LORE Magazine
Lives of Real Estate

Bridge between Then and Now

One of nine siblings raised in an orphanage, Nancy Canfield is giving back by helping kids like herself who grew up without a home of their own
by Bill Briggs // photographs by Tim Tadder

The bridge between then and now may span 42 long years, but it's as enduring as an orphan's childhood memories.

Then: As a girl, Nancy Canfield lost her parents and then home after home after home before spending the rest of her childhood in an orphanage.

Now: As an agent with Prudential California Realty, she helps family after family find homes of their own. The link is unmistakable.

"The thread of helping people runs through my whole life," Canfield says. "My work is to find people a home - to protect them and insulate them from the wrong deal. It's always a nurturing thing."

Two years ago, Canfield's curiosity about the long-forgotten place she once called home led her to research and write the story of the St. Agatha Home for Children - a history of both the orphanage and her own family's experience. All proceeds from that book, entitled Home Kids, are earmarked for children like her, those who now are growing up without homes of their own.

Canfield has yet to write the final chapters to her own personal story. There is still money to be raised for St. Agatha. There is still awareness to be stoked for today's foster kids. And there is a favorite creek to be wandered once more. That ending is sure to be happy. But the opening chapters to Canfield's life were anything but.

As the sixth of nine siblings growing up in the Bronx, Canfield's world began to crack in 1957 when her father, a publishing executive, died unexpectedly. Hospital workers had given him the wrong blood type during a transfusion. He had run the household with a strong presence. In his absence, Canfield's shy and quiet mother utterly lost her way.

"She began to drink," says Canfield, who was 5 at the time. "That was her solace. She was drunk almost all the time. She was lost in her grief."

The next eight years brought a blur of wrenching and worsening hardship. Money from a wrongful death lawsuit - prompted by the hospital error - ran dry amid her mother's whiskey habit. Then, as a result of bad wiring, the family's house burned down. Canfield's mother slipped further into addiction and moved the children from apartment to apartment, each place successively worse. The Canfield kids grew more unruly as their mother went on binges. Landlords repeatedly booted the family to the street.

In 1965, Canfield's aunts and uncles discovered the depths of the disarray, reported the mother to social services and took custody of the nine kids. One child joined the military, three went to live with relatives and an uncle dropped the remaining five at the St. Agatha Home for Children in Nanuet, N.Y., about 30 miles northwest of New York City.

"It's a boarding school," the uncle fibbed to the children one Friday. "You're going for the weekend to see if you like it."

On Sunday, the five Canfield kids said goodbye to St. Agatha's residents, walked to a bench near the entrance and watched for their uncle to return. After waiting an hour for the promised pickup, the cold fact hit them: They would not be leaving the orphanage. Embarrassed and scared, the Canfield kids returned to their respective St. Agatha "cottages" - dormitories that each held about 35 children. Their mother, meanwhile, checked into an alcoholic treatment program, stayed for six weeks, then began drinking again. About two years later, she died of heart failure. She was 42

At the St. Agatha Home, a forested, 70-acre campus run by nuns, the Canfield kids fell into the highly structured routine: classes at an on-site Catholic school, Mass in a chapel adorned with arched granite, a weekly allowance of a nickel for candy at a cantina.

Always a caretaker to her siblings, Canfield developed a deeper love of people. She often welcomed the newest orphans to St. Agatha.

"We tried to be a community of people whose task was to provide a loving and stable environment for each child," recalls Sister Rita Meaney, the director of group living at St. Agatha during the Canfield kids' tenure. "Nancy, in her own loving way, contributed greatly to this ideal by her friendly, outgoing way of helping others. … Even though she was so young (about 13), she could reach out with understanding and support to the youngster who was recently admitted."

When St. Agatha residents reached their mid-teens, they attended Nanuet High School. But in town, they faced stigma and whispers. When petty crimes occurred in Nanuet, they were blamed. They were dubbed the "Home Kids."

Back on campus, more challenges loomed. There were fistfights - especially when other orphans learned that the Canfield family, not the government, was paying for the siblings' stay. There was swift discipline - new for five children who spent years with little oversight. For brief escape, there were hikes to a secluded brook in the woods behind the gymnasium. It was a safe place for children, like a clubhouse where no adults could tread.

"Where all could leave their troubles behind," Canfield says. "There were tadpoles and copperhead snakes. … It was one of the great unifiers to almost all of the kids."

"We used to find our way back there, and we tried to catch big snapping turtles," recalls Tom Canfield, Nancy's younger brother and today, a sporting goods store manager in Manhattan. "That was the stuff that kept your mind off of everything else."

After graduating high school, Canfield left the orphanage and in time, landed a human resources job. In 2003, she began selling real estate in San Diego. Her outgoing personality was a natural fit with the business. So was a distant youth spent without a home of her own.

"Nancy's present work as a Realtor could be seen as an extension of her genuine kindness in helping others," Sister Rita says.

Canfield will forever carry the imprints of an orphan's upbringing. But she had forgotten much of her time at St. Agatha until someone emailed the link to a Website that reconnects classmates. She located a girl who had shared her cottage at St. Agatha.

"It opened the floodgates of memories," Canfield says. "I had forgotten all about the language - phrases like, 'Going home for good.' That had been a mantra. I started thinking about St. Agatha. How did this place come to be here? My curiosity got me."

Canfield, who had been working up ideas for children's books, penned Home Kids in 2005 and vowed to send every dime generated by the book's sales to St. Agatha Home Services, which today includes the main campus and about 100 group homes. So far, the book has raised $10,000. Now, Canfield's mission is to push Home Kids onto Oprah Winfrey's book list to further boost sales and build an endowment for the cause.

To help market her book, Canfield returned to Nanuet in late June to do a reading for town residents. It was not her first trip back. During a prior visit, Nancy and Tom walked the shady grounds at St. Agatha, breathing in memories. They tried to paw through the woods to wade in that old brook where they once found tadpoles and a splash of normalcy.

"We tried to get back there but it was so overgrown," Tom says of that earlier visit. "When she makes this trip out, I'm going to ask her to give it one more go."

Nancy Canfield has created a Website to help former St. Agatha residents reconnect, share memories and donate to the cause.

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