Place of belonging

Decades after attending Milton Hershey School, Morrell Park native Pete Gurt is now school president.

Paying it forward: It’s been 45 years since financial situations forced Pete Gurt to leave his Morrell Park home and attend Milton Hershey School. Now he’s the school’s president, and hopes to instill the sense of belonging he found at the school in each of his students. Pictured are (from left) Monica Jones, Sam Duah, Gurt and Shakira Duran. Photo: Milton Hershey School

When he was 5 years old, Morrell Park native Pete Gurt had to leave Philadelphia.

His father, a pipe fitter, unexpectedly passed away at the age of 39, leaving Gurt’s mother and seven siblings at a loss for options. His mother found the Milton Hershey School, a facility that would provide housing and education for kids of families 200 percent below the poverty level. Pete and his brothers were sent to the then-all-boys school, Pete starting at kindergarten.

Having just turned 50 now, Gurt is still active at the school — a dedication he calls a 45-year love affair. Gurt now serves as the president of the school, helping recruit and change the lives of disadvantaged kids just like he once was.

“You can’t talk about the school without talking about your story,” he said. He described the school as an institution where one could find belonging. Gurt said a high percentage of the school’s students comes from Philadelphia.

The school accepts students ages 4 to 16, and includes more than 160 student homes for on-campus living. It is located in Hershey.

In 1909, Milton and Kitty Hershey signed the deed for the school. Unable to have children themselves, they wanted to create a home and school for orphaned boys. Today, it has grown into a cost-free coeducational home and school to more than 2,000 students.

From his own time as a student, Gurt recalls the sense of support he felt from the school’s staff, as well as being entrusted with responsibilities on day one (housemates are expected to help each other with chores regardless of age). He recalled having access to participating in a number of sports and receiving musical lessons, experiences he never would have had access to with his family’s financial situation.

“I don’t know if I was happy every single day, but I know I was joyful every day,” Gurt said. “Joyful” is a word he used to describe the people on campus frequently.

Gurt’s dedication to the school can’t be minimized. Because he spent so much of his life there, much of his social circle is related to the school. (“Even when I’m not working, I’m most likely doing something involving the school.”) When a basketball coach was unable to coach the school’s JV girls team, Gurt stepped in for a season — and helped guide them to a record-winning season.

When he graduated from Hershey, Gurt went to Temple University to study business administration with a special interest in human resource administration. He chose the school so he could return to Philadelphia and be close to his family again.

But he wasn’t away from Hershey for long. After a year in the workforce, he received a call from his old stomping grounds about a human resources department that had just opened up.

“I knew since my 10th-grade year that my heart and my head were telling me my life dream would be to return to the home and school that raised me, and contribute to the legacy of its founders,” he said.

Over the span of 20 years, Gurt achieved promotions and performed a variety of roles at the school, including working in home life, academics and administration. In 2014, he successfully applied to take on the role of president.

Gurt, of course, knew how much the school had impacted his childhood, but it wasn’t until he was in the top position that he realized how “powerful” the school is.

“I learn the stories of kids during the admission process, and then a few weeks later I’ll see them in the cafeteria or student home or on an athletic field, smiling with a sense of purpose,” he said.

As president, Gurt is creating a variety of programs designed to help students prepare for their lives once they leave campus. There are three major pillars to what he calls the 2020 Vision: building students’ character, expanding the school’s mission and continuing to hire a passionate and driven staff.

School bells ring: Milton Hershey School accepts students ages 4 to 16, and includes more than 160 student homes for on-campus living. Above, Ny’Asia Harvey smiles during class. Photo: Milton Hershey School

As part of the character-building pillar, Gurt is overseeing expansions in the educational programs offered at the school. One such initiative is an international travel opportunity, which for most students will be their first time on a plane seeing a different part of the world.

“It’s giving the students real-world experience and opening their eyes to life outside of what may be a limiting family environment,” he said.

Students are also connected to internship opportunities. Exposure to real workforce experience could be crucial to students, even if they discover what they don’t want to be doing as opposed to what they do want.

Another aspect is the Continuing Education Scholarship program, which every student is automatically enrolled in. As long as students perform on their best behavior each year, they will earn a sum that caps out at $95,000 that will be used as a way to “launch dreams or support family.”

Gurt has made great strides to spread the Hersheys’ original mission. The school currently houses a little more than 2,000 students, a number Gurt hopes to increase to 2,300.

Gurt is married and has two sons. They were not Hershey students (or “Milts,” as Gurt called them), but he hoped to instill them with the same values taught on campus.

His mother isn’t far away anymore, either. She moved from the Northeast to live one mile off Hershey’s campus. Gurt said she understands that the painful decision she was forced to make when he was 5 has paid off.

“I have families in both areas,” Gurt said. ••

Logan Krum can be reached at lkrum@newspapermediagroup.com