Governor Kay Ivey has proclaimed April 11-17 as “Embrace Alabama Kids Week.” Beginning Friday, April 9, we’ll be celebrating with community paintings and events held throughout the state. As art has a way of bringing people together through curiosity and appreciation, we’re bringing together donors, community leaders, churches and others to participate in community mural paintings in order to bring awareness to the need for embracing and nurturing Alabama’s vulnerable children. The mural events will take place on the following dates with all murals being transported to Montgomery for a final unveiling on Wednesday, April 14. We hope you will safely join us outdoors for a painting or unveiling near you!
Mobile Painting: Friday, April 9 from 4-8 pm at Spot of Tea on Cathedral Square during the LODA ArtWalk
Birmingham Painting: Saturday, April 10 from 10 am – 1 pm at MAKEBhm in Avondale
Montgomery Mural Unveiling: Wednesday, April 14 from 11 – 11:30 am at 420 Clay St. in Downtown Montgomery
Volunteer to Paint a Mural
In Birmingham, Tuscaloosa and Mobile, local neighbors and volunteers will “paint by numbers” under the guidance of a local artist to complete a large mural piece. The piece will eventually travel to Montgomery where it will become part of one large mural to be unveiled before city and state officials during Embrace Alabama Kids Week, symbolizing our communities uniting to support God’s children who need it most.
Would you like to get involved?
We are happy for you to stop by or join us for part of the event, but if you are interested in volunteering to paint, we ask that you sign up for a one-hour slot via our brief survey.
Please contact Rebecca Morris at 205-837-0141 or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
The excitement of spring is upon us. With flowers in bloom, trees budding and temperatures warming, it’s clear that growth is taking place in Alabama. Much like nature, our ministry is experiencing a season of growth. On March 14, not only did our clocks spring forward, but we sprung forward as an organization by placing our mission in our name. The decision to change the name of our ministry in Alabama to Embrace Alabama Kids, just as we did in Florida, was one we prayed over and considered in great detail. We are confident it was the right move because our ministry had outgrown its name.
Over the past several months, we’ve enjoyed sharing with many of you about the need for this name change and how it will allow us to more clearly communicate what we do. After all, positive change and growth are good things, and we couldn’t have evolved beyond a single campus-based ministry without your prayers, partnership and generous support. Last year, we served approximately 200 more individuals than we did the year before, and we added Mary Ellen’s Hearth, a program that helps homeless mothers with children transition into independence. To say we’re excited about what God has been up to is an understatement!
Not only does spring bring welcome change, but with our Creator’s canvas on full display, it often inspires art. That’s why, this spring, we are bringing together donors, churches, and local leaders for community mural paintings that celebrate this new chapter of our ministry. We’re engaging with artists across the state to help us drive home a simple message — that vulnerable children in our communities need our love and support. Transportable murals painted in cities throughout the state will be brought together to form one mural in Montgomery, allowing us to host a special unveiling. We hope you will safely join us outdoors for this event.
As we celebrate this season of growth as a ministry, we would be remiss if we didn’t recognize the difficult season so many people – those we serve as well as our supporters – are facing during this pandemic. We remind you that seasons come and go, but’s God love anchors us through them all. Regardless of where you are in this continual progression, we thank you for playing a vital role in providing homes, healing and much needed hope.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
Rick Kilgore has long admired the work of the Embrace Alabama Kids, a ministry of the United Methodist Children’s Home, and wants to help ensure that the ministry will be there for future generations of hurting children. He also wants the most profitable return on his investment and the peace of mind that comes with knowing his gift will be used as he intends.
That’s why the longtime supporter recently took a different approach to planned giving. After exploring many avenues, Mr. Kilgore and his advisors came up with a plan that would accomplish all of his goals. “This is not your normal, run of the mill planned gift,” he said.
“By being the guinea pig, we hope we are in a position to help make it easy to provide charitable giving to the Children’s Home [now Embrace Alabama Kids].”
Mr. Kilgore, who has a long history of philanthropy, bought a life insurance policy on his daughter, Beth Kilgore, with plans for it to ultimately benefit the ministry. He named the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham the beneficiary however, and the money will be placed in a donor advised fund. This will give his family flexibility for distributing the gift should the focus of the ministry ever change.
Mr. Kilgore began researching options because he wanted to ensure the future of Embrace Alabama Kids remains strong. With some uncertainty looming with the future of the United Methodist Church, he believes it should be no question that he continue supporting the ministry.
