The enjoyment of the lush beauty of Westfield, New Jersey during the summer of 1891 was tempered by concern for the unfortunate children living in tenements in nearby cities who were denied the warm sunshine and fresh air of Westfield’s then rural community.
Concerned local residents held their first meeting on June 30, 1891 to discuss how they could help the children. William G. Peckham and Laura Thurston Peckham led the group which organized a Board of Managers and named Laura as president.
The group decided to operate a summer haven for the children in the hopes that a respite from city life would bolster their health and well being. William Peckham appealed to the ministers of Westfield’s churches and their congregants to help the unfortunate children. The local residents eagerly raised money through bake sales and benefits and collected household items and furnishings to outfit a "home away from home" for the children.
On July 15, 1892, Children’s welcomed its first residents to its home at the Levi Cory House at the corner of Mountain Avenue and New Providence Road. The 59 children who stayed at Children’s that summer relished life in the country. Most had only known poverty, deprivation, and squalor in the urban slums they called home. After a two-week stay filled with plenty of good food, fresh air, and exercise, they were returned home with new clothes, shoes, and hats donated by charitable folks.
While Children’s was originally intended as a respite from city life, it soon became apparent that the children were in desperate need of medical attention. Local doctors, dentists, and nurses donated their time and skills to tend to their various needs.
A certificate of incorporation was filed on April 4, 1893. The original name chosen for the hospital was Children’s Country Home, reinforcing the stated purpose, which was the care, nurturance, and maintenance of sick, injured, infirm, indigent, orphaned, and destitute children and the training and education of persons, both male and female, to act as nurses.
Children’s quickly outgrew its original dwelling and moved to its present site on New Providence Road, known then as the Thomas Drew Farmstead. Built by early settler Jonathon Crane in 1750 and purchased in 1896 for $6,225, the 10-acre parcel had changed ownership several times before being purchased by Thomas Drew. The descendants of Thomas Drew were the famous acting Barrymore family which included John, Ethel, Lionel, and Maurice, who may have used the Farmstead as a summer residence. The only evidence of the farmhouse today is the tree trunk posts in the basement.
Life at Children’s during the early 1900s was filled with visitors who entertained the children with ice cream and pony rides. On ordinary days, the children enjoyed the many excitements that the Home offered to them including its own "farm" with lambs, sheep, rabbits, ducks, chickens, guinea hens, guinea pigs, and alligators sent from Florida. Gathering apples, cherries, and pears and fishing for minnows in the stream were popular recreational activities.
In late summer of 1942 the polio epidemic hit New Jersey with great force. On August 26 of that summer the first child with polio was admitted to Children’s. By 1945 the number of children with polio who needed care had reached epidemic numbers and admissions to Children’s were restricted to polio patients. Every day of the week except Sunday, volunteer aides provided help in treating the children with hot woolen packs, known as Kenny Packs for the nurse who devised the treatment, passive motion, muscle stimulation, and mental awareness. Thanks to the care they received it was noted that many of the children were leaving Children’s, almost miraculously, on their own two feet. After a polio vaccine was developed in 1956, Children’s began welcoming children with many forms of physical disabilities.
In 1962, Children’s Country Home officially became Children’s Specialized Hospital to better reflect the true nature of the work being done there. The change in name marked the start of what has become the continuous growth of services for children and resulted in Children’s being the largest provider of pediatric rehabilitation services in the United States.
During the next two decades Children’s underwent numerous construction projects resulting in the expansion of service areas including a new 60-bed inpatient unit.
In 1988, the Long Term Care Unit, New Jersey’s first hospital-based pediatric skilled care facility, was proudly launched to provide 24-hour loving care for 25 children with a multitude of complex medical needs. That same year, Children’s opened the Hospital’s Outpatient Center in Fanwood. Rehabilitative services provided there included physical, occupational, and speech therapies, psychological and cognitive remediation, and extensive rehabilitation counseling. The Outpatient Center also welcomed a child care center plus the Preschool and Early Intervention programs for children with disabilities or developmental delays.
Children’s brought its expertise to the children and families of southern New Jersey when it opened a 30-bed unit in Toms River in 1992. The nearby availability of inpatient, outpatient, and long term care by experienced pediatric professionals in a bright, clean facility was welcomed by local residents.
In 1994, Children’s opened the Day Hospital at its Mountainside campus. This innovative program offers intensive rehabilitation for children, adolescents, and young adults who no longer require overnight skilled nursing care but are not quite ready for regular outpatient services. Children’s also implemented Long Term Care services at its Toms River site.
By 1995, Children’s Early Intervention Expansion Program began providing services for children up to three years of age at sites in Millburn, Plainfield, and Elizabeth with the use of a Mobile Unit.
A newly renovated and expanded Ambulatory Care Center was dedicated at the Mountainside site in 1996 to meet the demand for increased outpatient services. Primary level classes were added to the School Program at the Fanwood campus to provide primary level education for children with special needs up to nine years of age. Pediatric Practice sites were established in Newark and Union to provide for all aspects of primary, preventive, and specialized pediatric healthcare for children with special needs and their siblings.
In 1998, Children’s began providing Early Intervention Program services exclusively in each child’s natural setting such as their home or child care setting.
Children’s Specialized Hospital became an affiliate member of the Robert Wood Johnson Health System in 1999 to collaborate with other medical professionals and provide the most comprehensive pediatric rehabilitation care in the state. Children’s also began to provide rehabilitation services at the Millburn-Short Hills Athletic Club for children and adolescents.
True to its Mission to help children and families in need, Children’s began the year 2000 by assuming responsibility for the Rosemary Cuccaro Pediatric Medical Day Care Center in Elizabeth for children with chronic medical conditions and disabilities. With outpatient speech therapy services at the Toms River site reaching an all-time high, Children’s opened an outpatient facility on Main Street in 2001 to handle the ever-increasing demand for these services.
Thanks to the hard work, perseverance, and generosity of the many people involved with Children’s Specialized Hospital, it has grown from a summer respite for the underprivileged to the largest comprehensive pediatric rehabilitation system in the United States. Along the way, thousands of infants, children, adolescents, and young adults have regained their health, learned how to walk and talk, or adapted to their abilities.
Children's Specialized Hospital is now in its third century of caring for those in need. Its Boards of Trustees, physicians, therapists, nurses, staff, volunteers, and donors remain dedicated to the very ideals of the Hospital's founders and committed to providing the best care possible so that every child who seeks their help reaches his or her fullest potential.