Life Remembered: Adoptive grandma found way to heal
RANTOUL — Loralee Pena knew the hurt, the castaway feeling of having been sent away by her mother and not adopted.
Born at Kankakee Mental Health Center, she was given up at 2-1/2 months of age by her mother.
It was something that she never really got over. Partly because of that, she wanted to help children however she could, so she and her husband, Al, agreed to be among the first honorary grandparents serving at a newly opened Hope Meadows in Rantoul in mid-1994.
Started in a neighborhood of the former Chanute Air Force Base, Hope Meadows takes in neglected and abused children who have been removed from their parents for their safety, find adoptive parents and a permanent home. Also present are honorary grandparents — senior citizens who volunteer their time to help with the children.
That's the role the Penas took on. And they did it well, according to people who knew them.
Mrs. Pena said by giving to the children and others there, she received so much more in return.
The former Hope Meadows grandparent died of cancer May 23 at Heartland Healthcare of Champaign. She was 72.
In the book "Hope Meadows: Real Life Stories of Healing and Caring," author Wes Smith devotes a portion to Mrs. Pena and her realization that she had been born at the mental institution and being given up by her mother.
It was something about the walls and gates shown in the movie "The Hiding Place," about a Dutch woman who was imprisoned in a concentration camp by the Nazis, that jarred her memory. The stark walls and a wrought-iron archway seemed familiar. Knowing that she was born in Kankakee, she began to wonder, after watching the movie, if she had been born at the mental institution, as someone joked.
So she and her husband traveled there.
Most of the center's buildings were brick, "but there was an older, historic landmark section of gray limestone that was part of the original campus for the Illinois Eastern Hospital for the Insane, established in 1877," according to the book.
Pena said they drove around "until we found that older section. Then we parked and went in."
She asked an employee for the location of the old infirmary of the mental hospital. He told them they were standing in it.
She said she thought her mother had been a resident there, and she gave him his mother, Virginia's, first and last names. He looked it up and confirmed she had been committed there.
"Before we left, I asked him if there was another entrance to the old mental hospital, one with a wrought-iron gate, and he said, yes, that it was down the road and overgrown with weeds," the book quoted Mrs. Pena.
They went there, and it was just as she had pictured in her mind, jogged by watching the movie.
"I was 2-1/2 months old when I was taken from that place as a ward of the state," she said. "A minister who counseled me for a few years said that the images must have been imprinted in my mind because of the trauma I went through, being rejected by my mother and taken from her."
Mrs. Pena would be taken in by a foster mother.
"Actually, she was one of the fortunate ones," said her friend, Anita Hochberger, also an honorary grandparent at Hope Meadows. "She lived with the same foster mother all of her life. I know her foster mother made sure she knew she loved her."
Still, Mrs. Pena could not shake the pain and anger of being let go by her mother and frequently exhibited it by lashing out while growing up and even later in life.
Nearing her 60th birthday, she told the author, "I'm still something of a mixed-up foster kid at 59."
Smith said that for most of her adult life, Mrs. Pena had attempted to heal by tracing her parentage and trying to understand why she was unloved. She tracked down part of her past at the mental institution. But it wasn't until she and her husband became honorary grandparents at Hope Meadows that things began to mend for her, although perhaps it never did all the way.
Thirty-seven years after leaving the institution, she said she was still dealing with who she was "and what earthly good I am."
She decided to try to do some earthly good by helping at Hope Meadows.
Hochberger said she and Mrs. Pena became close after the death of Hochberger's husband 11 years ago.
"She was a very kind, loving person, very giving, very thoughtful," said Hochberger, who noted that her friend exhibited intelligence and an understanding spirit.
Debbie Calhoun said she and her husband, Kenny, and the Penas were the first residents to move to Hope Meadows — the Calhouns as adoptive parents and the Penas as adoptive grandparents.
Debbie Calhoun said she and Mrs. Pena were close.
The Penas were there to help the Calhouns and whoever else needed assistance with the children.
"She was definitely an awesome woman," Debbie Calhoun said. "She had a heart and love for everybody. She was a grown woman, but when it came to the kids, she could be a child at the same time with them. You never heard a negative word come from her about anybody."
Calhoun said things got difficult for her friend. First, her husband died a couple of years ago, then she was injured in an auto accident and later she was diagnosed with cancer.
One of Mrs. Pena's final wishes was granted in March when the University of Illinois graduate was taken back to campus as part of a Make A Wish program for senior citizens.
She and her daughter and two granddaughters met at Heartland Healthcare Center in Champaign, where Mrs. Pena was a resident. They then toured Krannert Center and the Alice Campbell Alumni in a limousine.
They then were able to go out to eat.
Brenda Eheart, who founded Hope Meadows, said she believed Mrs. Pena "finally felt she had found a home, and she could really relate to those children. She loved living at Hope Meadows."
Eheart said she spoke with Mrs. Pena about two weeks before her death, "and for someone who was dying, I'd never spoken to anyone who was more positive than she was about her life, how she was grateful to have contributed to the Hope community."
"She really was a very special person."
Elaine Gehrmann, executive director of Hope Meadows, said Mrs. Pena was hoping to live in the soon-to-be completed Hope House, which will feature a unique design to accommodate older residents.
"Ms. Loralee was a truly incredible, inspirational woman, and we all wish we had had more time with her," Gehrmann said.
Calhoun said Hope Meadows helped Mrs. Pena feel accepted.
"The program here helped her," Calhoun said. "Of course, we cried together. I said, 'Loralee, now look, you've been adopted by a bigger family.'"
Mrs. Pena responded, "I love you for saying that."
Despite Mrs. Pena's illness, Calhoun said her friend was at peace.
"She just knew that God had her," Calhoun said. "Her faith was extremely strong. She knew where she was going, and she always said she was ready when the time came."