“If people have an uncomfortable feeling, they’re not going to donate,” he said, adding that he wanted to share his story to encourage other donors to make similar provisions in their estate planning. “This gives people a comfort level.”
Buying the life insurance policy allowed Mr. Kilgore to “leverage pennies on the dollar,” according to T.O. McDowell, Regional Director of First Protective, a financial services firm. The cost of the policy on Mr. Kilgore’s daughter was much less than one on himself would be since she is younger and has no health issues.
That means that Mr. Kilgore’s initial investment of about $50,000 will provide an ultimate payoff of $250,000 to benefit Embrace Alabama Kids and won’t impact his estate like an outright gift of $250,000 would have. “This is done a lot more than people realize,” McDowell said.
“Life insurance is leveraged and premiums have never been lower because people are living longer.”
Naming the Community Foundation as the benefactor accomplished several goals. While Mr. Kilgore has specified that he wants the funds to benefit Embrace Alabama Kids – A Ministry of UMCH, the family members serving as advisors will be able to funnel the gift to organizations with similar missions should the need arise.
In addition, the fund encourages generational giving, a concept that is important to Mr. Kilgore. “My children and grandchildren will have a vested interest in the Children’s Home [now Embrace Alabama Kids],” he said.
“They will want to be involved and they will want the Children’s Home to be successful, because that’s where this money is going.”
Donor advised funds can be started by transferring at least $15,000 to the Community Foundation, whether it’s cash, appreciated stocks, real estate, insurance policies, or other assets, according to George Gaskin, the Community Foundation’s Director of Gift Planning. Funds like Mr. Kilgore’s can be advised by two generations of advisors, and they have greater tax advantages and fewer administrative burdens than a private foundation.
Mr. Kilgore said that knowing his planned gift will help children in foster care has given him peace of mind. “My mother was an orphan from the age of 11 or 12,” he said. “She was fortunate that she had a sister who took her in, but not everyone has that today. We feel very fortunate to be in a situation to be able to do this.”
When David and Janelle Turner went to court in hopes of getting custody of their grandchildren who had been placed in foster care, the judge asked one important question: “Exactly how large is your heart?”
Mrs. Turner thought a moment before answering. She has no biological children of her own – the kids are her stepson’s and his wife’s – and she knew that big changes were ahead. Instead of focusing on the uncertainty, though, she answered from her heart. “It’s big enough for these two,” she said. “I realized you don’t actually have to birth a child to love them. I’m a very tenderhearted, loving person and I have a lot to offer.”
The children, ages 4 and 2, will need plenty of love and stability going forward. Their parents, who at one time lived with the Turners, lost custody of the kids due to excessive drug use, neglect and family conflict. The children were in foster care for eight weeks, and the Embrace Alabama Kids staff helped the Turners with the reunification process and have provided a variety of supportive services.
“I feel like right now we are in a much better place because of what they offered,” Mrs. Turner said. “I’m taking everything they offer to help our family. If we are going to do this, I want it to be done the right way.”
The goal of Embrace Alabama Kid’s Family Preservation program is to provide intensive in-home treatments to equip families with the skills they need to stay together in a safe, healthy home. Statistics show that children who enter foster care have a 50 percent chance of remaining in foster care until they age out, so if reunification with family is possible, that’s the best outcome.
The children’s parents have left the home, and the Family Preservation staff is helping the Turners with parenting and discipline techniques. They’ve established a reward system for the children to encourage good behavior, and have worked together to ensure that the home is safe and in good repair. The staff helped arrange for day care and speech therapy for the children, as well as weekly counseling for the family.
“The things that were causing us heartache are no longer here,” Mrs. Turner said. “Now we’re living in positivity. It’s no longer about us, it’s about the children. It’s about the whole package.”
Christy Foley, a Family Intervention Specialist for Embrace Alabama Kids, said she is pleased with the progress the family has made. The Turners have met each requirement and are helping the children to learn life skills, such as dressing themselves. They have also been diligent in ensuring that the oldest child, who has some health issues, gets the medical care he needs.
“They’re a sweet little family,” Foley said. “This is the only home the children have known and it’s a comfort for them. Mr. and Mrs. Turner love them and take good care of them.”
Mrs. Turner said she is grateful for the support she and her husband have received from the Family Preservation staff. “To me, a family is a whole unit working together to overcome anything that is thrown at them,” she said. “We’re working together as a family. A lot of things are changing, but they’re changing in a positive way.”
Members of Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church serve up lots more than barbecue, camp stew, and all the fixings during their annual community-wide fundraiser. They also provide hope, healing and love to children in need.
