That’s the number of child abuse incidents reported in Alabama last year. We are called to embrace and nurture vulnerable children and at-risk families and believe all children have the right to be raised in a safe and nurturing environment with a strong support system that helps them grow and thrive. That’s why our ministry cares for children who have been neglected, abused or abandoned by providing them with homes, healing, and hope. We also help at-risk families address harmful behavior prior to being able to continue to parent their children.
Together, we can create a brighter future for children and families across our state by being an extension of God’s unconditional love. Will you help us change their future by giving to Embrace Alabama Kids?
Pat Cone has never been in the care of Embrace Alabama Kids, but the 130-year-old ministry has had a profound effect on her life. In fact, she wouldn’t be here without it. “I’m a product of Embrace Alabama Kids in Selma,” she said. “My mother, father and uncle grew up there, and it’s where my parents met.”
It’s also where Mary Frances Holland, Cone’s 94-year-old mother, felt safe and learned lessons and skills that would carry her through her adult years. “It helped shape my life,” she said.
The story began in 1934 when Holland’s father died in an accident. With three of six children still at home, her mother struggled financially. She eventually remarried, but her new husband was an alcoholic and things got worse. “It was a bad situation,” Mrs. Holland remembers. “Every time the rent came due we moved. We missed a lot of school and the welfare people came out and put us in foster care.”
Released to the care of relatives, 10-yearold Mary Frances Talton was taken to Embrace Alabama Kids’s Selma campus by her grandfather and uncle. Her younger brother, Julius, joined her about a year later. “I was happy to have a stable situation,” she said. “I don’t know if I would have survived what I was in.”
The Selma campus, which served children for 100 years, had a swimming pool, 10 cottages, as well as tennis and basketball courts. There was a nearby farm, and the children helped care for the animals and tend and harvest the garden to keep food expenses down.
“We all had chores, and I helped in the kitchen and laundry,” said Mrs. Holland, who now lives with her daughter in Prattville. “We went to the public school and we went to church in town. On Saturday mornings, we went to the movies. I had a happy childhood.”
Many of her memories involve John Moore, who came to Embrace Alabama Kids after his father abandoned the family and his mother was hospitalized with mental illness. “They had very strict rules about dating,” Mrs. Holland said. “We could go to the picture show when everyone else went to the picture show. We would see each other on campus and at the swimming pool. Sometimes we’d sit on the same bench and hold hands.”
John, who was a few years older, eventually joined the Navy, and she stayed at Embrace Alabama Kids until graduating from high school. “I was the first one of my siblings to finish school,” she said. “I got a lot of other meaningful education there, too. I learned to make biscuits and I became a very good cook. I got my religious education, and every Sunday after lunch, the superintendent would put on classical music. To this day, I find classical music most entertaining.”
After graduation, Mary Frances kept the books for a children’s clothing store, served as a typist and “did a little bit of everything.” She and John married in 1945, and the Assistant Director of Embrace Alabama Kids, who had been close to Mary Frances, served as the witness. “She played an important part in my life,” said Mrs. Holland, who was 19 at the time.
Sadly, Mary Frances became the sole support of the family after John eventually developed mental illness and hospitalized himself. While raising two children, she took college-level accounting classes and worked at a construction company for 16 years before becoming an auditor with the State of Alabama, where she worked until her retirement.
Although she’s had a lot of heartbreak – she buried her second husband as well as her son – Mrs. Holland said the foundation she got at Embrace Alabama Kids helped carry her through the hard times. “I was blessed to be able to do so many things because of the training I got there,” she said. “It gave me my start in life and helped me recognize that there were people who cared.”
Cone said her mother has been an inspiration. “She has never said an unkind word about anything that happened to her, and she was always all about the family,” Cone said. “My mother is one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever known.”
Not long after Jamie and Daniel Kertis adopted 7-year-old DJ, their new son told them about the time he ate cotton candy at Disney World.
