J. Creighton Hay was among the many children whose survival depended on the Charleston Orphan House, the first publicly supported orphanage in the U.S.

Established by City Council in 1790, its five-story building at Calhoun and St. Philip streets opened four years later.

Initially, the facility housed about 115 children, but the population grew to more than 300 shortly after the Civil War.

Hay, now 77, was placed in the orphanage in February 1939 along with two brothers. He followed in the footsteps of older siblings.

When his father's first wife died, four children were placed in the orphanage. When his father remarried, the children were brought home, and the couple had two more kids, including Creighton Hay. But then his father died in 1938, leaving six children under the care of his mother -- too much for her to handle, Hay said.

He was 5 when he entered the orphanage, and he grew up under the care of its staff until he "aged out" at 18 to go to college and then the Army.

Back then, the orphanage arranged to pay his tuition for two years and front the money for another two years, he said.

Many years later, Hay is joining his friends at the Carolina Youth Development Center in marking 220 years of continuous operations, and many thousands of children served.

Modern challenges

In 1952, the original Orphan House downtown was sold to Sears Roebuck & Co. for $350,000, and the population moved to its new campus in North Charleston, 37 acres then known as Oak Grove Plantation.

In 1978, it became a private nonprofit. Three years later, it merged with Horizon House and Big Brothers Big Sisters, adoptingits current name.

It operates emergency and long-term shelters for children, a mentoring program, career counseling and development, a clinical day school and a Freedom School summer program sponsored by the Children's Defense Fund. Children "age out" at 18, but new programs have been put in place to ease the transition to college, the workplace and permanent housing, according to Kate Lloyd, director of development.

Between 100 and 150 children are accommodated annually in CYDC's two group homes and three emergency shelters at its North Charleston campus, according to information provided by the organization. Most were removed from their homes because of abuse and neglect, and all are economically disadvantaged. Some are runaways. A little more than half of the children are black; the rest are white (38 percent), Hispanic (6 percent) and multiracial (2 percent).

Complications

The circumstances of Hay's early years were far different from those that cause the state to place children in institutional care today.

For instance, when the Duke Endowment set up its Childcare Division in 1924 to assist orphans, about 95 percent of the children housed in group homes were there because one or both parents had died, according to Director Rhett Mabry.

Today, 95 percent of children in state care live in foster or group homes because of abuse and neglect, Mabry said.

The challenges today are manifold, requiring a multipronged approach to state-sponsored child care, Mabry said. Budgets are shrinking even as the number of providers have multiplied in recent decades. What's needed, he said, are more full-service agencies that focus on better, licensed child-care providers, whether foster families or institutions.

The Duke Endowment is trying to figure out what is the proper array of services and whether a hub-and-spoke system of networked regional providers makes more sense than moving children from foster home to foster home.

"What we create right now is a system of failure," Mabry said.

CYDC takes pride in its longevity and expanded services, according to administrators.

Uninterrupted service for 220 years "is a phenomenal accomplishment," said Chief Executive Officer Barbara Kelley Duncan.

"There have been lots of changes, but we've never lost sight of our mission" to serve children.

Funding crunch

Last month, the organization raised nearly $100,000 at its seventh annual black-tie gala -- a big boost to the budget, Duncan said.

This fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, the budget dropped to $3.7 million from $4.1 million, according to Kate Lloyd. State funding channeled to CYDC by the Department of Social Services once accounted for about 70 percent of the annual budget. Because of recent drastic cuts imposed by the Legislature, state money now represents 48 percent of CYDC's budget and could fall further, Lloyd and Duncan said.

To make up part of the difference, they are applying for a lot of grants and relying on support from an active board of directors and an aggressive public relations campaign organized gratis by the firm Chernoff Newman.

One program that possibly will fall victim to the chopping block is the summer Freedom School, which costs $60,000 to run.

"It would be a loss not just for CYDC," Duncan said. "It's a loss for the parents of the community as well."

It was a capital campaign in the early 1990s that got Hay involved in the organization again.

He was working for Almatis (soon to be renamed Alcoa) at the time the CYDC came looking for financial support, Hay said. The plant manager called Hay's boss, the head of engineering and maintenance, who knew of Hay's history with the orphanage and asked his colleague if he'd be interested in helping with the nonprofit's building project.

Hay toured the North Charleston campus with former director Ed Ledford and mentioned that he'd been a resident once upon a time. Soon after, he was invited to join the board. He served as chairman for two years.

The old orphanage, which was torn down, was a magnificent building with open dormitories; the new campus is less institutional with more privacy for residents, he said.

The physical plant isn't the only thing that's changed, Hay said. So have the experiences of the children.

"Mistreatment (at home) was less common back in those days," he said. "Most orphans were from families who couldn't or wouldn't take care of them."

Abuse and neglect were not unknown, he added, but they didn't seem to be the main reason children found themselves at the Orphan House.

Hay said he's proud of what the CYDC has become.

"It's a good organization," he said.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902.