Proceeds from the annual Fall BBQ, which the church in Enterprise, Alabama has hosted since 1947, have benefited the United Methodist Children’s Home for 71 of the past 72 years. “The first time they had it, the money went toward their education building,” said Dan Baughman, pastor of the church, which averages about 75 members each week. “Every year since, it’s gone to the Children’s Home.”
The BBQ, which raises about $10,000 a year for the ministry, is a wonderful way for the church members to work together for the common goal of sharing God’s love with the children and youth in UMCH’s care. “This church has a real heart for children, especially children in distressing situations,” Baughman said. “It’s part of our DNA, and this is one more way we can make a difference.”
Church members start preparing on Friday afternoon before the Saturday event, and the youth group has a lock-in that night so they can lend a hand. The children help decorate bags and about 45-50 adults help with cooking and serving. That’s a pretty tall order, considering they sell about 1,000 plates piled high with barbecue, hash, camp stew, rice, coleslaw and white bread.
Dr. Blake Horne, President and CEO of UMCH, has attended the event for the past several years to share about the Children’s Home and its important work.
“Everyone knows why we are doing this, and I think that’s what has helped this take such seed in this community,” Baughman said. “It’s really everybody working together, and it looks like
a picture of the kingdom of God. It’s all ages, all walks of life working together for this one thing. It’s awesome.”
A mother at 16, Lateskia Turner figured she had two options. She could stay at home with her drug-addicted mother and face a future as bleak as her childhood, or she could step out in faith and try to find a better life for herself and her son.
“I didn’t want him growing up in the same situation I grew up in,” she said. “It was scary, but just looking at my son I knew I had to do better. I had to think about more than just myself.”
Lateskia found her way to Babies First, a ministry of Embrace Alabama Kids. Today, 21 years later, she’s happy and proud of the life she and her son, a college student, have made. “I’ve struggled a lot,” she said, “but I keep getting up every day. I keep praying every day, and it works.”
Making a decision
Lateskia, now 38, was 17 when she boarded a bus with her 11-month-old baby, Antonious, and headed for the Department of Human Resources. “I let them know my situation and they gave me some options,” she said. Babies First, a residential group home for teenage mothers and their children, was the one that felt right.
“I wanted to raise my son, but I also wanted to go to school,” said Lateskia, who was an A/B student. “I really didn’t want to leave my mother because of the shape she was in, but I wanted better. I always did. I knew what I was capable of.”
Lateskia and her son stayed at the group home, located then in Selma, from 1996-99. The program, now in Mobile, provides nurturing and support for young mothers juggling school, jobs, day care and doctor’s visits. Long-term goals include strengthening bonds between mothers and their children, building self-esteem, and preventing repeat pregnancies while single.
“I knew it was the place we needed to get our start in life,” she said. “I didn’t have to worry about food or shelter or clean clothes for me and my child. All I had to do was achieve my goals while watching my child grow up happy.”
A supportive family
She earned her GED and enrolled in community college, making both the Dean’s List and President’s List. Antonious was in day care, and Lateskia worked as a receptionist. Eventually, she qualified for transitional housing. “The Children’s Home afforded me the opportunity to get well mentally because I had been through so much,” she said. “It allowed me to flourish and rise above what I needed to rise above. They made me feel like I had a family.”
Life hasn’t always been easy for the mother and son in the years since leaving the group home. There have been struggles and set-backs, but they draw on the strength they found at Embrace Alabama Kids. Antonious, 23, is a student at Alabama A&M, earning a major in construction management and a minor in business. Lateskia, who lives in Phenix City, Alabama, works in a hotel and conference center in Auburn.
She still keeps in touch with some of the staff members who were at Babies First when she was, and they have continued to be sources of strength and support. Most recently, she met a Embrace Alabama Kids Board member at the hotel, a chance meeting that didn’t surprise her at all.
“Every time I’ve struggled or am at a pivotal point, God always brings the Children’s Home back in my life,” she said. “It’s like He’s saying ‘You have someone. You have family. I’m watching you and I’m here for you.’”
Did you know?
The Babies First program serves mothers ages 14-20 who are pregnant or have a young child.
Since 1986, more than 400 mothers and children have received some 97,000 days of care. The average stay is 243 days.
In order to meet the need, Embrace Alabama Kids is growing the ministry in Mobile and building a 9,600 square foot residential facility that will house up to 10 mothers and their babies. Each room will have its own bathroom and plenty of living space for a young mother and up to two children.
For information or to donate, visit BabiesFirstHome.com or contact Rebecca Morris at email@example.com or 205.837.0141.