The Early Years – 1895 to 1920
Sunny Hills Services, originally the San Francisco Presbyterian Orphanage & Farm, was founded on February 22, 1895 by Mrs. P.D. Browne and a group of Presbyterian women. The setting was on 20 acres of land located along Sir Francis Drake Highway in San Anselmo, about a ¼ mile from the center of town at that time. The property had been part of the J.O.B. Short Ranch, itself a portion of the old Rancho Canada de Herrera that had been granted by the Mexican government in 1840. While the land was being developed, the Orphanage took up temporary quarters in a rented home in San Rafael located on E Street between 4th and 5th Streets.
The Orphanage, also known as “The Home,” took in orphaned and “half orphaned” (divorced or widowed single parents who were unable to care for their children) boys and girls between the ages of 3 and 16 without regard to religious creed. The number of children in residence varied from 100 to 130. From the start, children were trained so that by age 15, or when they left the Orphanage, they could make their way in the homes where they were placed. Boys were taught plowing, care of animals on the farm, construction and household work. Girls were taught sewing, laundry and housework.
In February 1900, the new buildings of the Orphanage & Farm were dedicated. Total cost of the land and buildings was $19,000, much of which was paid for by generous donations from Captain Robert Dollar, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, and Mr. and Mrs. N.P. Rideout. In 1902, by virtue of another generous donation, the Robert Dollar schoolhouse was completed accommodating more than 100 pupils. In 1904, the name was legally changed to the Presbyterian Orphanage & Farm.
In 1920, Captain Robert Dollar presented the Orphanage with an additional 42.6 acres of pasture land as a Christmas gift because “milk is a necessity to children.” In 1922, the Orphanage became a charter member of the San Francisco Community Chest. At the time, the Orphanage had an annual income of $70,000 derived from bequests and other legacy gifts, the Community Chest and proceeds from the annual Grape Festival. The annual cost of supporting one child was $75 and $30 for nursery children.
In the 1930’s, the Farm became known as “Sunny Hills” though the legal name of the institution remained the same. A major staff reorganization took place in 1938 to make Sunny Hills more professional. All staff were required to have a university education and some teaching experience. Every child had a bank book and a check book for their Sunny Hills bank.
In the 1940’s, the Foster Care Act eliminated the “warehousing” of children and virtually did away with orphanages. Children were relocated and placed into foster homes. In the first half of the decade, the first guilds were established, followed by the Junior Auxiliary in 1946. Sunny Hills was recognized by the San Francisco Community Chest for its work in the child welfare field. As an agency, Sunny Hills met the standards set by the Federal Children’s Bureau.
In the 1950’s, Sunny Hills decided to follow the direction in which it had been moving and focus on residential treatment for youth with emotional and/or behavioral problems. The nursery was closed and an emphasis was placed on treating adolescent children. In 1955, the Child Welfare League completed a report, at the request of the Board, which recommended the population be reduced to 45 or fewer with highly individualized care and cottage living. The next year, the agency opened its residential treatment program for emotionally disturbed children.
The first group home opened in 1961. In spring 1964, with support from the Bargain Box, Sunny Hills opened a halfway house in Mill Valley for six boys making transitions to the outside world. In April 1965, a cluster of new buildings was built on campus, including the administration building and four residential cottages, each housing up to 10 boys or girls. A new day treatment program for children opened in 1966 providing services 11 months a year, 5 days a week, between 9:00 am and 5:00 pm. The name of the agency was legally changed to “Sunny Hills Children’s Services” in 1967.
With monies from the estate of Charles Evans and private foundations, the Evans Center was opened in 1972 to provide therapeutic activities for the youth. In 1975, Sunny Hills was accredited as a psychiatric facility by the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Hospitals, making the agency eligible to receive federal and state funding and private insurance.
The 1980’s saw the majority of kids at intake having been placed in residential treatment for emotional and/or behavioral problems usually stemming from abuse, abandonment or neglect. The average stay was just short of two years with another year of aftercare. The James R. Sylla nonpublic school was dedicated in 1989.
Sunny Hills celebrates its 100th anniversary in 1995, “Ten Decades of Caring For Children.” Several mergers took place this decade including one with Threshold for Change, a group home for teens, and another with Braun Programs, a group home and day treatment program. A merger was also completed with Children’s Garden in 1999, and the merged entity formally took the name “Sunny Hills Children’s Garden Family & Children's Services.”
2000 to present
In 2005, the legal name was changed to “Sunny Hills Services.” The organization expanded its programming to Sonoma County in 2007 and added the ACT Program the following year. Due to weakening demand for residential care, Sunny Hills closed its residential treatment program and the James R. Sylla nonpublic school in June 2008, the outcome of three-year strategic planning process. In October 2008, BAYC, based in Hayward, CA, merged with Sunny Hills. Today, Sunny Hills serves approximately 2000 children and their families or caregivers through an array of community-based programs located across Marin, Sonoma, Napa and Alameda counties.