They were surprised since DJ had been born to a young teenage mother and had grown up in foster care, but after learning that he’d spent his first four years at Babies First, a Embrace Alabama Kids group home for young mothers and their children, the Kertises began connecting the dots.
“They took the moms and their babies to Disney World and Gatlinburg and did lots of things to help them bond and experience some of the joys of life,” Mrs. Kertis said. “He had a solid foundation there and it made a big difference in his life.”
The Kertises, who live in Mobile, long believed their family’s calling was to serve children who need care and love, and the Lord eventually put the idea of adoption on their hearts. After several potential matches didn’t work out, however, they grew discouraged. “We began to think maybe this wasn’t God’s plan for us right now,” she said.
Then Mrs. Kertis saw DJ’s photo on a website that features Alabama children looking for forever homes and she and her family fell in love. The adoption process moved quickly, and just weeks after it was finalized last July, Mrs. Kertis received an invitation to the groundbreaking for Embrace Alabama Kids’ new Babies First Home.
Although she has supported Embrace Alabama Kids financially for years, she’d never gotten involved with the ministry and didn’t know much about it. Something kept telling her to attend the groundbreaking, though, and that’s where she met Rebecca Morris, Embrace Alabama Kids’ Senior Vice President of External Affairs.
“I told her we had just adopted a boy named Damarkis Jamal,” Mrs. Kertis said, adding that the more they talked, the wider Morris’ eyes got. “She finally said, ‘Do you mean DJ? We raised him.’ Rebecca told me they had lost touch with him after he left Babies First, but they had been praying for him constantly,” Mrs. Kertis said.
DJ was born to a 14-year-old mother who had been placed at Babies First when she was pregnant. “She experienced a significant amount of trauma in her personal life and was unable to cope with raising DJ,” Mrs. Kertis said. After 4 1⁄2 years, she signed over her parental rights, and DJ was placed in a foster home.
Figuring out her son’s connection to Babies First was a game changer, Mrs. Kertis said, because they met Blondine Burke who had recently retired after 15 years at the group home. She told them about DJ’s early years, shared baby photos, and gave them insight into his personality.
“It was invaluable,” she said. “A lot of people who adopt know nothing about the child, other than what they read in the clinical file. She was able to tell us that he loved Ninja Turtles, that he’s always been silly and that he’s fearful of loud noises. “We felt so lucky that we were able to hear from someone who knew and loved him from the beginning.”
DJ, now 8, is thriving in his new home. His sisters, 10-year-old Kate and Claire, 7, have welcomed him with open arms – smelly clothes, dead frogs and all. “It’s been one of the greatest blessings of my life to see how our girls took him in without missing a beat,” Mrs. Kertis said. “They have loved him from the start.”
After reconnecting with DJ, Ms. Burke became a “surrogate grandmother,” Mrs. Kertis said, adding that she’s come to soccer games and other events. “She has such a sweet, maternal energy about her,” she said. “We felt like it was important for him to have that connection to his past.”
Mrs. Kertis said she is grateful for the love and support DJ and his birth mother received at Babies First and for the impact it made on his life. “The amount of love in that place, you can feel it,” she said. “It’s a ministry born out of love and care. DJ is definitely a testament to the fact that they are providing a loving, nurturing foundation for the children in their care.”
In 1890, when the orphanage that would later become known as the United Methodist Children’s Home first opened its doors, the world was in the middle of a global flu pandemic. Known as the Russian flu, it would ultimately kill more than 1 million people.
As newspaper headlines chronicled death tolls and fears, the focus at the Alabama Methodist Orphanage in Summerfield, Alabama was on children with no family to care for them.
Here we are in 2020, and as UMCH celebrates our 130th anniversary of loving God’s children, we find ourselves in much the same situation as the founders of our ministry. There’s fear, confusion, sadness and sickness in the world, but our focus remains on providing homes, healing and hope to the hurting children and youth in our care.
