Understandably, the children often arrive at the campus traumatized, frightened, with just the clothes on their backs. Many are predisposed to distrust anyone.
“You can’t believe some of their heart-breaking back stories,” says Gary Cupp, director of development at Children’s Home, Inc., outside Paragould, Ark. “But in the end, you can’t let pity paralyze you. That does them no good. They need love, they need time to heal, they need guidance and they need the skills to be successful adults. That’s our responsibility.”
Among the first things the children are provided are toiletries and clothes.
It may seem incongruent, but Cupp says that’s a big reason why – hemmed in by well-kept red brick houses, a gym, a school and offices – he’s happy that a modest new building is being erected. Amid the rolling hills and towering oaks of the campus, the building will serve as not only a pantry where those in the houses can get groceries but a clothing “store.” It will also help provide the initial shot of respect those running Children’s Home are so keen to provide.
“Look, it’s all new and chances are they’re going to be upset,” says Cupp. “They’re with folks they don’t know in a place they don’t know. This building will be nice because it will let them look through the clothes racks, let them make choices. It’s a small thing but it’ll show them respect. As well-meaning as it may be, we don’t want to hand them a trash bag full of clothes that we’ve chosen for them.”
While it does function partially as an orphanage, there is a reason the campus largely looks like a pretty, clean neighborhood. “We try and stay away from anything that could be seen as ‘institutional.’ There are no tall fences. These children are not institutionalized. They live in group homes with group parents – as normal as possible. That’s how we do it.”
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Down the hill, in the school building, a teen-aged boy, unhappy at some minor slight, is venting during a closed-door group therapy session. Although unable to see in, Cupp stands outside the door smiling, clearly pleased at the boy’s high-pitched argument, his systematic laying down of the facts. “This is what we want. He’s not going over the top with confrontation. He’s sticking to the rules and learning how to explain his unhappiness in a positive way. If he leaves here with that skill, mission accomplished.
“We want our children to excel. But that has to happen in the right context – through relationships, through the process of learning to deal with issues in the proper way. We must equip them for a bright future, so they can get out of their previous situation.”
Such life skills, Cupp and colleagues have found, are easier to teach if the children work with animals. Thus, the importance of 4-H and Extension programs to the operation.
“We began integrating ag programs into what we do 15, or more, years ago. This area is very well-respected around the state for its 4-H program. We’re blessed by the Extension office here. They foster a team mentality and make sure everyone shares and helps each other – ‘Hey, if there’s something that can be done to help someone else, do it.’”
Allen Davis, Greene County Extension staff chair, has been along for the whole ride. “The 4-H program at Children’s Home started off with just livestock. Rabbits were brought in, the kids began showing cattle. Then, they began raising sheep – 10 or 15 ewes. They showed those and, later, goats.”
All the hogs and steers shown by the residents eventually end up in the facility’s food pantry.
“We have a system worked out,” says Davis. “There are signs above each of the hog pens – those have all kinds of information written on them: weights, feed. All of that is aimed at trying to get the hogs ready for shows.
“Now, our main livestock thrust is in showing hogs. That fits into the Children’s Home program well. Many of the residents may not be on campus for long but they’re still able to work with the animals. We’ve found that it’s very important for their well-being.”
Broilers are also raised on site. “We’re actually doing a feed research demonstration,” says Davis. “There are two sets of broilers in the same room. One set is being fed a probiotic additive to see if the birds have an increase of muscle mass or growth.”
The Extension office also teaches the residents other things including parliamentary procedure. “That prepares them for running meetings, running a business. We’re teaching food preservation workshops once a week. The children learn to can pickles, green beans or tomato juice and the like. There’s also a garden that we’ve done demonstrations in.”
Over the years, working with the children has been very rewarding, says Davis. “I hope we’ve helped them but, truth is, it’s been great for my own kids, for other 4-H kids that have done projects and interacted with the residents.”
Before arriving on campus, many of the residents have never even stood beside a horse or lamb. “This is the first opportunity they’ve had to care for the animals, wash them, feed them, show them – all of it,” says Davis. “I see them learning a lot of responsibility and, frankly, they bond with the animals.”
There is a very competitive 4-H livestock program in the county. “I used to think ‘You have to win. That’s it,’” says Davis. “But I’ve had to learn to adjust some of my goals, my mindset. For some of these kids, just placing in a competition may be the best accomplishment so far in their life. Sixth place to one child may be better than being grand champion to another.
“I’ve seen children come into the program withdrawn and not willing to even talk. But after they take care of an animal successfully, it provides a sense of pride and you can see the positive emotional shift.”
Cupp agrees. “Allen gets it. Children’s Home has always had animals on campus – even pets. That’s very important, especially for children with a detachment disorder. If you can’t relate to people because of past abuse, you can still trust an animal.”
