“And they were bringing the children to Him so that He might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw this, He was indignant and said to them, ‘Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’” — Mark 10:13-14
In an 1893 edition of The Baptist Record, L. S. Foster, a pastor in Senatobia, Mississippi, proposed creating a home for orphans. Reverend Foster wrote, “If this thought is of God, He will put it into the heart of some person to send a contribution for this cause.”
Mrs. Lou Moore of Tillatoba, Mississippi, responded by sending a contribution of $1.00, along with a note that said, “With my prayers, I enclose this dollar for the institution. If it finds company enough to effect a movement, you will hear from me again.”
In 1897, through the support of churches and individuals statewide, the Baptist Orphanage took in its first child. In the 113 years since, the ministry now known as The Baptist Children’s Village has provided a safe home, psychological and spiritual counseling, and loving care to more than 33,000 children.
“Our goal is to be able to help as many children as there are with needs,” says The Baptist Children’s Village Executive Director Dr. Rory Lee ’71, ’73. “We’re here to help families in crisis and to put children on a safe track that will allow them to become happy, healthy, mature Christian adults.”
Begun with a single dollar and a multitude of prayers, The Baptist Children’s Village (BCV) is now a statewide ministry that helps children and families understand and experience the healing love of Jesus Christ. BCV cares for approximately 100 children at any given time, and serves an average of 300 children each year.
Headquartered in Jackson, Mississippi, BCV operates residential campuses in Brookhaven, Coldwater, Columbia, Louisville, Star (scheduled to open in late 2010), Water Valley, Waynesboro (scheduled to open in July), and Wiggins. The BCV has also acquired property in New Albany with plans to build another campus there in the future. Campuses are strategically located to provide access to families in every area of Mississippi; the goal is to have a campus within an hour’s drive of every child in the state.
In the ministry’s early days, most of the children who came to live at BCV were orphans. Today, most of the children have living parents. BCV provides short-term care for children whose parents have suffered the loss of a home or job or who have health or financial issues that make caring for their children temporarily impossible. BCV also offers long-term care for children who have been neglected, abused, or abandoned.
“Often times the children whose parents are still living, the ones who are here because of abuse or neglect, require more emotional support than the children whose parents have died,” Dr. Lee says. “Working here, you see things that can make you very sad and very angry. But we’ve learned not to dwell on those negative feelings. Instead, we focus on showing Christ’s love not only to the children, but also to their families.”
"My favorite moments are when a sad, angry, or withdrawn child who has been with us for a few weeks smiles, misbehaves and accepts correction well, asks for a hug, laughs with friends, or has his or her first real birthday party. Perhaps the best moment is when that child turns to you during and outing and says, 'Let's go home.' That moment is the reason I do what I do."
-Kathy Flournoy, BCV Campus Director and Former Houseparent
When appropriate, BCV works to reunite children with their parents, offering counseling for the family as a whole. When reuniting the family is not possible, children may be adopted, placed with a loving foster family, or remain at The Baptist Children’s Village until they reach the age of 21.
During their stay at BCV, each child lives in a cottage with as many as nine other children and a married couple who act as surrogate parents. These “houseparents” are parents in every sense of the word, providing love and discipline and working to heal the pain and fill the void in each child’s life.
“Houseparents are there when a child has a great report card or scores a touchdown. They are there when something goes wrong and the child needs a shoulder to cry on,” Dr. Lee says. “Houseparents aren’t drill sergeants barking out orders, but they also don’t just pat children on the back and say, ‘Oh you poor little thing,’ they model Christian behavior and family life for the children. Houseparents are trained to fulfill this role, but more importantly, they are called to fulfill it.”
“I can tell you from experience that if God has not called you to work with children in residential care, you will not have what you need to do it,” Kathy Flournoy, director of the BCV campus in Star and a former houseparent, agrees. “Houseparents have to rise above their personal sadness and anger over what has happened to the children in their care and create a home that feels safe and comfortable, where the child feels accepted, has fun, and is loved. Houseparents have to be flexible and accept that not every situation is going to turn out as they might hope. We succeed only because God is so faithful and willing to supply our staff with the patience, compassion, and extra measure of whatever is needed to care for these children.”
Children at BCV have come from environments marked by chaos. They take comfort in a regular program of activities that includes Bible study in their cottages, worship at local Baptist churches, and attending public school. Children are encouraged to participate in recreational activities on and off campus.
Dr. W. Rory Lee, executive director of The Baptist Children’s Village, also serves as president of the Baptist Child Care Executives, the national association of chief administrative officers from childcare facilities supported by Southern Baptists in 19 states and the District of Columbia. The organization allows for the exchange of ideas and successful strategies as each state deals with the challenges of caring for children who have been placed in their care.
“Our goal is to make their experience as much like that of a child living with his or her own family in as traditional a home as possible,” Dr. Lee says. “This year, one of our girls was head cheerleader at her school, one of our boys scored four touchdowns in his first football game, and another student was the editor of the school newspaper. We’re very proud to see our children succeed, particularly when they’ve had to overcome so many obstacles.”
While children in BCV care face many challenges, the toughest challenge for the staff is saying good-bye.
“Seeing a child reunited with his or her family is both the biggest reward and the biggest challenge of this job, especially for the houseparents,” Dr. Lee says. “They become very close to the children and to see them move on is bittersweet. They know that the child has a brighter future ahead because they’ve done their jobs, but they still miss that child.”