Much has changed in UMCH’s history over the past 130 years. There have been name changes, building changes and operational changes, but through it all, one thing has remained constant. The United Methodist Children’s Home has always been committed to providing a safe, loving Christian environment so thousands and thousands of children could find new beginnings.
Since 1890, we’ve stood in the gap for the most vulnerable of children. The kids we serve have experienced hardships most of us can’t even fathom. They’ve been abused, neglected and abandoned. We can’t change the wrongs they’ve experienced in the past but we can do what’s right in hopes of changing their futures.
Just like everyone raising children, we’ve had to find new ways to do our job during this pandemic. It’s not unchartered territory for us, though. Throughout our history, we’ve loved children through wars, depressions and terrorist attacks. Long before anyone heard of COVID-19, we kept them safe during outbreaks of the Spanish flu and polio.
We may not be the traditional family that most children and youth dream of, but if the definition of “family” is a group of people who love, care and support you no matter what’s in the news, our kids are covered. Thank you for being an important part of their family and ours.
Giving vulnerable kids opportunities to grow and thrive in a safe, loving environment is at the heart of what the Embrace Alabama Kids does. Naturally, that’s exactly the imagery the organization’s staff decided to use in Tuscaloosa to make the community aware of Embrace Alabama Kids, its mission and need for support.
Beginning Saturday, July 11, homes around Tuscaloosa will have sunflowers temporarily adorning their yard accompanied by a yard sign that reads “Help Plant a Seed of Hope. #SupportEAK”. The creative campaign is a nod to the organization’s mission of providing homes, healing and hope.
“We’re going to split the kids up by boys and girls. The boys will go with me and the girls will go with my colleague, Mrs. Vickie. We are going to go around town and let the kids display the flowers, post the signs and leave some treats as a thank you,” said Luke Powell, a social worker for Embrace Alabama Kids’ Tuscaloosa Foster Care program.
In preparation for the activity, Embrace Alabama Kids reached out to a variety of prospective participants to gain their consent. Among those offering their yard are none other than Alabama Head Football Coach Nick Saban, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox (utilizing City Hall’s lawn) and Alabama Athletic Director Greg Byrne. In addition to the yard sign, those volunteering their yards will also receive a pack of flower seeds, information about the ministry and cookies.
“Going into it, the kids will think they are ‘pranking’ these residents.”
“Going into it, the kids will think they are ‘pranking’ these residents. However, all of those who have agreed to participate are aware and have consented to this beforehand,”said Powell. “We expect the kids will be pretty excited about it all – it should be a lot of fun.”
Powell and his colleagues with Embrace Alabama Kids’ Tuscaloosa Foster Care program hope through this activity, more people in the community will get involved in supporting Embrace Alabama Kids by way of a contribution or possibly even becoming a foster parent.
“We continually have kids being sent to us who need caring and safe homes,” said Powell. “We hope more families and community members will take interest in what we’re doing and decide to get involved.”
A college graduate, Meredith has a full-time job she loves, an apartment of her own, a 401k, insurance, and a support system she never could have imagined. “It’s everything I’ve worked for and wanted,” she said.
Now 26, Meredith (pictured right) was the first graduate in Embrace Alabama Kids’ Higher Education program, which started in 2013. The program, funded largely by a planned gift by Mary Whetstone Knabe, allows students affected by foster care or alternative living situations to attend college at no cost while living in a Embrace Alabama Kids group home. In its first six years, the program has seen 10 students graduate, with three more on track to finish in 2020.
“This program has been more successful than we ever imagined,” said Dr. Blake Horne, President and CEO of Embrace Alabama Kids.
“That population of students typically has a graduation rate of two to five percent, but we have a 60 percent retention rate. A lot of agencies pay for kids to go to school, but the wraparound services we provide have a tremendous impact in ensuring their success.”
Embrace Alabama Kids operates two Higher Education homes – one for men in Tuscaloosa, where most of the students attend the University of Alabama; and another in Florence, for women attending the University of North Alabama.
