Embrace Alabama Kids Newest Partnership Provides Hope for the Homeless

Every time Ontario Johnson steps up to the door of her home, she gives thanks to God. “When I turn the key, I look toward the heavens,” she said. “I can’t get enough of praising Him.”

Just over a year ago, Ontario was living at Mary Ellen’s Hearth, Embrace Alabama Kids’ newest ministry partner that provides transitional housing for homeless women and children. “Being in your car or on the street can be very dangerous,” the first-time homeowner said. “If it hadn’t been for this program, I don’t know what situation I would have been in.”

Embrace Alabama Kids joined forces with the longtime Montgomery ministry earlier this year to ensure longevity for the program and stability for the families. It also allowed Embrace Alabama Kids to expand its reach and serve more of God’s children. “Partnerships are part of our strategic plan, and this was a natural fit for us,” said Dr. Blake Horne, President and CEO of Embrace Alabama Kids.

“Family homelessness is the second leading cause of children being in foster care, behind abuse and neglect,” he said.

“If kids enter the foster system, there’s a 50 percent chance they’ll grow up in the foster system.” That’s why family preservation – equipping families to stay together in a safe, healthy home – is an important part of Embrace Alabama Kids mission.

MEH provides supportive services that help mothers live independently and provide a loving home. They offer instruction on life skills, financial literacy, parenting, cooking and nutrition, all while meeting the basic needs of shelter, food, clothing, medical care and a spiritual foundation.

The families can stay for up to two years, allowing them to find employment, save money and pay off debt. “Our goal is to break the cycle of homelessness and poverty, and you can’t do that overnight,” said Kim Bullard, MEH’s Board President. “It takes time to change patterns and habits and what you’ve known all your life.”

MEH is named for Bullard’s late mother-in- law, Mary Ellen Harrell Bullard, a longtime volunteer and a lay leader in the Methodist Church at the local, state, national and international levels. The ministry, founded in 1904, has taken many forms and had several name changes, but the focus has always been on women and children in need.

Formerly known as the Nellie Burge Community Center, the ministry most recently provided child care for families in a nearby low-income housing development. When the development was relocated in 2010, Mary Ellen’s Hearth at the Nellie Burge Community Center was born. Day care rooms became bedrooms, and the focus turned to self- sufficiency.

MEH staff help Ontario move into her home.

Ontario already had a full-time job and a rental home, but she had nowhere to go when the owner decided to quickly sell. She got on a waiting list for subsidized housing and tried unsuccessfully to find a shelter with room for her and her son. She even considered giving custody to family members. “I wasn’t going to make him live in the car,” she said. “I wouldn’t want him to go through that.”

A friend told her about MEH, and she threw herself into the program. “The money I could have spent on rent, I put it toward savings,” she said. She paid off debt and worked on restoring her credit, raising her score from 605 to 755.

She found the courage to start house hunting, dismissing several because they were in unsafe areas, before finding the perfect one. “I looked around the neighborhood and thought, ‘My child could ride a bike around here.’ And then I went inside and it felt like home,” Ontario said.

“My first night here, I cried. I looked around and tears of joy were falling out of my eyes.”

Both Bullard and Horne are grateful the new partnership will allow the program to continue to offer homes, healing and hope.

“We’re working with a like-minded group that shares our values and goals of providing these families with a place where they can better themselves and find peace, comfort and certainty when there hasn’t been a lot of that,” Bullard said. “It was definitely God’s timing.”

Ontario’s son playing in his new front yard.

 

Children Receive VIP Reception at Valentine’s Banquet

For the children in Embrace Alabama Kids’ Therapeutic Foster Care program, milestones are celebrated often. Children in the program face challenges that pale in comparison to most, and therefore, few deserve a little “star treatment” more than they do. Knowing this, program staff began to dream big after deciding to host a Valentine’s Banquet.

The result of their planning would be a dream come true for kids in the program. Each child received a formal invitation in the mail asking them to get all dressed up for a night of glitz and glamour. Meanwhile, foster parents received their own invitation to enjoy a night out while their children attended the banquet.

With the help of local businesses that donated items as well as Higher Ed scholarship students who served food and got kids on the dance floor, the night quickly became one to remember. “The photo station with a red carpet and chocolate fountain seemed to be their favorites. When they got there, they were a little quiet but as the night went on, the kids really came out of their shell,” said Luke Powell, Program Manager.

In addition to preparing plates ahead of time, kids were required to wear masks and sit with their sibling groups to prevent the spread of COVID-19. After all was said and done, it was clear his team had gone above and beyond with the planning, but from his perspective, that was exactly the point of it all.

“Our kids have already lost so much in the form of their siblings, parents, school, and pets when they left their biological home, so if we can create some really positive memories they can look back on, then that’s a success.”

Embrace Alabama Kids Helps Prepare Children for School

As a grandmother raising her granddaughter, Linda has some of the same worries many parents do. She wants her granddaughter to be healthy and happy. She prays she and her husband are meeting the child’s emotional needs, and she hopes her granddaughter will always know she’s loved.

One thing Linda doesn’t have to worry about is whether 4-year-old Madison will be ready to start kindergarten. Thanks to the Parents as Teachers program, a national initiative offered in Covington County by Embrace Alabama Kids, Madison is on track to thrive once she starts school. “This program has been such a blessing,” Linda said. “We’re doing everything we can to get her off to a good start so that she will be successful.”

