While schools across the nation have sent students home for the rest of the school year, it’s a more difficult equation in homes that are essentially part of a campus.
Many facilities nationwide care for children who have lost parents or have troubled family situations, providing youths a stable home environment headed by foster parents in houses grouped together on large properties. In Alabama, churches often have led these efforts, in some cases for more than a century.
Hundreds of students who live on Alabama children’s home campuses came home last month to find themselves not only isolated from schoolmates but quarantined from the family-like neighbors they’ve been growing up with in places similar to a college dorm quad.
“We can’t simply ‘send people home,’” said Doug Marshall, president and CEO of the Presbyterian Home for Children in Talladega. “This is their home and one we’ve worked to make secure. This is a balancing act between being realistic about the threats and reassuring the children and families in our care that they are safe.”
Presbyterian Home for Children (PHC) was ready for the coronavirus, implementing its existing pandemic and influenza plan at the outset of the outbreak in America. A month ago, the more than 20 staff members began extensive training specifically to deal with COVID-19, Marshall said, setting aside one large apartment to quarantine any family at the children’s home that was diagnosed with the disease.
PHC has 32 youths in homes on the 20-building campus but can take in up to 13 new residents after a 14-day isolation period. In partnership with the state, the PHC Family Bridges program aids 10 families, totaling another 42 children and parents in seven counties.
The Talladega home differs from many children’s facilities in that it has an off-campus private school, the Ascension Leadership Academy for K-12 students. Daily classes continue from 9 a.m. to noon online between teachers and students who are all separately sheltering in place.
Marshall said PHC children have always received three daily meals and two snacks, so there has been no new need for food purchases. The pandemic, however, has brought an unexpected purchasing financial burden not seen since the home opened in 1868: He said they have never needed mass sanitary supplies in the amounts now required.
“We will continue to do the work that God has called us to do,” Marshall said. “That work is to provide a path of hope and a place of healing to at-risk teenagers, young female adults and homeless children along with their families who have come to us for help.”
A decade ago, the United Methodist Children’s Home in Selma closed its doors as its parent organization moved to supporting foster and group homes, as well as at-risk families, through in-home counseling. It is a transition being undertaken by many traditional children’s home organizations nationwide.
Today the 130-year-old United Methodist Children’s Home (UMCH) headquartered in Montgomery has 90 employees serving five group homes in Alabama, caring for six to 10 youths at each. UMCH supports 40 foster families, provides transitional living apartments and serves 20-30 women and children at Mary Ellen’s Hearth in the Capital City.
“Our group homes and foster homes are managing shelter in place like many families,” said Kristin Alberda, senior VP of programs. “We are focusing on health and safety first.”
Alberda said children’s daily schedules have been revamped to accommodate home education, mental health, fun in the sun, art, music, dance and daily household chores. She said they are learning to cope with social distancing and home quarantines.
“Our kids are not able to see their siblings or parents during this time,” she said. “This is especially hard for our younger kids who are not able to understand shelter in place. We have purchased additional play equipment for the youths for extra downtime in our homes.”
UMCH homes are facing higher food bills and, among other pandemic expenses, the cost of “ordering gallons of hand sanitizer” and other cleaning and safety goods. Staff are wearing personal protective equipment to venture into the community. After a potential coronavirus exposure, two sites underwent medical-grade cleaning.
“Just as many homes are experiencing new and unexpected expenses due to kids being home from school, we are making adjustments,” Alberda said. “Thankfully, all of our kids have healthy snacks and meals each day.”
Alabama Baptist Children’s Homes and Family Ministries (ABCHFM) has 37 children in eight homes across the state, with another 202 in its network of foster homes. Seven college students who grew up in the homes remain under ABCHFM guidance and aid. Thirteen formerly homeless mothers and their children live in three family care homes.
“Our houses are in lockdown mode,” said Rod Marshall, president and CEO of the Baptist homes headquartered in Birmingham. “Our house parents are experienced in handling communicable diseases like flu, strep throat and chicken pox, so this is not a new experience for them.”
The children in ABCHFM’s traditional family-style cottages live with a married couple who are full-time house parents. Counselors, social workers, and support and administrative staff are working remotely during the coronavirus crisis. The early school shutdowns, multiplied by church closings when normal Sunday contributors are not being passed an offering plate, could create a brief financial challenge, Marshall said.
“We feed the kids all of their meals during the summer, so it is like our summer season is lengthened this year,” he said. “Our house parents are very skilled at managing their food budget and keeping the children well-fed and well-cared-for. … Several churches are stepping up to provide extra care for the children in our homes.”
No staff members or children under the care of any of the homes contacted by Alabama NewsCenter have contracted coronavirus. Each of the facilities has undertaken all of the steps recommended by state and federal health organizations to combat COVID-19. All of the administrators are anticipating exiting the crisis without harm to their children, staff or mission.
“I do not know of a time in our history where we have had as many employees working from home,” Marshall said. “Our employees are doing an excellent job of continuing to provide excellent care for the many children we are serving and are admitting new children into care, though at a slower pace.”
As Easter approaches, children’s homes are preparing for separate celebrations outside their familiar church sanctuaries, without traditional large-scale egg hunts and public parades decked out in holiday attire. The disruption in plans this week has been surmounted for some by a surreptitious visit from the Easter Bunny in the guise of UMCH employees.
“Foster care staff have been ‘egging’ locations and foster homes with Easter eggs filled with candy, and then letting the staff and families know they have eggs to find,” said Alberda, noting that all the colorful eggs were disinfected prior to delivery. “The kids are delighted to have eggs to find and the families don’t have to do anything but supervise the hunt.”
Felcia Storey, PHC vice president of program operations and services, said it seems like just yesterday their students were excitedly planning for spring break, school open house, graduation and summer vacation. Today, students are uncertain about what will come next, but Storey is certain of what the children’s home staff can provide.
“People need a sense of belonging and love,” she said. “We are working against allowing this crisis to be one which fosters loneliness, social anxiety and clinical depression.”
That sentiment is echoed by UMCH CEO and President K. Blake Horne, who sees the pandemic as necessary practice for the future.
“Our biggest concern is the safety and welfare of our families, children and employees,” he said. “We are a ministry that never closes its doors. We care for children 24/7, 365 days a year. We’ve gone through a lot of ‘what-if’ scenarios regarding an outbreak of COVID-19 among our children and/or staff. We gather no great pleasure from doing so, but planning for such circumstances will be a significant part of our risk management exercises from this point on.”