“One of our goals at Embrace Alabama Kids is to prepare our kids for life so that their adulthoods will be much more stable than their childhoods,” said Rebecca Morris, Senior Vice President of External Affairs for Embrace Alabama Kids. “College is a big part of that and kids from unstable backgrounds have benefited greatly from the extra support our group homes provide.”
In addition to providing a place to live, the staff prepares meals and offers transportation, strong shoulders and a listening ear. Tuition, books and other expenses are also provided.
“I graduated debt-free,” said Joey, who finished at Alabama in May with a degree in Communication Studies and hopes to pursue a career with the U.S. Army. “I don’t think I can fully understand the impact of what they have done for me.”
Embrace Alabama Kids graduates work in a variety of fields, including business, nursing, music ministry, fine arts, and communications. “This program has had almost a mainstreaming effect,” Horne said. “These kids have always just wanted to be normal, and when they finish college it changes their sense of themselves.”
The opportunity was a game-changer for Meredith, who graduated in December 2017 and works in accounting at a national health care company. “I have a future now,” she said. “I never thought I’d be able to go to college, much less a four-year university. If you’re willing to try, they’ll be right there with you.”
For Felicia, who earned a management degree in 2019 and works for a home health care company, that support was invaluable. “They’re like my second family,” she said of the Embrace Alabama Kids staff. “I never want to not be a part of Embrace Alabama Kids. It’s my home. It’s a part of me.”
When the Babies First program in Mobile started experiencing growing pains, Embrace Alabama Kids staff decided to take the same advice they give the young mothers in their care: Look for ways to turn challenges into opportunities.
The building was aging and repairs were becoming cost-prohibitive at the same time the demand for services was at an all-time high. That’s why ministry leadership made building a new home for the program a priority for 2019. The ministry broke ground on the new 9,600 square foot home in August. Plans are to open the facility, which is adjacent to the current home, in July 2020.
The Babies First home in Mobile serves mothers ages 14-21 who are pregnant or have a young child. The staff mentors the girls, teaches them how to mother their babies and helps them get an education and job skills so they can break the cycle of poverty and move on to independent lives, caring for themselves and their baby. The new facility, one of only two in Alabama that provides residential group care for pregnant teens and young mothers, will allow the ministry to serve twice as many girls and their children.
“We’re evolving to help our mothers evolve,” said Janet Rawls, director of residential programs for Embrace Alabama Kids. “I think it’s important for us to model the kind of atmosphere we want them to aim for and to let them see that we value them and that they should value themselves. We want them to live in a comfortable, safe, warm, homey environment because that’s what we want them to aspire for themselves and their children.”
“Many of our girls don’t know what it means to live in a safe, loving environment,” Rawls said. “We have to teach them that.”
Feelings of self-worth and value don’t come easily for the young women, many of whom are in foster care because of abuse and neglect. “Many of our girls don’t know what it means to live in a safe, loving environment,” Rawls said. “We have to teach them that.”
In order to give the mothers and group home staff a voice during the process, ministry leadership asked for their input in deciding how the home should function. The girls wanted a play area for their children, and the new home will feature a beautiful fenced-in backyard and playground. The staff requested – and got – a covered outdoor area, which will allow everyone to enjoy meals and spend more time outside.
“We’re always looking at ways to teach our young moms to interact with their babies that don’t involve television or technology,” Rawls said. “We’re setting up all the common areas in ways that will encourage reading to their babies and interactive play. We’ve put a lot of thought and a lot of love into the design of this home.”
In addition to mentoring the girls, the Babies First staff transports them or their babies to doctor’s appointments and daycare, as well as to school or part-time jobs. Counseling and other services are also provided to help the mothers achieve self-reliance, emotional stability, and spiritual growth. Long-term goals include helping the moms become self-sufficient, strengthening the bonds between mothers and children, and preventing repeat pregnancies while single.
“This program makes a tremendous impact on two generations, and this new home will allow us to better minister to the needs of the girls and their children,” Rawls said. “It will help us provide the nurturing and loving atmosphere they need to thrive.”