BCV alumni include judges, teachers, business people, tradesmen, and others working in a wide range of professions. The ministry hosts a reunion for former residents every other summer and alumni sometimes drop by the campuses with their own children, who are eager to see the place where their mom or dad grew up.
“When a child leaves our care, we want to see them come back as Christian adults who are achieving all that’s possible in their spiritual life, professional life, and family life,” says Dr. Lee. “Our goal is to have no repeat customers. We hope that their family life will be such that their children will never need the kind of help we provide. In fact, my ultimate wish is that someday, there will not be a need for a place like The Baptist Children’s Village.”
Until that day comes, The Baptist Children’s Village remains a refuge and a source of Christ’s love and healing for children and families in need.
“When a child comes to stay with us,” Kathy Flournoy says, “no matter how long that stay may be, that child leaves here knowing that he or she is loved, what love is, and that His name is Jesus.”
Both Sides of the Story
Chrystelle Thames ’00 comforts others as she was once comforted
“There is sadness at The Baptist Children’s Village, but that is not the overall feeling on our campuses. There is healing here. There is the peace that comes from know- ing you are in a safe place, maybe for the first time you can remember. And there is the hope that comes from the Lord. The one thing you will never feel at The Baptist Children’s Village is a sense of hopelessness.”
No one is better qualified to speak about the atmo- sphere at The Baptist Children’s Village than Chrystelle Thames, BCV’s public relations director. Years before she joined the BCV staff, Chrystelle arrived at The Baptist Children’s Village as a frightened, 16-year-old girl. One of 10 siblings, Chrystelle had spent the first several years of her life in a home marked by chaos and fear.
“My father was very abusive and my mother struggled from her own insecurities,” she says. “When it was just us kids and my mother, we were fine, but when my dad was there, the house was filled with fear and anxiety.”
Chrystelle’s mother eventually left her father, but like many women fleeing an abusive situation, she now faced a new set of struggles as a single mother with 10 children. The family survived periods of extreme poverty, but when Chrystelle’s mother was injured in an automobile accident, she simply could not care for her children any longer. A social worker arrived at the family home, told the children to “pack a little bag,” and took all 10 of them to The Baptist Children’s Village.
“At that time, I was absolutely engulfed by fear,” Chrys- telle says. “My mother was injured and we were going to a place we didn’t know to live with people we didn’t know. As the second oldest child and the oldest girl, I was scared not only for myself, but because of the responsibility I felt toward my siblings.
“But after we settled in, I realized that for the first time, we felt safe,” Chrystelle continues. “There was no more constant fear, no more walking on eggshells. That umbrella of fear was gone, and living out from under it was a new and glorious experience.”
While Chrystelle kept in touch with her mother, she never returned to her family home, instead living at BCV until she was 20. With the guidance of counselors and her houseparents, Chrystelle soon found herself on a path she had never dreamed possible.
“God had intervened, and for the first time in my life, I realized there was a plan,” Chrystelle recalls. “Children growing up in the kind of poverty I experienced as a child don’t have many dreams for the future. Without The Baptist Children’s Village, I would never have even considered the idea that I could go to college or have the kind of job I have today. God used The Baptist Children’s Village to provide that education for me.”
Chrystelle graduated from Hinds Community College and Mississippi College with a degree in communications. In 1982, she returned to BCV as a member of the public relations team, and has been sharing the BCV story as both a staff member and an alumna ever since.
But the greatest blessing to come from Chrystelle’s life at The Baptist Children’s Village has been her own family. Chrystelle’s husband, Bobby Thames, also grew up at BCV. The two met there as teenagers and were married in the Powell-Fullilove Chapel on The Baptist Children’s Village campus on December 20, 1980. Their dysfunctional childhoods led Chrystelle and Bobby to a shared determination that their family would be different.
“God used our houseparents to illustrate for me and my husband the way He intends families to live and care for one another,” Chrystelle says. “There is a yearning in the children here – children like the ones Bobby and I were – to have that in their own families someday. The Baptist Children’s Village had shown us that was possible.”
Chrystelle and her husband built the kind of family they had longed for as children, seeking God’s guidance in their marriage and in their parenting and giving their own children, Bridget, now 26, and Tyler, 21, a childhood very different than the ones they had known. Today, Chrystelle uses their story to bring hope to other families in crisis.
“The Bible says we are to comfort others in the way that we have been comforted,” Chrystelle says. “The Lord led me back here to share my passion and gratitude for this minis- try with other children and families facing the same kinds of trials I once faced. I believe in this ministry because I have experienced first-hand how God uses it to touch families. God used The Baptist Children’s Village to change the direction of my life.”
HOW YOU CAN HELP The Baptist Children’s Village is privately funded, relying on endowment income and on support from the Mississippi Baptist Convention, churches, and individual donations. BCV is the only group home in Mississippi that accepts children placed through the Department of Human Services but receives no government funding. Instead, BCV operates as a Christian ministry supported by those who believe in its mission. The Baptist Children’s Village offers volunteer opportunities, including helping with special events and construction projects on its nine campuses. BCV is also in need of visiting families who can host children in their homes for a week during the summer or over the holidays. For more information on supporting The Baptist Children’s Village, please visit www.baptistchildrensvillage.com and click on “How You Can Help,” or call 601.922.2242.