My Story of 44 Years at Cookson Hills


Before you give up your old ways, be sure to replace them with something of value.
— Robert Ruark

I am sure there are scriptures to back it up, but this quote has been so profound throughout all my life decisions. I was a mom, wife, and businesswoman who was frantically climbing the corporate ladder. But one day my husband, Don, looked at me and said, “I am going to be a servant of God.” I asked, “But what will I do?” And he invited me to serve alongside him.

I gave up my old ways and found a treasure beyond worth.  

On March 31, 1972, we packed up our bags and moved from Akron, OH to Kansas, OK. We had two kids with us at the time: Donald (age 9) and Nancy (age 14). Donald couldn’t be more excited about the move; Nancy thought we were moving to a prison. But both kids eventually adjusted well. We started at Cookson Hills as houseparents. I lived off of God’s promise that he wouldn’t give more than we could handle. It was the most exciting, hilarious, and terrifying ride I have ever been on. And you know what? I wouldn’t change one thing about it. I still have contact with many of the kids who lived in our home during that time.  

I will always remember Del. God knew exactly what he was doing when he placed Del in our home. He and Don were a cut of the same mold. They were both exquisite woodworkers. After 18 months, it was time for Del to go back to California. He got off that Greyhound bus three times to say goodbye to his father, Don. He never forgot us. Del went on to purchase an old winery with his mother. They gutted it and opened the Wine and Roses Country Inn. Today, it is the ultimate Lodi Wine Country destination. This May, I will be going to Princeton University to watch his son (my spiritual grandson) graduate. I am so proud.

Throughout the past 44 years, we served as houseparents, chef, baker, piano teacher, and grandma. One of my favorite things about teaching piano were the recitals. I remember little Diana, the world’s biggest tomboy. For her first recital, she arrived in a velvet dress, her hair combed to perfection, and beautiful black shoes. I had no idea who had walked through my door that day! She was the art of perfection throughout the evening…that is until she punched somebody for commenting about her appearance.

On March 1, 1993, we “retired.” I have stayed at Cookson Hills because God brought me here and never took me out. He has chosen to take home my husband during those years, but he has left me here and l stay until God calls me home…or they send me away because they don’t know what to do with me. Now I help within our campus food store, hold a Bible Study and prayer meeting, and hug a lot of kids. I was delighted when the Tinkler family adopted me! They mow my lawn and always bring their new kids to meet me and my dog, Ben. The Greens take me to church, the Weavers come to hear stories, the Atkins have impromptu prayer meetings, and the Johnsons have come over every day for almost two months to put eye drops in my eyes. I am so blessed beyond measure by the King of the Universe.

Throughout my time here, I have watched God provide for Cookson Hills in so many ways. He always gives us what we need. Back in the day, we had very limited access to fresh fruit. But each year we could load up a truck of young people to head out to Colorado to glean the apple orchards after the harvesters went through. We would come back with buckets of apples for the fall. One year we had a special treat when we were able to glean from orange and grapefruit orchards in Texas. Now, so many years later, it’s amazing to see how God provides abundantly. We have our very own food store and brand new homes for our kids. But most importantly, we are still loving God and serving those around us each and every day.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR — Mary Ellen (Grandma) Wilkinson, is from Akron, Ohio and enjoys walks with Ben the beautiful Papillon, visits with saints at her little house, and teaching others about this incredible GOD she serves.