Timothy Skipper, who recently earned his degree in creative media at the University of Alabama, wrote and directed a short film about a mother’s love and guidance. The topic isn’t all that unusual, unless you consider the fact that Timothy grew up in an abusive home and was placed with a relative after his mother lost custody of him and his siblings.
“My film is about learning strength through resiliency and how important a mother is in a child’s life,” he said of the class project. “It’s very personal to me.”
Timothy, a Knabe Scholar who lived in Embrace Alabama Kids’ higher education home in Tuscaloosa for four years, didn’t have the best role model in his own mother, but he got plenty of love, guidance and nurturing from a group of women he calls “Team Mom.” This special group includes his grandmother, his high school librarian, and several staff members of Embrace Alabama Kids and the University of Alabama.
“I’ve had these women come into my life to show me what the love of a mother is like,” said Timothy, the first in his family to attend college and only the second to graduate from high school. “For the most part, my film was written from my experiences.”
The film, “The Rose That Grew from the Concrete,” premiered in February at the Black Warrior Film Festival, an annual competitive showcase of student films at Alabama. It received the “Audience Choice Award,” voted on by festival-goers.
“In my acceptance speech, I thanked all those who have supported me on this journey, especially the incredible women who have served as mother figures in my life,” he said. “I wouldn’t be where I am without them, and this film wouldn’t have been possible. It’s very affirming that people loved it. I’m pursuing something I’m passionate about and I’m good at, and I have the support of so many wonderful people.”
Timothy, who grew up in poverty, remembers periods of time with no electricity and very little food. His mother drank and was often angry and abusive. When he was 11, he was placed in kinship care with his grandmother.
After learning about Embrace Alabama Kids’ Knabe Scholarship, which provides full tuition, room and board to students in foster care or other alternative living situations, Timothy was hesitant to apply. “I didn’t believe in myself,” he said, adding that his school librarian convinced him to fill out the paperwork.
“That’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” he said. “Embrace Alabama Kids provided me with a home, a family, stability, an education, and lifelong relationships. It means everything to me.”
You can view Timothy’s film, “The Rose That Grew from the Concrete” by clicking here.
Mary Ellen’s Hearth (MEH) at Nellie Burge Community Center, a ministry focused on serving homeless women and children, is now an affiliate of the Embrace Alabama Kids.
As a result of the affiliation, Embrace Alabama Kids will carry out the day-to-day operations at the ministry’s Montgomery-based facility that provides safe living space for ten homeless moms and up to 20 children. While addressing the adversity these mothers face in regaining their independence, they’re provided a safe home along with their children.
With collaboration and synergy as the driving forces that brought both organizations into a series of discussions, it was soon determined that they could make a greater impact and further their respective missions by working together. Both ministries have Methodist roots and both have wide-ranging support across Central Alabama.
“Mary Ellen’s Hearth’s mission and values are closely aligned with ours,” said Dr. Blake Horne, Embrace Alabama Kids President & CEO. “We are both faith-based organizations with Methodist roots and share a focus on providing homes, healing and hope to vulnerable populations.”
With this impactful program becoming a part of Embrace Alabama Kid’s continuum of services, Embrace Alabama Kids says donors who choose to give to its ministry can know their support extends further than it did before. With the stage set for a fruitful affiliation, the future of Mary Ellen’s Hearth is much more promising even amidst a hard-hit economy.
“We look forward to being able to provide additional staff and programming resources that weren’t previously available to Mary Ellen’s Hearth,” said Dr. Horne. “At the end of the day, it’s about serving the vulnerable and sharing God’s unconditional love, and we couldn’t be more optimistic about expanding our ability to do that through this new affiliation.”
Mary Ellen’s Hearth at Nellie Burge Community Center is funded in part by the River Region United Way, community partners and individual donors.
By Rebecca Morris, UMCH Sr. VP of External Affairs Originally published in StyleBlueprint.
