The stories are as tragic as they are inspiring.

Children who overcame abuse, anger, distrust, depression and mental limitations to become a better version of themselves. Their faces and triumphant stories on The Children’s Home of Cincinnati’s website make it clear exactly what this nonprofit has been doing for more than 150 years: transforming children’s lives.

What began in 1864 as an orphanage for the city’s poor and abandoned has evolved into a place that now offers day programs and widespread outreach to needy children.

“Other organizations, orphanages across the nation, not all of them have survived because they didn’t change,” says Janet Burns, the nonprofit’s vice president of development. “The Children’s Home really looks to see what the needs in the community are right now, and what it is we should be doing.”

Last year the Children’s Home celebrated its 150th anniversary with a look back on the tens of thousands of lives it had touched as an orphanage, adoption center, residential treatment facility and finally in its current role as a day center for children with social, behavioral and learning challenges.

Nowadays the Children’s Home is so successful at what it does that President and CEO Ellen Katz worries about how she is going to find enough space and funding for the 6,700 children she expects to help in 2015.

“We have to scramble around for space,” Katz says. “We really are bursting at the seams.”

An Orphanage

In the mid-19th century Cincinnati was a boom of industrialization, growing into the sixth largest city in the nation.

As an influx of European immigrants swelled the city, it spilled into filthy overcrowded slums where hundreds of children wandered daily.

“Living conditions for many Cincinnatians were horrible. Rootless immigrant families were trapped in narrow lanes and fetid alleys, among stagnant pools of liquid poison, offensive smells and dirty houses,” according to Dan Hurley’s book, A History of The Children’s Home of Cincinnati 1864-1989; One Child at a Time.

“The impact on the city’s children was frightening,” he wrote.

A group of Quaker women worried about the poor, neglected children who lived in tenements in a 30-block area south of Fourth and west of Plum streets, and in shanty boats beached along the riverfront. Some children lived in prison because their mothers had been sentenced, or simply because they were homeless and the courts had no other place to send them, according to the book.

In 1859 these women, including Hannah Shipley, tried to help poor children by opening a Children’s Aid Society in the cellar of a building on Water Street. It contained a small Sunday school, a day school and lodged six children.

The center moved to Race Street, but soon lost that building. Then Hannah’s husband, Murray Shipley, a partner in a dry goods firm, donated a large building on Park Street to house the children.

The Penn Mission Hall opened there in 1864, and by fall the women had gathered 13 children. It incorporated on Nov. 29, 1864.

The Children’s Home remained downtown until its board of trustees agreed it would be better to move children to the country, away from the smog and slums. It bought a 41-acre country club in Madisonville in 1917, and created a country branch. Once all buildings were finished, residential children were moved out of downtown and onto the home’s current campus.

Today, this main campus hosts 300 children and roughly 150 staff members. But the Children’s Home serves hundreds more children daily through an additional 125 staff workers who conduct outreach programs and home visitations. Their behavioral counselors serve children in more than 80 schools.

“It’s a very sad but true reality that many of the kids we work with would otherwise likely become high school drop outs or become incarcerated,” says Katz, who was recently picked to succeed the retiring Kathy Merchant as president and CEO of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation.

Future Expansion Plans

The Queen City has the second highest child poverty rate in the nation. The need is always greater than the resource, and the Children’s Home staff always wishes they could do a little more.

Cincinnati had 53.1 percent of children living in poverty in 2012, and was second only to Detroit out of 76 major U.S. cities, according to a Children’s Defense Fund study of data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

This shows the wide disparity between wealthy and poor, and the serious need for services, Katz says. “There are a lot of people who are really struggling here financially.”

It is difficult to find funding for the home’s early intervention program, which teaches school readiness skills to children whose families can’t afford preschool, or for the home visitation program, which helps first-time parents who are very poor, mentally ill or teen mothers, she says.

“They’re not lazy or unmotivated or undeserving,” Katz says. “We have to battle that perception.”

With more space and funding, Katz and Burns would like to expand their preschool program, summer camp and autistic high school, and create a job readiness program for graduating students.

Burns typically raises $1 million for the home each year, mostly from individual donors. She is trying to increase that to $2 million, but admits, “To get to that next plateau is really difficult.”

She usually invites prospective donors to campus to meet the children. No matter how young, all children are encouraged to introduce themselves and shake hands with adults. It is often a touching experience for visitors.

“If we can get people on campus, we’ve sold them,” Burns says.

The Children’s Home launched a capital campaign in 2009 to expand and improve their buildings, but had to cut back construction plans after they only raised $10 million of the $25 million needed. So they plan to ramp up for another capital drive in the next few years, Katz says.

Katz is also trying to add more corporate partners to provide work experience for young adults with autism. The home recently added a high school program for autistic children, which is expected to grow by 50 percent during the next school year.

“Children don’t have a choice. They can’t go up to Columbus and advocate for their needs,” Katz says.