Part 2: 96-year-old Orphan Train Rider tells her story

The Orphan Train, Part 1
Miss Alice Bernard
Miss Alice Bernard
Miss Alice Bernard
Miss Alice Bernard
(Source: Louisiana Orphan Train Museum)
(Source: Louisiana Orphan Train Museum)
(Source: Louisiana Orphan Train Museum)
(Source: Louisiana Orphan Train Museum)

OPELOUSAS (KPLC) - It's been said everybody has a story to tell. But every now and then, you stumble across some who have a story that's overflowing with joy, with pain, with heartache and happiness all rolled into one.

And that's what was discovered on a trip to Opelousas.

Step back in time at the Orphan Train Museum.

It's an eloquent memorial to forgotten children. Little souls that many didn't even realize existed. But here in downtown Opelousas, sits a museum that honors the lives of the children who had no place to go.

They were homeless on the streets of New York, many of them the children of immigrants. In 1853, a group call the Children's Aid Society raised money to send them on trains, to new homes in rural America.

Flo Inhern, the historian at the Orphan Train Museum in Opelousas, said, "They estimate there were probably 2,000 children that came, but we cannot prove that. But we have over 300 of them in our files."

Inhern is proud of the display of honor that she tenderly cares for each day.

The museum houses actual artifacts from theses little riders who came to Louisiana. Their pictures hang on the wall. Relatives have even donated the clothing they arrived in.

To have a descendant come forward is one thing, but to fine an actual surviving rider is a joy you can't imagine.

Miss Alice Bernard said, "I survived. So far."

Miss Alice Bernard is one of the few Orphan Train riders left. She is 96.

"Yes, I think I'm 96," she said. "I'm not 97 yet, am I?"

Alice was just three years old when she got off the train so she doesn't remember the ride. But unfortunately, she remembers the stigma of not belonging. She said, "They would tease me because I was an orphan. They would tease me. They always made me feel like I was not one of them really."

It's not a sentiment of all of the riders. Many who made their way to Cajun Country felt they were truly a part of the way of life here, but there were some stories of exploitation.

It was rural America and some of the farmers saw the children as nothing more than cheap labor. The placing of the children in homes was usually done through the Catholic Church. Announcements were printed out that the Orphan Train would be coming through and families would literally place an order on what type of child they wanted – a boy, a girl and the age.

Alice said, "I felt like my daddy loved me. But I didn't feel love from my adopted mother. I think I was adopted to be a servant, really."

But through it all, Alice is a survivor. A tiny 3-year-old stepped off a train in 1919 as Alice Kearn and became Alice Geoffrey. She eventually married and had seven children and surrounded herself with the family she never had as a child.

The Orphan Train Museum is grateful to have found Alice. She's a living reminder of why the Orphan Train Society is so important.

"So, now, they have been elevated. They have a place of honor. We are so proud to do this for them," Flo said

The Orphan Train Museum in Opelousas has in its files some 300 children who came through Louisiana, but we know there are many more. With November being National Adoption Awareness Month, this is a good time to invite anyone whose loved one was an Orphan Train Rider to contact them at 337-942-7845.

You can also click HERE for a webpage dedicated to the Orphan Train. To read Part 1 in this series, click HERE.

Videographer for this series was Tim Bourgeois.

Copyright 2012 KPLC. All rights reserved.