If you look back on your days in junior high or high school, you might remember the kid who seemed to demand attention by acting out.
Or, maybe you remember a kid who didn’t have many friends.
Maybe you were that kid, one who craved attention or friendship.
University of Illinois senior Joe Ehrich is a reminder that a child can work through those emotional struggles and come out poised and inspiring.
Of course, he could not do it alone. No child can.
Kids need guidance, and we take for granted that there are always adults around to give it.
Ehrich didn’t get it from his parents in the first several years of his life, and that led to his placement at Maryville Academy, which for decades has housed abused and neglected children classified as wards of the state.
I met Ehrich, 22, Tuesday at Maryville in Des Plaines, where he was a featured speaker at a luncheon for the Ed McCaskey Scholarship Fund. Ehrich and Bears long snapper Patrick Mannelly were the honorees.
“If anyone told me 10 years ago, ‘You’ll be speaking here,’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, you’re dreaming,’” he said. “It’s so surreal.”
A McCaskey scholarship recipient, Ehrich recalled Maryville as a safe place where he established a measure of trust with peers and staff. He has fond memories of trips to Six Flags and White Sox games.
He found a sense of security, crucial for a child’s upbringing, but missed being part of a family, though it helped that older brother Andrew was with him at Maryville. “I couldn’t just go up and get a hug and a kiss from anyone,” he said.
It was during that stay in Maryville that an aunt and uncle moved to the Chicago area from Ohio and found out about the brothers and other siblings.
“We decided we needed to do something, even if it was to visit them for ice cream so they knew they had family,” said his aunt, Amy Ehrich, who is now known as Joe’s mom.
She and husband Brad adopted the boys when Joe was 12. Joe and Andrew became brothers to the couple’s biological son, John.
“Joe was happy to be a part of something,” Amy Ehrich said. “The hardest part was school. The biggest hurdle was learning how to be friends with people. There were behavior issues and calls to the principal’s office.
“But in high school, he really took off.”
At Peotone High School, Joe found his passion for music and theater. He landed a starring role in the “Little Shop of Horrors.” The kid who seemed destined for a lifetime of trouble flourished. Brother Andy also did pretty well. He, too, won a McCaskey scholarship and attended Eastern Illinois University.
At U. of I., Ehrich is part of the varsity men’s glee club and helped coordinate a tour to eastern states last year. He applied for and got a $4,000 grant for the club.
The love and attention he craved? He now offers it to cats and dogs as an animal sciences major. Look out, Purina. His resume is coming to you.
Asked about a message to Joe’s story, Amy Ehrich said: “I don’t think you can give up on a child. Who knows when you will make a connection?
“No matter how they are labeled, who knows what will be the thing to make a difference?”