St. Joe’s Annual Picnic Brings Fun for All – and Hope for Kids
Writer / Grace Schaefer
A little boy stands on the big steps of St. Joseph Children’s Home, looking up at the red brick and the gently sweeping archway above the door, wondering if this could be a home. He’s known no such thing before. What he has known is pain and trauma. He’s known a speech impediment, and isolation from siblings. He hasn’t known home. But St. Joe’s is a new chance – a spot of hope in a young yet difficult life.
Such is the story for the hundreds of children who have come to St. Joe’s. Each situation is different, each child’s pain coped with in some unique way, but what always remains the same is that Kentucky’s children are in need of love, care and home. St. Joe’s provides all three.
It began in 1849 as an organization called St. Joseph Catholic Orphan Society. A group of Catholic German-Americans worked to support the growing number of orphaned children left in the wake of a cholera epidemic, and built the first of many St. Joe’s locations in 1850. The current building became the society’s home in 1885. Originally under the charge of the Notre Dame Sisters of Milwaukee, then the Ursuline Sisters of Louisville, the society’s board of trustees now designates individual administrators to serve the children. No longer acting as an orphanage, St. Joseph Children’s Home now takes in victims of abuse and neglect. Yet despite the changes that come with more than 170 years of service, St. Joe’s mission of protection stays the same. The facility has succeeded because of the continued work of groups and individuals alike, and more than 75,000 children have been blessed through the good works that started with the original society.
Today St. Joe’s offers three primary services – residential treatment, a fostering and adoption program, and child-care services. Through the Residential Treatment Program, 48 state-appointed children receive the highest level of care available while living on the St. Joe’s campus. Each child stays for about a year before moving on to a safe and welcoming home. Through the Therapeutic Foster Care and Adoption service, St. Joe’s connects children and families, provides training for individuals or couples interested in fostering, and offers around-the-clock support to these families. In addition, the St. Joe’s Child Development Center acts as a preschool for all local families. With a program for any situation, St. Joe’s is ready to meet each child where they are.
“The kids come first, and their well-being,” says Suzy Hillebrand, St. Joe’s chief advancement officer. Yet without funds, the child-first focus is in jeopardy. Hillebrand stresses their biggest annual fundraising opportunity – St. Joe’s Picnic for the Kids.
In 1850 the sisters at St. Joe’s thought of a way to pay for the facility’s daily expenses. To raise the necessary funds, they hosted the first annual picnic in 1850. Then called St. Joseph Catholic Orphans Picnic and later changed to St. Joe’s Picnic for the Kids, the tradition has seen more years than the Kentucky Derby. It acts as the greatest source of funding for the organization besides state funding, which accounts for almost 77%, so even the smallest donations can make a great difference. Originally supported by Catholic parishes and church members, the picnic now finds sponsors from a range of community members and local businesses.
“We’re lucky to have those partnerships with businesses and corporations here in Louisville,” Hillebrand says.
Picnickers can expect two days of food, activities and prizes, along with live music by The Crashers. With more than 50,000 participants, there is no shortage of company. All are welcome, and there’s truly an attraction for everyone.
Picnic holds a lot of tradition too. Many booths have been worked by the same family for years. The Hillebrand family, for example, has worked the cotton candy, slushy and popcorn booth for more than 50 years. The Allgeiers have spent decades running the bingo tent. Rich and Joan Flaherty run what may be the picnic’s most well-known attraction – the cake booth. Each year picnickers put down quarters and dimes, a wheel is spun, and the prize for the winning number is a cake provided by a local bakery.
The picnic is truly all about family, from the cause it supports to the passed-down traditions to the booth workers and participants. “Everybody owns the picnic,” Hillebrand says. “When they walk in the door or up the driveway, they know exactly which booth that they go to first.” It’s just as much about memories – sitting in lawn chairs under big trees with a great-grandmother, or winning a cake as a little boy. And every tradition, whether 50 years old or five seconds old, makes up some integral part of the magic of those wonderful August days. It’s everything a summertime celebration should be – food, family and fellowship. It’s also a beautiful way to start each generation down a path of community involvement. Hillebrand sees the picnic as a fond memory, an impactful opportunity and an eager expectation.
This year will mark the picnic’s 173rd year. Yet the event has kept up with changing times. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic it provided a fun experience from the safety of home by going completely virtual. In 2021 the picnic entered a hybrid form – “a little mini, scaled-down version,” as Hillebrand calls it, including ticket sales upon entry to manage crowds, in addition to an online component. This year the festivities of August 12 and 13 will be fully in person, though raffle tickets are available for online purchase. “We’re hoping that everybody will be out on campus,” Hillebrand says.
Whether purchasing raffle tickets, snacks or even a quilt made by the St. Joe’s Sewing Society, every picnicker can be certain that their funds will go directly to the children. The picnic is their single largest source of funding and goes toward all three care programs. Every participant will make an impact, no matter how much they can give.
“The nice thing about picnic is it’s really not about the huge dollars,” Hillebrand says. “It’s about many, many people coming together and giving a little, or giving a little more, and when you add all of that up, that’s where that big fundraising comes from that supports the kids.”
Though the past two picnics have been unusual, this year promises to bring back a bit of normalcy. Beyond that, each dollar raised through the event goes toward bringing some stability to the lives of hurting children who need it.
So when that little boy opens that comfortably heavy door at the top of those big St. Joe’s steps, the help and home he finds are really extensions of each picnic-goer. And every blessing he experiences – the therapy and healing, the learning, the reunion with his siblings – comes through the avenue of their contribution. Hillebrand explains the impact of St. Joe’s in a single sentence. “[The children are] way behind the starting line before they even get to leave the gate, and we just try to help them catch up,” she says.
Whether donating hundreds or simply sparing a dollar, participating in St. Joe’s Picnic for the Kids is a fun and meaningful way to shape the future of our most vulnerable population – one quilt, one cake, one picnic at a time.
For more info, go to sjkids.org.