The prospects were bleak for the four Whitehouse children in 1929 when they were orphaned at the start of the Great Depression. They faced life in dangerously overcrowded orphanages in New York City or the uncertainty of a trip on the orphan trains. They were fortunate enough to land at the Children's Cottages Orphanage in Sayville, and St. Ann's Episcopal Church.
Sayville resident Jack Whitehouse recounts the struggles his family endured in his recently released book Sayville Orphan Heroes. While researching information for his book, Whitehouse realized that this was not just about his ancestors' journey, but compassion exhibited by the entire Sayville community, including such families as the Roosevelts and Astors, which allowed the children to thrive.
Whitehouse wanted to write Sayville Orphan Heroes after doing research into the Sayville Cottages where his father grew up. He discovered a typical American town between 1846 and 1946 where, in the context of a small, underfunded orphanage, the true American spirit was defined by hard work, self-sacrifice and concern for the common good.
"I found some surprises while doing my research," said Whitehouse in a recent interview with Sayville Patch. "From 1924-1943 the cottages raised 43 children at a time with no government involvement at all. The orphanage was managed and paid for by the church."
According to Whitehouse, the Cottages children attended Sayville Schools, but at the time, the Sayville School Board ruled that the kids were not Sayville residents and therefore charged the orphanage $100 per student, or $4,300 per year – a lot of money during the Great Depression.
Without any government funding, the church had to find ways to support the orphanage financially. "I found there was a strong spirit of cooperation within all socio-economic levels that helped to make the orphanage so successful," said Whitehouse. "Wealthy families got together with the much less wealthy to contribute what they could to make the kids lives better. The children could not be adopted, but local families, church members, school teachers and coaches, went out of their way to help."
Not only were class differences disregarded in dealings between the town and the orphanage, but also between individuals. Jack's mom Betty Whitehouse summered with her family at a home on Gillette Avenue in Sayville. She came from a wealthy family, studied at the best schools and lived in a fine home in Brooklyn. She fell in love with a Sayville orphan – John Henry Whitehouse – after attending church at St. Ann's. It was St. Ann's Rev. Bond who introduced her to John. Betty's parents came to welcome John into their family.
Author Jack Whitehouse grew up in Sayville, graduating from Sayville High School in 1964. Following college and more than seven years of active duty with the United States Navy, he joined the U.S. Foreign Service, serving abroad for most of his career. In 1995, he and his wife, Elaine Kiesling, and son, John, returned to Sayville, where he and Elaine still live. His mom Betty resides in Sayville. She taught science at the Sayville junior high school for decades and remains very active in the Sayville community.
This is the second book for Whitehouse. He is the author of 13 Legends of Fire Island and the Great South Bay. He writes for the Fire Island Tide and lectures on the history of Fire Island. In 2010, he won the first place award from the Press Club of Long Island for his regular column in the Fire Island Tide.
Sayville Orphan Heroes is available for $19.99 in Sayville at , and .