Presbyterian Home for Children paves path of hope

June 22, 2020 by Nancy Crowe

It’s a common sight from the window of Doug Marshall’s office at the Presbyterian Home for Children in Talladega, Alabama. A care worker accompanies a new girl from the administration building to the cottage that will be her new home.

She is overwhelmed, perhaps crying. The care worker, who has made this trip across campus countless times, quietly walks with her.

“To me, it is the beginning of walking that path of hope,” said Marshall, president and CEO of the Home.

Now in its 152nd year — and in the midst of a global pandemic — the Home is finding new ways to keep that path clear and open more avenues of healing.

It does so while hitting all the marks of ethical, financially responsible and compassionate operation, said Dr. Cindy Wilson, moderator of the Board of Trustees.

“It is a very faith-filled organization,” she said.

‘Not homeless when they’re here’

A shared ministry of North Alabama, Sheppards and Lapsley and South Alabama presbyteries, the Home began by serving widows and orphans after the Civil War. The children and families now served have had their lives upended by poverty, abuse and abandonment, and many arrive with nowhere else to go.

Yet it’s not the end of the road.

“They’re not homeless when they’re here,” Marshall said.

The Home’s Secure Dwellings program provides transitional housing for boys and girls up to age 17 and their female caregivers, usually mothers. Young women from 19 to 24 who have aged out of foster care receive room, board and support through Transition to Adult Living (TAL). Moderate Care, a state-recognized residential treatment program, serves girls age 13 to 17 who have previously been subject to extreme abuse or neglect.

Family Bridges, in conjunction with the Alabama State Department of Human Resources, gives parents a chance to keep or regain custody of their children through intensive in-home services.

All children who reside at the Home, as well as some day students, receive fully accredited education through Ascension Leadership Academy (K-8) and Hope Academy (9-12).

When COVID-19 reached the United States, the Home put its existing pandemic and influenza plan into action. Access to and from campus was restricted, new residents underwent isolation and volunteer workdays were cancelled. Staff received specialized training and tried to balance truthfulness with assurances of safety.

A large apartment was set aside for quarantine. In-home services and daily classes moved online as all parties sheltered separately in place.

Much of life at the Home slowed, but it couldn’t stop.

New avenues: a village and beyond

With the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind located in Talladega, the city is home to a significant population of deaf, blind and deaf-blind residents.

“There was a huge need for housing for graduates, particularly for the blind,” Marshall said, adding many were ending up in substandard accommodations.

Through a partnership between the AIDB and the Home, Union Village was born.

It started with four dorm-style cottages at the back of the campus. A fifth was traditionally the President’s Home, but Marshall moved out last November and into an apartment on campus to open more living space for the deaf.

Next came the tiny homes — 475-square-foot dwellings, two per duplex, on undeveloped farm land at the back of the campus. They’re fully accessible and allow low-income deaf, blind and deaf-blind people to live in safe, supportive community but also have some independence. The AIDB provides programming and on-site staff. Two have been built and two more are under construction; there will be a total of 42.

The centralized location lets the AIDB do more for those it serves, Marshall said. The housing, while still affordable, provides income for the Home.

“We’ve developed, in essence, another funding source and we’ve broadened our ministry,” he said.

The PHFC Thrift Store also provides income for the Home while serving the community with quality material — much of it from estate sales — at affordable prices. It’s often the first job, or first successful job, for the Home’s mothers and young women.

After being closed due to COVID-19, the thrift store reopened in May with additional cleaning and other precautions. Plans to grow it into an even bigger funding source are in the works.

“(Our donors) have fully embraced the strategy of diversifying our funding and helping supplement that so we can serve more children,” Marshall said.

Over the past year, the Presbyterian Home for Children has also expanded its base of engagement into the business world. A new junior board of young professionals is working on leadership development, service and fun.

One of its projects was a “Sweet Home Soirée” (“I wasn’t sure about that name at first,” Marshall admitted) gala in Birmingham, which brought in $57,000 net income. Sweet Home Soirée Huntsville raised $38,000. Both will be held again next spring, with Sweet Home Soirée Mobile added.

Keeping the path clear

Marshall, whose background is in corporate accounting, frequently shares the work of the Home with congregations. “I’m a financial guy who can preach,” he said with a laugh.

The Home operates on a balanced budget, he said. “Our goal is to leave our money at the Presbyterian Foundation and let it grow.”

Those who invest in the Home can be sure not only that their money will be used wisely, but that the Home will not rest on its laurels, board moderator Wilson said. It has changed as society has changed. Its leaders have made sure of that.

“They don’t get stuck in ‘We don’t do that’ or ‘We’ve never done that.’ It’s ‘This is who needs us, so let’s see how we can make that happen,’” she said.

It’s all about creating, and re-creating, that path of hope.

“I tell people all the time we were birthed in the heart of God and planted in Talladega,” Marshall said.

Nancy Crowe is a writer, editor, and animal wellness practitioner based in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She is a graduate of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Send comments on this article to Robyn Davis Sekula, Vice President of Communications and Marketing, at robyn.sekula@presbyterianfoundation.org.