Animals have provided a kind of bridge for children with problems. “It’s therapy we’ve seen work,” says Cupp. “A horse or dog or goat doesn’t care what your baggage is, what color your skin is. Children attach to the animals and, in turn, are able to later attach to people.”
DJ and Serena
DJ, a smiling, dark-haired boy in his mid-teens, has been on campus for about 15 months.
“The second day I was here, right off the bat, they took us out to the farm and we started working with horses. ‘This is how you handle a horse. This is how to be safe doing it. Do your best and get comfortable with the horses.’
“Later on, some of the caseworkers said, ‘hey, you should try to show a pig. It’ll be a good learning experience.’ So, I showed pigs and then, this past year, I showed a horse.”
Asked what the shows have meant to him, DJ laughs. “I’ve definitely lost a lot of nervousness! Eventually, I realized this was an opportunity and it would all be fine as long as I worked hard and did my best. That’s what God wants from me.
“A typical day would involve going to the barn after school, watering them, feeding them the right diet. It also means getting dirty – we wash the animals, muck stalls and clean things really well. Some folks might not like that but it really is a stress-reliever. We all need that, right?”
When prepping for a show, the residents begin working with the pigs weeks in advance. “You have to train the animals and that really requires patience,” says DJ, laughing again. “Pigs will teach you a whole lot about patience. But I enjoy it. And I’m going to keep working with animals. I want to be a rancher, to be in the cattle business.”
Several weeks earlier, Serena picked up a second place ribbon showing a pig. It was the first time she’d worked with pigs.
Despite that success, “equine is my favorite,” says the friendly, raven-haired girl. The teen has been on campus for seven months. “I’ve worked with horses almost all my life and they help me feel good. They remind me of home.
“I’ve gone through a lot of struggles. Many of these horses have, as well. It’s easy to relate to them. I’ll always have a horse when I get older.”
Right now, Serena is putting her horse through some exercises in the arena. The air is heavy with dust and the horse is not being terribly cooperative.
That’s just fine with Kisha Clayton, a new teacher at Children’s Home. “After they’re around the animals, you can see the changes in the children. It’s critical that they respect the animal and when that happens, their interactions with peers are also positively affected. Those things go hand-in-hand.”
How do you match a kid with a horse?
Sometimes the kid makes the match – the personalities mesh. Other times, “we help them choose,” says Clayton. “Sometimes, we match them to a horse to actually push them towards something they need to work on. We have a therapist that helps the kids process things – ‘this horse is making this decision. How might that relate to what you would do or have done?’ It just works.”
Today, the group of girls is putting their horses through a set of obstacles.
“The girls have to get through the course, practice control, practice backing skills, introducing the horses to new things,” says Brian Rankin, whose duties also include being a houseparent. “We have a plastic mat they have to get the horse to walk across. Some of the horses aren’t used to that, so the girls have to work out how to get them across.”
Residents have equine classes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays – two hours per class. During those classes, “we’ll groom the horses, practice some leaning and tying activities, and do a group activity,” says Rankin.
Has he ever run across especially gifted children with this?
“Yes – sometimes a child is just a natural. We’ve also found that horses work very well with autistic children – especially those with Asperger’s.
“We have children in the program from age 10 to 17. I’ve used miniature horses with the younger kids. Right now, we have one miniature in a separate pen down the hill.”
However it manifests – direct funding, labor, supplies -- support for the operation is always appreciated.
“We have swine producers in the area that have been very helpful with these programs,” says Davis. “For the last four or five years, they’ve donated piglets. The local community really is involved.
How many residents are there?
“We have three child-care components under our umbrella,” says Cupp. “The residential care, on our campus, usually has 40 to 45 children living in homes.
“We also are involved with foster care, providing boarding payments to Christian foster homes all over the state. Right now, there are around 60 children we’ve placed after a thorough screening of those foster homes.
“Most of the children on campus are from situations that are a bit extreme for foster care.
“We also do adoptions. Families wanting to adopt children, we will help.”
Are you still involved with the Church of Christ?
“Yes, we are. This was actually started in 1955 by the Church of Christ in Paragould. It was incorporated and there is a board of directors, by laws. It is primarily supported by Church of Christ, although many individuals and businesses from other denominations help us.”
How do residents typically come to you?
“All avenues, all directions. We don’t just serve Arkansans. Many of the children come to us through the court system – mom and dad are put in jail, where will the kids go?
“Many children come to us through private placement. There are more and more incidents of grandparents raising a 10-year-old. The parents have checked out, are on drugs or in jail. The grandparents, sadly, can’t handle the situation either financially or physically. We get calls asking us for help.
“It’s very important for us to keep the environment as much like a home as possible – not like an institution. Many of them come to us and we’re all they’ve got. There is no one out there waiting for them – they’re true orphans.”
How long do they usually stay?
“Some live their lives with us. But we like to have a minimum of a year with them, although they may stay just a few months. A lengthier amount of time can allow them to work through problems and turn things around.”
E-mail Cupp at [email protected]