Whitaker Children's Home, in one iteration or another, has been around Pryor since 1897. It was founded by a couple of early Pryorites, W.T. Whitaker and his wife Stacy.
W.T. (William Thomas) Whitaker was born in North Carolina, in 1854. He was a native member of the Cherokee Tribe, and was 1/8 Cherokee.
When Whitaker was 17 years old, he moved to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) and stayed 4 years. At the age of 21, he moved back to North Carolina and married his wife Stacy, who was 14 or 15 at the time. After 6 more years in North Carolina, they moved to Indian Territory in 1881. They spent a few months in Muskogee, and moved to Chouteau where Whitaker ran a mercantile store for 5 years. In 1887, the Whitakers moved to Pryor, Indian Territory. The following year, Whitaker, with the help of some others, built Pryor's first school building, which was also used as a church on Sundays.
After the civil war, a lot of non-Cherokees moved into the Cherokee Nation. Many of these people had difficult lives in harsh conditions, without adequate medical care, education, etc. While there were schools and orphanages maintained by the Cherokee Nation and funded by the federal government, non-Cherokees could not use these facilities. So the Whitakers began taking orphaned and destitute white children into their home.
By 1897, the Whitakers had so many children they established the Whitaker Children's Home in a two-story building on their 40 acres of land, near Pryor at the time. Now it is well inside the city. They cared for about 30 children at first, placing additional children in private homes. They accepted children up to 14 years old.
The children worked. Whitaker believed "A working child is a happy child." The girls did housekeeping and the older ones sewed clothes for themselves and the younger children. The boys worked on the farm, producing food and livestock. The home was almost self-sufficient, surviving on the produce from the farm and from donations.
In 1903, the Cherokee Orphan Home near Salina burned, and 50 of the children were moved to the Whitaker Children's home. Whitaker accepted both white and Native American children from this time forward.
The state accepted Whitaker Children's Home a year after statehood, 1908, and it became the Oklahoma State Home, a few other names, and finally Whitaker State Orphan's Home. A year later, W.T. Whitaker resigned as director. The same year he established Whitaker Park, the main city park in Pryor.
By 1911 Whitaker State Home had grown, housing 287 children and 25 staff in 14 buildings on the 40-acre main campus, with a total of 590 acres and 30 buildings. In 1943 there were close to 350 children at the home. Since then, Whitaker Children's Home was expanded and modified, and by 1960 there were more than 500 children living at the home. In 1945, the school was placed under the authority of Pryor Public Schools.
In 1962, Whitaker changed roles from an Orphan's home to a school for troubled juveniles; non-offenders, children who were deprived or were in need of supervision.
In March of 1983, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services closed Whitaker because of a decline in the number of juveniles going to institutions. The state put Whitaker for sale at sealed bid. The sale included 640 acres, a meat packing plant, and 50-75 buildings.
The property was appraised at $2,755,016, and the state was required to sell it for at least 90% of that value. Nobody was interested. Other than a couple of acres bought by the city of Pryor, the property did not sell.
A few months later, Whitaker Home was transferred to the Oklahoma Military Department and became the Whitaker Education Training Center. In 1993, the Thunderbird Youth Academy was established at Whitaker, under the Oklahoma National Guard.
The Thunderbird Youth Academy accepts youth who are high school dropouts or at high risk of dropping out, who want a positive change in their lives. The cadets spend 22 weeks in residence at Whitaker, and a year in a mentorship program. The Thunderbirds are not juvenile delinquents. Nobody is allowed in the program who has a previously convicted of felony or capital offense. The Thunderbirds are young men and women who enter the program voluntarily, and must work and follow the rules to complete the program.
In a structured environment that is free of drugs and alcohol, the Thunderbird education program includes work toward a GED, high school credits, and college classes, and life skills. About 25 percent of the 150 or so who enroll in a Thunderbird Youth Academy session drop out, usually in the first two weeks, but there is a very high success rate with those who complete the program. An important part of the excellent success rate is the mentor program that each graduate participates in for 12 months after they leave Whitaker.
It's interesting that the Thunderbird program does not encourage or even suggest that their graduates enlist in the military, despite the strict, military-like program. Only about 10 percent do. Most continue their education or enter the workforce after graduation from the academy.
The Thunderbird youth participate in various community activities. Without exception, I have found them helpful, courteous, and very well behaved. It is a pleasure to interact with them.
The 3,000 Oklahoma youth who have graduated from Thunderbird Youth Academy have been a great benefit to Pryor, during their 22-week visit, and the vast majority are assets to their respective communities. Pryor is lucky to have this very effective program, a positive step in the long evolution of Whitaker Children's Home.