Director of Development at the Hephzibah Children’s Association) for a tour of the Hephzibah Home in Oak Park. Hephzibah is one of my favorite organizations in the world—they serve some of the youngest victims of abuse, neglect, and trauma in Illinois, and they also help kiddos in need of behavioral intervention. Every child who receives services at the Hephzibah Home has their own individualized treatment plan and a safe place to heal and grow. 

Sun-dried Tomato Pesto

The best way to bond with friends is over a good meal.

A few days earlier, while Cheri and I made stuffed artichokes together, she reminisced about growing up with her Italian grandmother. Cheri’s grandma was a remarkable woman whose influence extended far beyond her immediate family. Her home was not just a house, but a hub of warmth and generosity in the community. She ran a neighborhood daycare where she provided a nurturing environment that many of the kids remembered long into their adulthood.

When I say Cheri and I bonded over our heritage and family histories, this is what I mean: I grew up with my mom, aunts, and grandmother in the kitchen too. They taught me so much—even today I call it my “cooking school!” We always had family and friends over for meals, at least every Sunday. Add in holidays and special occasions, and you can imagine how lively our table was!

No matter who you were—family, a friend from church, or a neighbor passing through—you were welcomed with open arms and a full plate. Just like my own, Cheri’s grandma’s kitchen was the heart of the home, where she would whip up large, comforting meals that seemed to never end. From escarole soup to homemade pastas like lasagna, stuffed shells, and ravioli, her cooking was a labor of love that drew everyone to her table. 

Grandma’s lessons can make such a difference!

Cheri remembers her grandmother as a pillar of the community who taught the values of respect and kindness through her actions. She masterfully combined discipline with affection and playfulness, creating a balanced environment where children learned the importance of good manners and the joy of being part of a community. She didn’t just babysit—she taught the kids to thrive by the example every day.

The hospitality and joyful atmosphere Cheri experienced at her grandma’s house deeply influenced her own life. Her grandma taught her—and now us too—of the profound impact that caring and generosity can have on a community. These enduring lessons echo values that live on at the Hephzibah Home: values that Juliet and her colleagues put into action for their kiddos each and every day.

A visit to the Hephzibah Home: It was all about the kids.

Every time I visit the home, I’m amazed by how current and innovative the facility is, with specially designed calming rooms, fun outdoor spaces, and so much more. And this time, the children were thrilled to meet Cheri, being familiar with so many of the characters she has voiced and played over the years!

When we met up with the kids, Cheri sat down on the floor with the group and called me over, “Mary, you’ve gotta remember this one!” Then we taught the kids how to sing and clap “Miss Mary Mack.” For a moment, it felt like we were kids again. Oh, it was so much fun! That’s one of my favorite things about spending time with my girlfriends—we bring out the joyful, spontaneous sides of one another. It warmed my heart so much to see my dear friend falling in love with Hephzibah too. Shared values and experiences like this one are so nourishing to my spirit.

Pierce Brown quote
Mary and Cheri with Juliet at Hephzibah
Fun with Kids
Success Stories

Heartwarming, inspiring… Truly a tour to remember.

As we walked through the beautiful halls of the Hephzibah Home, Juliet showed us photos of the kids they had worked with—pictures from as far back as the 1980s. She told us about who each of those kids grew up to be, who just graduated college, who’s a teacher or an engineer now. That reminded us of Cheri’s grandma, too—she stayed so close to her daycare kids over the years that she was invited to many of their weddings! Some people come into your life and leave again, but some people and places leave a profound positive impact. At Hephzibah, you can feel that loving energy. It’s easy to tell how deeply everyone cares.

We also learned about the rigorous vetting process for foster parents—a process that ensures children are placed in loving, supportive homes. When you hear stories about the foster care system, you rarely hear about how well-adjusted and successful the kids have become. Juliet reminded us how many success stories there are that don’t make the headlines. Before she went home, Cheri told me, “Hepzibah was the highlight of my trip. Visiting this place left a beautiful mark on me.”

Hephzibah always leaves a lasting impression on me too—and it was so meaningful to be able to share that with my friend. Inspired by the experience, Cheri even mentioned wanting to find similar organizations in her area to support. How about you—do you know where your local children’s homes are, and what kind of positive impacts they have on your community?

You can help support the Hephzibah mission, too.

This visit to the Hephzibah Home wasn’t just a tour; it was an educational and profoundly moving experience. I absolutely love the work they do, and I’m so proud to support them and the Oak Park River Forest Infant Welfare Society with my cookbook. 100% of the proceeds from my book sales go to these incredible organizations. If you want to donate to a good cause and give a gift to a loved one at the same time, check out A Gift of Cookies: Recipes to Share with Family and Friends.

To learn more about the Hephzibah Children’s Association and the Hephzibah Home, click on the links below.

May 22, 2024 — Mary DiSomma