First Coast News 2016
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A Jacksonville man has dedicated his life’s work to helping children. His passion comes from knowing firsthand what it’s like to be abused and exploited as a child.
For five years, Jon Heymann lived in the Athens Infant Asylum in Greece. His recollection of exactly what went on within the asylum’s walls is at times sketchy.
Some of his experiences he prefers to forget. While going through old photos of the institution, he recalled how eerie it was to walk down its long hallways leading to rooms filled with children.
“It was creepy,” said Heymann. “Just creepy that any kid would even live there.”
During a visit to the asylum, now an art gallery, back in 2008, Heymann was approached by an older woman who worked there. She helped fill-in the blank spaces for the father of three.
“She brought (a photograph) to us and said, ‘This is the doctor,'” recalled Heymann. “I didn’t know about this part of my life. ‘This is the doctor that signed your death certificate.’ I said, ‘What?!’ And she said, ‘That’s how they could put you out in the community because your real parents then thought you were dead.'”
Heymann was told he and others left at the asylum were rented out to strangers. Families would put the children to work, sometimes as beggars in the street. “I do believe they abused us so that we looked hurt. And we were. We were famished. I mean we were skinny,” he said.
There’s a movie set in India that Heymann could not bring himself to watch until several years after its release.
“If you’ve ever seen the movie “Slum Dog Millionaire,” you know that they used the kids as professional beggars, and that was my memory,” said Heymann.
The Parthenon, a magnificent piece of Greek history, serves as a dark reminder for Heymann. At that very site, as a young child, he stole from tourists.
“I always remember handing that stuff to those adults,” said Heymann. “It was the rubble or any kind of coins and wallets. It was handing that to these adults and then they would feed me.”
In 1957, Heymann’s life took a turn that still leaves him wondering, “Why me?”
Unbeknownst to the Heymanns, they illegally adopted Pontelemon Coudounas, Heymann’s birth name.
Published articles, so-called bread box babiesand black market babies’ support groups share the stories Heymann was told over the years. There are allegations of illegal adoption rings flourishing in Greece for more than a decade after the 1946-49 Greek Civil War. They’re coupled with claims of babies being stolen from their Greek parents and shipped all over the world — to adoptive parents who were unaware of their origins.
A bill Heymann still clings to — dated January, 1957 — shows the Heymanns paid for their two adopted children to be flown from Greece to the U.S. supervised. But instead, they flew alone to New York. One was nearly five years old, thin and frail, and the other, Heymann’s adoptive sister, was still a baby, carried in a basket. The pair would become a part of the type of loving family Heymann says every child deserves.
His wife, Cheryl, says it wasn’t until they were married for several years and had kids that her husband decided to open up about his past, which helped her to more clearly understand the present.
“He has such a heart for children, he wants to do what’s best for kids and I think that comes from his ability to remember how it was,” said Cheryl Heymann.
Now the chief executive officer for the Jacksonville Children’s Commission, he advocates on behalf of children working to make sure their needs are met.
“I don’t want kids to hurt like I did,” said Heymann. “And I know they do right here in Jacksonville.”
Unlike many so-called bread box babies, Heymann has no desire to find out who left him at the asylum on Piraeus Street. “The Heymanns loved me, I’m a child of the Heymanns.”
Heymann says as far as he knows, he was dropped off at the Athens Children’s Asylum possibly because his parents couldn’t afford to take care of him at the time.
That was the case for many parents after the Greek Civil War. He chose to share his story to inspire others to look outside of their own worlds and comfort zones and invest time in Jacksonville’s children.