It’s finally spring in Alabama, and we should be on a beach somewhere living the dream. Instead, we’re all at home living the memes. You know the ones — they cover everything from the toilet paper shortage and hazmat suits to homeschooling nightmares and bad hair.
I get it, they’re funny, and we all need a diversion from the stress and anxiety that’s part of this pandemic. Unfortunately, though, laughter and lightheartedness can’t solve everyone’s problems.
I work for a nonprofit that takes care of children and youth in group homes and foster homes in Alabama and Florida. These boys and girls — like all foster kids — are in the system through no fault of their own. They didn’t do anything wrong, but the adults in their lives — the ones who are supposed to love them unconditionally — made bad choices upon bad choices, and the kids are the ones who are paying.
What’s struck me these past few days is that while the rest of us wish we could go anywhere that’s not home and our children are looking for ways to hang out with anyone who’s not family, home and family are the very things foster kids wish they had the most.
Don’t get me wrong. The kids we serve are loved. They have safe places to live, warm beds, healthy meals and an amazing support system. We make sure they participate in extracurricular activities and have everything they need, whether it’s band uniforms, prom dresses, school supplies or a chance to attend college. They get counseling if they need it, and most of them do. Our staff and foster parents laugh with them, cry with them and offer lots of hugs. We want them to know they aren’t alone, they have value and are worthy of love.
But no matter what our amazing direct care staff says or does — and trust me, they do incredible things for the welfare of our kids, sometimes at the expense of their own families — they can’t always fill the holes in our children’s hearts.
Most of the boys and girls in our care have been abused, neglected or abandoned. They come to us feeling less than, with worries and stresses most of us can’t even imagine. They’re angry, scared, sad and hurting.
It’s not an exaggeration, though, to say the folks we have caring for our kids can work miracles. Slowly but surely the children and youth in our care start to feel safe. They relish the stability in their lives, something they’ve never had much of or any at all. Routine is comforting, and when they finally get it, they begin to depend on it.
Then we have a national crisis known as COVID-19. Suddenly, their worlds are disrupted again. They miss school, friends, activities and their all-important routine. They’ve lost control, and stress and worry begin to creep back into their lives. Just like all of us, our staff and foster families are finding new ways to parent, and it’s hard.
Although I worry about our kids and what this scare will mean to their fragile lives, I take comfort in knowing they do have a family during this time. It may not be the traditional one they dream of, but if the definition of “family” is a group of people who love, care and support you, our kids are covered.
I’ve got to admit, I’m feeling a little out of sorts right now, just like most of you. Things are out of my control, we don’t know what the next few weeks or months will bring, we can’t imagine how we’ll be affected long-term, and we’re uncertain about the ramifications this may have on the future. This gives me a tiny glimpse into the struggles our foster kids faced for so long — a loss of control, fear of what the future holds, uncertainty and helplessness.
That’s why I’m going to make sure — even if I have to force myself sometimes — to take a deep breath and be thankful for this time my family has together. It’s not always easy. I’ve swept the kitchen floor more times than I can count, broken up my kids’ fights, re-learned algebra (or tried to, anyway) and juggled the demands of working remotely while coming up with ways to entertain three teenage boys.
It’s been trying more often than not, but there have been some great moments, as well. We’ve laughed a lot, played games, slowed down and gotten plenty of rest for the first time in a long time. There was also a wonderful moment when I got to show my son — who is in high school — how to use Zoom (a video conferencing app I’ve been using for years and he didn’t even know existed) despite his insistence I didn’t know what I was doing.
In these next few weeks, or for however long this lasts, I have a feeling I’m going to keep on laughing right along with you at all of these videos and images we keep sharing — the ones about eating all the quarantine snacks in one sitting or bemoaning the scarcity of hand sanitizer. I’m going to remember these moments and appreciate the fact that we found a way to laugh together to keep from crying. Then I’m going to thank the Lord that during this horrible time in our world, my family was living the memes — together.