‘This place saved my life’
‘Orphan Boy’ – and his panda – found hope at St. Joseph
BY CLIFF RADEL | CRADEL@ENQUIRER.COM
The Orphan Boy cuddled Puddles the Panda.
No one needed to ask him twice to do it, even though he stood in the middle of the gym at St. Joseph Orphanage in Monfort Heights within view of groups of curious children.
The stuffed toy and Steve Feldmann, the grown man who calls himself the Orphan Boy, have known each other forever.
For years, Puddles was his only friend and his entire family.
The panda with the missing eyes and well-worn nose was his first gift. No one knows who gave Feldmann the bear.
“I don’t know if I got him at Christmas,” said the 40-year-old West Chester resident. “But I do know he is the only thing I have from the orphanage.”
Thirty-one years ago, Feldmann clutched a much younger Puddles to his chest as he walked out the front doors of St. Joseph Orphanage just before his ninth birthday.
After spending the first years of his life in orphanages and foster homes, he was on his way to live with his adoptive parents, teachers Don and Tracy Feldmann.
Over the years, St. Joseph has stayed with Feldmann. The orphanage remains in his thoughts and in his heart, especially at Christmas, and particularly this Christmas, with the tragic story of Marcus Fiesel – the 3-year-old whose foster parents are charged with leaving him to die in a closet – still in the news.
“When I heard the story about Marcus and saw his picture, I had to close the door of my office and say a prayer for him and wipe my eyes,” Feldmann said.
“I thought, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ ”
Then, he added:
“There are so many good stories about kids who have been in foster care. I’m one of them.”
As he spoke, Feldmann stood in St. Joseph’s main hall. Where he once ran as an orphan boy, he now walks as an adult as a member of the executive committee of the venerable institution’s board of advisers.
“I have to be involved here,” Feldmann said.
“This place saved my life.
“This place put me back together.
“This place gave me my mom and my dad.”
Born at Good Samaritan Hospital on Aug. 9, 1966, to a single mother, Steve was given up for adoption as an infant. He spent the next two years in a home for infants before going through a series of foster homes.
From ages 4 to 6, he lived with what he calls “my best placement,” a family, a mom and a dad and a sister. “It was so good they were making plans to adopt me. They were even talking about me having surgery to have my birth defects fixed.”
Feldmann detailed his physical problems:
“I had a cleft lip and the right side of my face was not growing as fast as the left. I needed work on my nose, one eye, my jaw, a cheekbone and my mouth.”
Before the adoption could proceed, the parents’ daughter became ill and the family had to move to Tucson. Steve went with them. Then the girl’s condition worsened, and the family could not afford two children.
So, at the age of 6, Steve boarded a plane with a social worker and headed back to Cincinnati. He was placed at St. Joseph with a dozen other boys his age in the dorm named Eager Beavers.
The name stuck. Feldmann has been an eager beaver ever since.
“That’s why I call myself Orphan Boy,” he said. Feldmann uses the name as an inspiration to do his best, at home, at work and throughout his life.
He graduated from Covington Latin School in 1982. Four years later, at the age of 19, he earned his bachelor’s degree from Thomas More College. A law degree from the University of Kentucky came in 1989. He has two children, Julia, 5, and Nick, 3. He’s married to the former Kate Davis. They met while working in Congressman John Boehner’s Washington, D.C., office. Feldmann now works in West Chester as Student Lending Works’ director of legal and government affairs.
“I’ve come a long way,” Feldmann said. “When I came here, I was a mess. My sense of security was shattered. I wondered if I would ever be part of a family.”
In the early 1970s, St. Joseph was going through “a transition period,” noted Bob Wehr, the facility’s executive director. Social-service agencies were placing more and more orphans in foster homes.
Orphanages such as St. Joseph, which was established in 1829, were retooling to handle orphans as well as psychiatrically troubled youth.
“When Steve came here,” Wehr said, “we had 80 to 100 residents. The average stay was two to four years.”
Today, St. Joseph is home to fewer than two dozen residents. The average stay, Wehr said, lasts “between 90 days and six months.”
Feldmann vaguely remembers his first and only Christmas at the orphanage. He recalls lots of kids, plenty of presents and no visitors.
He fondly remembers counselors, too many to name, too kind to be believed, “who helped us, who cared for us, who made a difference in our lives, who were there for us.”
To him they are “angels.”
Two angels entered his life in the summer of 1974. Don and Tracy Feldmann went to the orphanage to run a summer workshop. They saw Steve. He saw them. Something clicked. They came back to visit. Steve started going to their house on weekends.
He and Don shared the same birthday and a passion for art.
He and Tracy shared an immediate bond. The boy and his mom-to-be cried themselves to sleep on nights when they were apart.
Their tears of sorrow turned to tears of joy on March 11, 1975. That’s when the Feldmanns told Steve he would be coming home with them. Forever.
“They even paid for the surgeries to repair my birth defects,” he said. “They sat through eight-hour operations to fix my eye and my mouth. I have a piece of a rib in my jaw, a piece of my hip in my cheek.”
Feldmann stays connected to St. Joseph, “because my life started when I met my mom and dad right here.”
He said those words while standing at center court in the orphanage’s gym. Groups of residents passed by. They looked at the man holding a panda named Puddles.
When pressed, Feldmann provided sketchy details about the work he does at the orphanage. He admitted he never misses a toy drive at Christmas.
He donates what he never had as a kid, particularly toy cars.
“God, did I love to look at cars when I was kid,” he said. “But I never got one at the orphanage.”
He does not give stuffed pandas. The connection he has to Puddles is too complex to allow him to do that.
Every Christmas, the Orphan Boy says a prayer for the residents at St. Joseph.
“I hope they grow up to come back here and have a spouse and children who love them.”
At this time of the year, he thinks back to the first Christmas he spent as Don and Tracy Feldmann’s son.
Even now, he can see the living room of their Monfort Heights home.
“Presents were everywhere,” he said.
It was then he realized that the best gift of all wasn’t presents under the tree.
It was the people around it.
“For the first time in my life,” he said, “I could see my family.”