The warm and inviting lobby of The Cradle, 2049 Ridge Ave., feels more like a family’s living room than an entrance to an adoption agency.  A fire is lit in the fireplace, photos of children and their families decorate the walls and old bookcases are filled with photo albums of recorded milestones: a child’s first birthday, a graduation, a wedding.

“The Cradle is where people have formed their families,” says Joan Jaeger, director of marketing. “It is very important to us that we keep connected with the families that we helped to create.”

The not-for-profit, non-sectarian, state licensed adoption agency has, in fact, served as a transitional home for thousands of children since its founding in 1923. In its nearly 90 years of existence, the agency has found homes for more than 14,000 infants, some of whom spent time living in the agency’s on-site nursery.

The Cradle is the only adoption agency in the country to continue to support an on-site nursery.

One Woman’s Mission

The Cradle wouldn’t exist today if it weren’t for one woman’s determination to help her sister, who was unable to bear children, find a child in need of a loving home.

Florence Dahl Walrath was born in Chicago in 1877. Shortly after graduation from North Division High School, Florence married William Bradley Walrath, a lawyer. They settled in Evanston and had four children.

In 1914, Florence Walrath’s sister lost a child at birth and was told she probably would not be able to have another. Mrs. Walrath knew there were babies in need of homes. She quickly got to work calling local hospitals and soon found a child whose mother was compelled by circumstances to place her baby in someone else’s care. Because of her success in this endeavor, the hospitals began to seek out Mrs. Walrath for assistance in finding families for other babies, while other childless couples she knew asked for her help.

The agency began in a two-story brick home, which was moved one block east in 1938 to make way for The Cradle’s permanent facility. A dormitory wing was added to the building in the 1950s to house the nurses who cared for the babies in the nursery. Eager to integrate all aspects of the adoption process, Mrs. Walrath created an infant aide training program for the nurses.

To help promote adoption as a positive way of building a family, Mrs. Walrath reached out to the Hollywood community. Some of The Cradle’s most notable adoptive parents include George Burns and Gracie Allen and Dolores and Bob Hope.

Agency Evolves to Meet Changing Needs

All of the placements in The Cradle’s early years were domestic and the majority of babies were Caucasian. Today, The Cradle places babies of all races with adoptive families of all backgrounds and has a thriving international adoption program. In 1999 the Ardythe and Gale Sayers Center was established, a program committed to finding homes for black and biracial babies and recruiting African Americans as adoptive parents.

In 2009, The Cradle placed 76 babies through its domestic adoption program, including 29 Sayers Center placements, and facilitated the placement of 64 children from 11 countries with families in the United States.

“The Cradle’s unique nursery provides a safe and neutral place for a baby to stay while birth parents consider their options and receive counseling in an effort to make the best possible decision for their child,” says Ms. Jaeger.

The nursery also helps to keep babies from being placed in an already overburdened foster care system.

The majority of today’s adoptions at The Cradle are considered open adoptions, which may range from birth parents meeting the adoptive parents, to exchanging letters and pictures through The Cradle, to continuing communication with the adoptive family based on a mutual agreement.

The Cradle supports university research, provides experts in adoption law, offers child care and social work, trains adoption volunteers and shares its learning through speakers at schools and hospitals. The Cradle’s educational website, www.AdoptionLearningPartners.org, has grown to include 16 interactive, online, adoption-related courses and has logged over 110,000 course enrollments.

Ms. Jaeger says The Cradle is cognizant of the fact that the child does not have a voice in the adoption process, and yet has the most at stake.

“We see The Cradle’s role as advocating for the child by fully educating birth parents and prospective adoptive parents of the law and all their options,” she says. “We believe helping the adults in the picture to make better informed decisions will ultimately benefit the child.”

Florence Walrath once said she did not plan to start an adoption home, but later described The Cradle as a, “portage between a childless home and a homeless child – a very personal portage, because it had a personal beginning.” Today, The Cradle works to live up to Mrs. Walrath’s original mission, serving as “a partner in creating and sustaining nurturing families.”

The Cradle, 847-475-5800 or www.cradle.org.