Service, ministry part of center’s legacy

Published 7:45 pm Saturday, January 9, 2010

No one wants to see a good friend leave. Especially one with as rich a history and record of service as the United Methodist Children’s home. But tradition and history endure, and Selma surely won’t forget the legacy those who committed over 100 years of support and goodwill to social welfare.

The children’s home is as much a part of Selma’s culture as any institution. Located downtown, it’s a symbol of early integration and another trait that built the city’s personality into what it is today.

Soon, it will close its doors and continue its mission to provide care, just elsewhere. The spirit of the work done in Selma will not diminish, nor will it be forgotten, said current CEO Steve Hubbard. He said the general response to the news was that the United Methodist Children’s Home would cease to be as one entity. But that’s not the case. While the circumstances of the transition sadden, he insists that it does not alter the objective.

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“I think it’s a sad day, no doubt about that,” Hubbard said. “Things change. The way we serve changes.”

For the most part, Hubbard said the community has reactive positively to news of closing. While initially upset, he said most people understand the rationale behind the decision and support new ways to continue serving children’s needs.

“Most people that have called us, they’re more concerned as to whether or not we’re going to continue to serve children and families, and we are,” he said. “We’ve expanded our services to provide for residential care, adoption services, foster care, independent living and counseling.”

Selma-Dallas County Public Library director Becky Cochran said the home would be sorely missed.

“The children’s home has been a part of our community in a uniquely visible way,” she said. “The buildings and grounds have always been a wonderful first impression of Selma, the little chapel and the buildings all well maintained. And the energy and commitment of the staff has always been a strong part of the total personality of our town.”

Cochran said the home was a part of the general personality of Selma just like the hospital or the library and that the overall story of Selma was enriched by the services of the children’s home.

“We will miss the presence of such a fine institution in our community,” she said. “Many children have called those cottages home and have been given the essential strengths and talents that are needed for life success. I know of many people whose lives have been personally shaped by the house moms and dads who made those cottages special and those years full of love.”

Former UMCH director Richard Kirkland, who worked at the Selma campus from 1955-1977, said the change is simply following the national trend.

“It’s kind of sad,” he said. Some people will miss it because it’s very visible. On the other hand, I guess you can’t fight trends in social welfare and how to help children. There well be people that miss it. People will miss living in Selma. Like many things in life, you’ll adjust.”

Kirkland, who currently lives in North Carolina, worked at the UMCH when it began to integrate children from all races. He said the board of directors was a progressive group and opened its doors to anyone regardless of race or religion during the 1960s.

Working alongside Kirkland throughout the 1970s was Bruce Burson, the office and financial director from 1973-1991. He said he wishes the town would keep at least one group home, but he understands the new directions states are taking with childcare.

“I think it’s meant a lot to the community, and it’s established its presence and brought children of diverse backgrounds to the city, who attended public schools, said Burson, who currently lives in Selma. “The diversity of the population helped us become more relational to the population itself.

“Through the years, when Methodists and others across Alabama and northwest panhandle of Florida thought of the home, they thought of Selma. I think the personality of the city was established by the knowledge that we were caring for children here in this locality.”

Mike Reynolds knows first-hand several of the products of the UMCH and speaks with great pride of the citizens they turned out to be.

“That was the place where a lot of incredible Selmians were raised, magnificent citizens,” he said. “I’m sad to see it go knowing what it has meant to the community, knowing a lot of young people that grew up at the children’s home.”

Reynolds, owner of the WHBB-AM and WDXX-FM radio stations in Selma, said as a local businessman he is never happy to lose anything that’s going to take the economic impact away, though he understands the decision.

Depending on who occupies the 35-acre land after the UMCH, it could impact Selma’s economic in a positive way, executive director of the Dallas County Chamber of Commerce Sheryl Smedley said.

Although some childcare workers will retire or lose their jobs as a result of the closing, the property is a prime piece of real estate that could benefit the city.

“On a positive note, it would be a big thing for Selma if a school or something purchased the land,” Smedley said. “We look at it as a loss for the community but also as something positive.”

Hubbard said in 2010, they will expand into family and additional counseling and grow into other parts of Alabama and West Florida.

The state currently sees a shift in how to help children who cannot live at home. Instead of the large group homes similar to the ones in Selma, childcare professionals suggest smaller homes in neighborhoods are the preferred setting.

The administrative portion of the UMCH will transfer to Prattville or Montgomery. Last year, some of the staff already started working at a facility in Montgomery. Some have retired.

Hubbard said the board of directors struggled for years with determining the long-range use of the Selma campus. Many years ago, they felt that children who were going to be served for out-of-home placement needed to be served with small group homes in local neighborhoods with the idea that kids would be a part of the community by going to schools and churches.

Over the past 15 to 20 years, Hubbard said, they saw fewer and fewer referrals to the Selma campus, a trend seen nationwide. Many children’s homes changed their focus in response to the states’ positions. The UMCH has had to close several buildings on campus, due to a lack of use.

In order to continue serving children with basic residential care, which is what the home primarily offers, they would need slots granted by the state. To have a license and to take state referrals, every year the sate issues requests for proposals (RSPs). The agencies that operate facilities, such as the UMCH, responds to those by producing a document with detailed answers on what type of programs they operate, staffing patterns, compliance with licensing and ability to determine pretest and posttest scores.. Based on those responses, the state issues slots statewide.

Selma saw last October, for the 2010 year, states reduced the number of slots reserved for basic residential care. Therefore, there would be less dependence on residential care and there would be more services to leave children in their homes rather than provide services out of their homes.

The UMCH board had been aware of that for a number of years, Hubbard said. The timing was driven at the last minute by the fewer slots awarded by the state. The UMCH was awarded less than 50 percent of the slots they requested, although they ranked in the top one or two of most RSP categories compared to the other agencies. No one walked away with more slots than the Selma home.

The state simply prefers not to place children in an institutional campus setting, Hubbard said.

With other of the Methodist homes crisscrossing the state, the board believed moving headquarters to Montgomery or Prattville, closer to Interstate 65 and Interstate 85 would be better economically for administrative workers. Eight workers remain on the Selma campus.

The 35-acre campus on Broad Street has been a familiar setting to Selma residents since 1911 when it moved from Summerfield to Selma and became the United Methodist Children’s Home. It offers residential programs, foster care programs, family preservation and support services, adoption programs and spiritual life and development programs.

Currently, the UMCH campus and its buildings are for sale. Two years ago, the property was appraised at about $3.5 million, Hubbard said.

“We are in the process of hoping to complete a sale of the campus to a local group,” he said. “I think it’s important to us to do whatever we can do to bring that completion to a sale of the campus. The last thing we want to do is walk away from 37 acres of property in downtown Selma.

“We would prefer that we’re successful in selling the campus to a party that we hope will continue the use of the campus and have a viable connection to the community.”

Mike Reynolds wants to remember those who dedicated their lives to service and the welfare of children who deserved better than their unfortunate situations.

“The thing that stands out in my mind the most growing up here knowing residents and administrators, it was a first-class operation,” he said. “I’ll always remember that everyone associated was a first-class citizen. I would say it’s been a source of pride for years.”