Preparing children for school is one of the most important things parents or caregivers can do, according to Laura Wilkinson, Parent Educator with Embrace Alabama Kids.  For many, that means helping children write their names, count to 20, and recognize shapes. They likely don’t give much thought, however, to helping them develop the muscles and pincer grasp necessary to hold a pencil.

“Unless you’re a child development major, you don’t know this stuff,” Wilkinson said.

“The parent is going to be the child’s first and most influential teacher, and we want to show them fun ways they can help their children reach their full potential.”

The program is open to families in Covington County with babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, if someone in the family receives Medicaid benefits.  The focus is on four areas of development: cognitive, language, social and emotional, and motor.

In addition to introducing fun and easy activities, Wilkinson provides valuable information about child development, tips for helping children learn new skills, and explanations about why certain activities are important at each stage of development. “It may explain that at this age, this part of the child’s brain is developing, and this particular activity helps with that,” Wilkinson said. “Once you know that, you want to do it again and again.”

Laura Wilkinson, Parent Educator

Madison can’t wait for Wilkinson’s visits. “She is always curious to see what Ms. Laura’s bag of surprises holds each week,” Linda said.

“While she is having fun, she is learning, and I am also seeing how to make learning stick and how to make it fun and interesting.”

Madison recently used kitchen tongs to pick up cotton balls, which helped develop the fine motor coordination necessary for writing. “I like that the activities use what we have around the house. We don’t have to go out and buy special tools,” Linda said.

Reading is an important component. Wilkinson helps each family sign up for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which provides free books each month for children ages birth to 5. She often gives additional books to the children she works with, as well as their older brothers and sisters. “At every visit, either I read a book to the child or the parent reads a book to the child. The goal is for someone in the house to read to the child every day.”

Madison isn’t the only one who has benefited from the program. Linda said Wilkinson has provided important parenting tips. “We relearned that boundaries need to be set and need to be firm,” she said. “Establishing a bedtime schedule and being consistent was something we were lax about, but this wasn’t good for her or us. She functioned better when she went to bed at a reasonable time and we were able to have a little down time.”

Linda said she is grateful for the support Wilkinson has provided. “We have learned how to handle challenges that come up with each age,” she said.

“I quickly came to see Laura as my ally. How fortunate we are that this program exists.”

Editor’s note: The child’s name, Madison, is used in this article in place of her actual name to protect her privacy.

Expanding Parents as Teachers in Alabama

Embrace Alabama Kids has expanded Parents as Teachers (PAT) curriculum to Mobile and Dothan. Ministry staff were already serving vulnerable children and families in these areas and PAT, paired with other parenting curriculum, is a natural fit for the existing programs in both locations.

In Mobile, a Parent Educator was added to the Babies First staff in September prior to curriculum being implemented in October. The Parent Education Program in Mobile was made possible by funding through the Alabama Dept. of Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention and The Children’s Trust Fund. 

In the Dothan area, ministry staff are also poised to expand this much needed program, serving children and families in need in Houston, Henry, Dale, Barbour and Geneva counties. Expansion of parent education in the Dothan area, made possible by the Daniel Foundation, will equip more children and families with school readiness and positive parenting.

AL Ministry Changes Name to Embrace Alabama Kids

The focus of our ministry has always been caring for kids, so no one knows better than our team at Embrace Alabama Kids how easy it is to outgrow certain things.

After all, children outgrow their shoes, clothing, toys, and personal interests so quickly that it can be hard to keep up. The agency’s staff have run into a similar challenge the past few years when talking with supporters. “The Children’s Home,” as it has been referred to for so many years, is no longer the single, campus-based ministry it once was but rather a vast network of many programs in many locations.

K. Blake Horne Ph.D., President/CEO

“The name served us well for a number of years, but after decades of adding ministry programs including foster care, family preservation, adoption services and others, it became evident we had outgrown our name,” said Dr. Blake Horne, President and CEO.

“In order to better represent what we have become, we simply took our mission of ‘embracing and nurturing vulnerable children’ and placed it in our name.”

The move follows a similar name change for the organization’s Northwest Florida-based ministry, which became Embrace Florida Kids last year. “The feedback we’ve received thus far in Florida, and now Alabama, has been overwhelmingly positive and is eliminating what was once a communication barrier,” Horne said.

This is not the first name change for the ministry, which originated as the Alabama Methodist Orphanage in 1890. It was renamed the Methodist Children’s Home in 1939 and then became the United Methodist Children’s Home in 1968 prior to becoming Embrace Alabama Kids this year. Through each transition, the organization has grown stronger and adapted to the specific needs of children in its day and time.

“One of the strengths of our organization has been our adaptability,” Horne said.

“When you have a ministry like ours that spans 131 years, the needs of orphaned and vulnerable children evolve greatly over time to meet the societal issues of each progressive period. By God’s grace we’ve been able to continually match those needs in significant and relevant ways.”

AL Ministry Locations

Today, the organization’s leadership recognizes that there is more than one way to surround children and youth with God’s love while also ensuring their safety and well-being. Whether it’s through training and supporting foster families or providing biological families with the support they need to stay together, the ministry has the same resolve it did when it first began.

Despite such growth, Horne acknowledged that, similar to a child trying on a new pair of shoes, there will still be some growing room. “It will take some time to grow into our new name and even feel comfortable in it,” Horne said. “However, we are blessed with incredibly generous supporters, and I’m confident they will help us rise to the occasion.”