Our story began in 1832 when the first cholera epidemic broke out in Saint Louis. At the time, it wasn’t uncommon for pioneers to arrive in St. Louis aboard a New Orleans steamboat, contract cholera and die soon after, leaving children without monies or relatives to keep them healthy and safe. By 1834, the number of frightened, homeless children roaming the city streets had risen to alarming levels. Something had to happen to protect the children and the future of the fledgling community of St. Louis.
On December 22, 1834, a group of concerned women, led by local philanthropist Ann Perry, met at the Second Presbyterian Church in downtown St. Louis to discuss how they could help these homeless children. At this meeting, Perry and her group decided on their mission, drafted the initial constitution and by-laws, voted and officially became the St. Louis Association for the Relief of Orphaned Children. (What we know today as Great Circle - Edgewood Children’s Center.)
According to the First Annual Report of the Ladies Protestant Orphan Association in 1835, “The cause of the orphan is one which appeals to every sympathy of the heart – cast upon the wide world, cold and friendless, with none to care for or sympathise (sic) in its wants – what object so successfully pleads for our sympathy, or claim or patronage.” It was in March of this same year that a charter was granted by the state of Missouri to Ann Perry and her group. Enoch Henry Williams was the first child the association took under their care.
It was nearly twenty years before the first of many name changes occurred. Exit: the St. Louis Association for the Relief of Orphan Children. Enter: the St. Louis Protestant Orphan Asylum. The St. Louis Protestant Orphan Asylum grew to a population of 59 children by 1857. Unfortunately, the Asylum became surrounded by city dwellings and lost much of its original charm and security. Gone were the trees and thick, covered areas for the children to play. The board then began initial discussions on finding a more suitable, permanent location to suit the children and Asylum’s needs.
After twelve long years of searching, in 1869, the Rock House and surrounding acreage were purchased to move the children out of the city and way from the influence of disease and poverty. In 1943, at the children’s request, that the organization’s name was officially changed to Edgewood Children’s Center. While Edgewood continued to grow and maintain its preeminence as an ever-changing, flexible program ready to meet the changing needs of children and families, Lt. Bill James was just returning from World War II.
Stirred by harrowing experiences while serving in the Great War, Lt. James vowed “to do something for somebody.” James set out to raise money for a home that could provide treatment for boys with behavioral disorders and problems with the law. With the help of friends in his American Legion post and local St. Louis business leaders, James built the first Boys Town of Missouri campus in St. James, Missouri in 1949. Boys Town of Missouri began a legacy as one of the largest children’s social service agencies in Missouri with the admittance of ten troubled boys.
By the mid-20th century, it was clear that both Edgewood Children’s Center and Boys Town would need to change programming to better reflect the changes in the types of referrals. The services needed to evolve to tend to children causing disruptions in home and at school, children needing more treatment-oriented services, and children displaying signs of severe emotional disorders. In 1955, Edgewood merged with the Forest Park Children’s Center; and, in 1978, a merger with The Girls’ Industrial Home brought adolescent girls to the home for the first time. Ten years later, Boys Town grew with the acquisition of the St. Louis Center campus in 1988; and again in 1989 with the purchase of the Springfield Children’s Home.
The times were changing and the organizations were evolving. Boys Town changed its name to Boys & Girls Town of Missouri, coinciding with the admittance of girls into the organization. To bring the spirit and grandeur of the great outdoors to the children in their care, organization purchased 1,200 pristine acres in the heart of the Mark Twain National Forest with funds donated by several generous supporters. Construction began to create the Meramec Adventure Learning Ranch in 1995, which would become the home to the agency’s therapeutic outdoor recreation programs. . While Boys & Girls Town continued on with campus renovations over the next few years, Edgewood Children’s Center was expanding its own reach and capacities to accept the challenges of the times.
In 2001, Boys & Girls Town merged with the Front Door in Columbia, and eventually relocated the campus to the current Bearfield Road location. In Springfield, the agency opened a new emergency shelter called the Ozark Family Resource Center to expand resourced for children in crisis. By 2008, the Meramec Adventure Learning Ranch was fully operational. The Ranch serves as a permanent base of operations, providing shelter and facilities for non-primitive trips as well as for special events and gatherings. An 8 acre lake was completed concurrently with program expansions and the ranch gaining accreditation by the American Camp Association.
In 2009, Great Circle was formed by the merger of Edgewood Children’s Center with Boys & Girls Town of Missouri. The merger brought together nearly 200 years of youth social services programming and formed one of the largest children’s behavioral health organizations in Missouri. Great Circle impacts the lives of more than 10,000 children and family members each year through its nationally-accredited treatment, education, prevention and support services to children with a history of abuse or neglect, children with emotional and behavioral disorders and children with autism.