Story by Aimee Freston
Photography by Chelsea White
Following the American Civil War, R.C. Buckner was burdened by the devastating need in his country. As he traveled, he witnessed hundreds of children orphaned by war and disease, and it compelled him to take action. “Father” Buckner opened the Buckner Orphans Home in 1879, providing ease and comfort to orphans in the Dallas area. After Father Buckner died, the Orphans Home continued its ministry, and in 1933, orphan Helen Roller found a home there.
At age 8, Roller’s parents died, and she was left on her own. At first, Roller didn’t know what was happening or where she was going as the pastor of First Baptist Church in Amarillo, Texas placed her in the car, but she wasn’t scared, just curious.
Roller was taken to the Buckner Orphans Home and remained there until she was 18 years old and graduated from high school. Today, at 90 years old, Roller has many memories of those formative years.
“It was a large campus,” she says. “And when I think back, I think of those big buildings and all the children.”
When Roller first arrived, there were structures for elementary and high school classes, girl and boy dormitories, a chapel, an auditorium, a medical clinic and a dining hall. It was home for Roller.
“It was a self-contained place,” Roller remembers. “I think there were about 650 kids. Most of my class members are gone now, but I still enjoy corresponding with one who keeps in touch with all of us. I talk to her and find out what is happening.”
The first dormitory Roller remembers was a large room with about 30 beds. There weren’t any closets or extra furnishings, and the girls’ dresses were stacked on a chair and handed out each day. However, in 1938, five years after Roller first came to the Orphans Home, the girls dormitory was rebuilt, creating a more relaxed atmosphere and home-like conditions.
“They started building those other buildings and then I had eight [girls] to a room, and we had closets and our own clothes,” Roller says. “As we grew, we would move to other buildings, and by the time we were seniors, there were four of us in a room. Because we lived together and attended school together, we felt like sisters.”
Living at the Orphans Home wasn’t much different than other homes – other than the multitude of children. Manna Hall, the dining room, was located between the boy and girl dormitories. The boys and girls would march into the hall from either side at the same time. Once the children were seated, they sang a song and said a prayer.
Afterward, the children attended school and completed their chores. The boys did farm work outside while the girls did tasks in the laundry and kitchen.
But there was also time for fun. Roller remembers a man from Dallas occasionally coming to play a movie in the auditorium for the children to watch.
“We got to see all the Shirley Temple movies,” she says. “Because they were good, clean movies, nothing bad in them. We also saw a few westerns.”
The highlight of the year, however, was Christmas. On Christmas Eve, the children would filter into the auditorium for a joy-filled ceremony with an appearance by Santa Claus. On the stage, several trees would be decorated with lights, tinsel and ornaments. Arranged around the stage there was, what were affectionately called, the Christmas strings.
The Christmas strings contained presents for each child securely tied on without wrappings or bows, a simplified but quaint form of distributing gifts to the many children living at the Orphans Home.
“Everything was attached to the strings,” Roller remembers. “We had a little bag with an orange and an apple on one side and on the other side, a few nuts and hard candy. Tied to the bag would be a little toy. When you were older, it might be a piece of clothing.”
Roller graduated from high school and moved away from the Orphans Home on her 18th birthday. As when she was 8 and first traveling to the Orphans Home, she wasn’t scared, but ready to embark on the next chapter of her life.
She entered a cadet nursing program at Parkland School of Nursing. The Navy paid for her education in exchange for service after graduation. For the next 23 years, Roller worked as a Navy nurse, stationed in places such as Japan, Vietnam and the U.S. Roller reached the rank of commander and received many prestigious awards and medals for her service. In 1959, she earned her bachelor of science degree from the University of Washington.
After she retired from the Navy, Roller spent the next 10 years traveling the world as a missionary nurse for what was then called the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, serving in countries such as Ethiopia, Thailand, Zimbabwe and Rhodesia.
“I like helping people,” Roller reflects on her time doing medical missions. “It was hard seeing the little kids that needed help. More in Ethiopia than other places because that was when they had a drought and had a lot of starving people. We had a big corrugated tin building where some of the worst cases stayed while we fed them until their weight was up.”
Roller’s adventurous spirit wouldn’t allow her to stay home after serving overseas. For personal travel, she visited any place she had a desire to go – Egypt, New Zealand, Australia, Alaska – never afraid to go by herself if she couldn’t find a travel companion.
These days, Roller stays close to home in Amarillo, but she isn’t inactive by any means. She volunteers at her church, First Baptist Church, and at the retirement center where she lives. She spends a lot of time reading and going for walks.
Occasionally, she will hear something on the news that reminds her about one of her many trips abroad. She keeps a typewritten page with the names and dates of all the places she has visited. With two columns on the sheet, her adventures completely fill the page. Roller is hard pressed to pick a favorite location though. She “just enjoyed it all.”
Looking back on her time at the Buckner Orphans Home, Roller thinks it prepared her for the adventurous lifestyle she enjoyed.
“[Living at the Orphans Home] did make you independent,” she says. “It was up to you to become who you were meant to be. I wouldn’t change my time there for anywhere else.”
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