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The best story that day was in the classifieds

Newspapers are full of sad stories about abused children. But this tale, which began 76 years ago, ended happily because of its unusual start.

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 26, 2003


On a November day in 1927, a tiny classified ad in The Christian Science Monitor carried an unusual message. Under the heading "Board for Children Wanted," the ad read: "Wanted - A home, with Christian Scientists preferred, for a girl of 6 years, good birth, adoption optional."

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Those 17 words gave no hint of the urgent need that prompted a mother in Newark, N.J., to write them. Nor could they convey her young daughter's need for stability, education, and above all, love. Yet that brief appeal marked a turning point for the little girl, who describes herself as a "ragamuffin" and an "urchin" during the harsh years before the ad transformed her life.

"I was a throwaway kid, neglected and abused," says Virginia Burch, now a great-grandmother. Her ready smile and cheerful voice carry no trace of bitterness.

Relaxing on a rainy November afternoon in the upstate New York home of her son, Doug Burch, executive director of the Tri-County United Way, Mrs. Burch tells a remarkable story. It is a story of loss and deprivation, and of love and fulfillment.

Her odyssey bears testimony to her own courage. It also illustrates the power of one couple's generous hearts and outstretched hands, and their willingness to take a risk.

Born Inez Virginia Force in Philadelphia, Burch was a preschooler when her father left, taking the couple's three sons and leaving his wife and daughter with no means of support. Her mother cobbled together a meager income by working in private homes as a nurse's aide. Her unstable life included little inclination for mothering, so she boarded her daughter in a succession of foster homes in Newark.

"Bless her heart, I'm sure my mother meant well, but she just wasn't with it as a mother," Burch says quietly.

Difficult days

Her earliest memories involve spending a winter in the basement rooms of an older man, possibly her grandfather. "He kept parrots and guinea pigs, and my fingers were always sore from being nipped when I reached in their cages to touch them," Burch says. Equally memorable was the food: She and the man ate nothing but potatoes and onions boiled together.

"One day he said we were going to have pancakes for supper," Burch recalls. "It didn't work. The butter was rancid, and there was no syrup. I was glad to get back to potatoes and onions."

Every morning she headed for High Street in downtown Newark to join four or five boys - "my gang," she calls them. All day they roamed the streets. "We went into stores and looked around, but we didn't take anything," Burch says.

Whenever they found coins, they bought movie tickets and ice cream. "This was sheer pleasure - escape from the harsh, dirty, uncaring world into the cozy darkness of make-believe. Rin Tin Tin and Our Gang were dear friends."

One day, eager to learn, Virginia followed neighborhood children to school. Sitting at an empty desk, she studied the Palmer Method handwriting charts on the wall. Then the teacher arrived.

"Why haven't you been in school?" she shouted.

"Nobody told me to come," the little girl replied meekly. The teacher refused to believe her. "I could see she didn't know much about throwaway kids," Burch says. Trembling, she ran out the door and never went back.

In one foster home, her "bed" was two kitchen chairs pushed together. The family always locked the door at 9 p.m. One cold night, she didn't make it home in time. A man across the street, Mr. Applegate, took her in. "He was so kind. He had a couch in his living room that was just heaven."

Another foster home was even more disturbing. "These people were very kind, but they were child molesters," Burch says, referring vaguely to "games on the floor in the evening." When her mother came to visit, Burch told her about the activities. "She got a strange look on her face, and we whizzed right out of there."

For several weeks she stayed with her mother. Then, one November evening, her mother explained that three families wanted Virginia to live with them. The choice was hers.