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."
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.
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.
"One family on Long Island had a Cadillac and a little girl," Burch says. "A couple in Syracuse, N.Y., had a Buick and no children. A couple in Rome, N.Y., had a Ford and no children. I took the family with the Ford. I knew cars - I was street savvy. For some reason, I figured they might be a little kinder."
Years later, Burch learned that all three couples had responded to the Monitor ad. She assumes one of her mother's employers had given her the newspaper.
On Dec. 1, 1927, mother and daughter boarded a train in Newark for Utica, N.Y. Christmas lights glittered at the station in Utica - a special treat for a child who'd never celebrated Christmas, or even a birthday. When her prospective adoptive father, Harry Seubert, greeted them, her first question was, "Does Santa Claus come here?" He simply smiled.
During the 40-minute drive to the Seuberts' house in Rome, the little girl, wearing a thin cotton dress with no coat, warmed herself in the back seat of the Model A Ford by curling up in an old sweater of Mr. Seubert's.
Burch can only imagine what her adoptive mother, Florence Seubert, thought when they arrived. "I was so dirty. My mother didn't clean me up. And I had head lice." Her scalp stung when the family's housekeeper used kerosene to kill the lice infesting her bright red hair.
Having her own room was "absolute heaven." She enjoyed the couple's Airedale, Maryanna, and the attention the Seuberts gave her. For the first time in her life, she felt loved.
Still, the Seuberts faced challenges. Their prospective adoptee threw occasional tantrums, flinging herself on the floor. She also spoke with a New Jersey twang and used gutter language. "Mrs. Seubert would tell me not to say things, but I would forget. She would wash out my mouth with soap."
In January, just after her seventh birthday, Virginia began first grade. The Seuberts also enrolled her in Sunday School, her first exposure to religion. "I liked to hear about Father-Mother God," she says. "I finally had a father and a mother, and I had God looking out for me, too."
After six months, her birth mother returned to sign the adoption papers. Finally, Virginia had a permanent home.
A voracious reader, she blossomed academically, skipping semesters in second and fourth grades. At 17 she graduated as valedictorian of her class. She attended college for two years, but left when her adored father died suddenly. Tuition cost $38, and she did not want to use her mother's money.
Soon after that, she married her high school sweetheart, Don Burch. Recalling the day she first saw him in a chemistry class, she smiles and says, "In came this great big tall boy. He wore corduroy pants and saddle shoes, a white shirt and tie, and a green sweater. I thought he was wonderful."
She and her beloved "great big tall boy," a builder, became the parents of three sons and two daughters. Years passed in a whirl of child-rearing. Then, three decades after leaving college, Burch enrolled at Colgate University, the only grandmother in her class. Ever the industrious student, she earned both bachelor's and master's degrees. She was also elected to Phi Beta Kappa.
"Every honor I received, I thought about the Seuberts, that this was for them," she says.
That gratitude also fostered a desire to help others. Burch volunteered in her children's schools. She taught Sunday School. She founded the Martin County Literacy Council in Stuart, Fla., where she and her husband retired. She tutored immigrants and migrant farm workers, and trained prisoners to help other prisoners with English.
As she reflects on her experiences, she encourages others to help children in need.
Picking up a framed photograph taken on the couple's 50th wedding anniversary, Burch, now a widow, looks affectionately at her extended family, which includes 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. As the effects of that long-ago classified ad ripple through four generations, she remains keenly aware of the great gift the Seuberts gave her: family life.
"It was just a marvelous thing, that feeling of safety and security, that feeling of parents being interested in me," she says. "I hit the jackpot."