The statistics are beyond alarming. At any given time, there are between 3,800-4,000 children in the care of the Arkansas Department of Human Services. And the Fort Smith area, known as Area II, is notoriously the worst offender in the state.
To address the growing problem, one organization is giving an old building new life and in the process, working to give foster children new hope and a sense of security. The Maggie House, to be located in Charleston, will serve as a long-term care facility for youth ages 6-18 in the foster care system. The shelter will occupy the former Greenhurst Nursing Home, which constructed a new facility several years ago.
The Maggie House will operate beneath the umbrella of Family Ministries, which is the outreach division of the Free Will Baptist denomination. Based in Greenville, Tenn., Family Ministries has provides services to at-risk individuals of all ages through a number of assistance programs and centers since 1939. The organization operates similar residential programs including the Florence Crittenton Home in Little Rock.
Under the direction of Executive Administrator Bob Moody, the Maggie House is designed to create a family-like environment in an effort to give children a sense of normalcy.
"The 15,000 square foot facility will be divided into four separate apartment spaces or 'cottages,' equipped with individual bedrooms, bathrooms, and a kitchenette," said Moody. "A common area will exist in the main hall, providing a space for all Maggie House residents to spend time and dine with one another."
THE NEED DEFINED
The facility will serve the entire state, but the majority of its residents will likely be from Area II, which encompasses Crawford, Franklin, Johnson, Logan, Scott, Sebastian and Yell counties.
"Area II has the most children in its care in the entire state," said Moody. "An estimated 800-900 children are collectively in the foster care system from this seven-county region at one time, making it second only in the nation to the Chicago area."
Because no other long-term foster care facility exists in the region and because there is a massive shortage of foster care homes, DHS is forced to place many children far from their hometown.
"More than 500 kids are routinely placed outside Area II," explained Moody. "This means they have to travel back and forth for court appearances, parental visitations, and appointments, which results in long hours on the road, missed school, and other difficulties. For children who have already experienced the trauma of being taken from their home, this only adds to the stress. The system has some children placed as far away as West Memphis, on the other side of the state. It is hard for all involved, including the children and their case workers. This is why long-term care facilities, such as the Maggie House are so greatly needed."
THE MAGGIE HOUSE STORY
The story for how Maggie House came to be is an example of why it rarely hurts to ask the question at hand. During a March 2014 conversation between First Free Will Baptist Church of Charleston Pastor Jeff Holland and Charleston resident Fred Schaffer, Holland expressed the need for long-term care facilities for foster children and the overall system crisis.
"Fred asked me what I would do with the nursing home if he were to donate it and I told him that I would make a place for youth in foster-care," said Holland. "He lit up when I said that and the conversation went from there."
Schaffer offered to give the former nursing home to Holland's church, which sits across the street from the Greenhurst property. Holland then contacted the national Free Will Baptist organization's Family Ministries division to begin the process of making the Maggie House a reality.
"The name is honor of Fred Schaffer's mother, the original owner and administrator of Greenhurst Nursing Center," said Holland. "She was also well-respected in the community and known for her kindness and compassion to others."
With the building approved and plans in place, work on the Maggie House began, with construction in full swing.
"We originally planned to wait until half of the funds for construction were in place, but because the need is so immediate, we opted to borrow so building could get underway," said Moody.
Inspection of the building by Family Ministry proved that the property had "solid bones," and was a cost-effective route for building the Maggie House.
"The property was valued 'as is' at $250,000 and we are investing about $799,000 into renovating the facility into the four apartments," said Moody. "If we had built a new facility of this caliber, it would have cost approximately $2 million. Obviously, this was the smart choice financially and it utilizes this vacant property, which is an added bonus."
Another result of using the former Charleston nursing home is the outpouring of support the project has experienced from the community.
"The people have Charleston have absolutely embraced us," said Moody. "They have volunteered, are helping raise funds for Maggie House, and more. It is inspiring to see them rally behind this project."
The Maggie House also will work in conjunction with Charleston Public Schools to provide transportation and educational services to children housed at the facility. Organizers plan to develop mentoring and sponsorship programs, as well, in an effort to provide youth with role models during their time at Maggie House.
The primary focus of the Maggie House will be to provide long-term residents with a safe, stable environment that mirrors a family-like atmosphere. The four family-style cottages will each be licensed for up to 12 children, with the goal of averaging eight children and youth at one time. This structure supports the environment preferred by the courts, children’s advocates and the Arkansas Division of Children & Family Services (DCFS).
The facility will employ qualified house parents who will work two weeks on and two weeks off. Moody plans to have regular sets of house parents in three of the four units, with one being set up as a shift unit, potentially aimed at older residents. Maggie House will also employ case managers, counselors, and other care-related staff to help meet the overall needs of residents.
"The question we are asking is, 'What can we do to equip these kids with the tools they need to break the cycle?’” noted Moody. "In one of the DCFS worker's office is a sign that has stuck with me. It says, 'Having a place to go is home. Having someone to love is family. Having both is a blessing.' That is what we want Maggie House to be. A home, a family, and a blessing to the kids who reside there.”
LONG TERM NEEDS, GOALS
While construction of the project is scheduled to wrap in late summer 2015, the need for funding and on-going support will continue. To assist with overall operations, organizers have applied for a contract with the Department of Family and Children Services, a division of DHS.
"For the long-term health of the ministry, we need the contract," Holland said.
Financial support will also come from grants and private contributions.
"We have already raised about $100,000 for the project," said Moody. "This has come primarily through church groups. We are moving toward a capital campaign that will include the support of individuals, other organizations, and businesses throughout the community. This will include naming opportunities for the cottages and other options."
As part of the campaign, Moody will be doing a number of "Starfish Functions." He encourages groups or individuals to host brunches, luncheons, dinners, or small get-togethers over coffee where he can come give a presentation about Maggie House. There attendees ask questions and have an opportunity to contribute to the organization. The name is derived from the inspirational story of the young boy walking along the shoreline tossing starfish back into the ocean. When told he would never be able to help them all and that it wouldn't make a difference, the boy replied, "It made a difference to that one," as he threw another one back into the water.
"The Maggie House may not be able to house every child in the system, but it will serve to make a difference in the lives of those who do come here," said Moody.
As part of its fundraising drive, Family Ministries participated in the one-day event at ArkansasGives.org. On April 2, supporters were able to designate funds to Maggie House through the Arkansas Gives website. Each donation received will help the nonprofit qualify for additional bonus dollars from the Arkansas Community Foundation.
The ArkansasGives website showed Maggie House as receiving the most money among large nonprofits in Arkansas. The Maggie House tally was $78,611, with Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkansas next at $74,313 and Garland County Habitat for Humanity third with $63,915.
Maggie House also has its first official fundraiser planned for May 2. The “Springfest Maggie House Hustle 5K Run and Walk" will begin at 8 a.m. at the Charleston Community Center, located at 311 Freedom Road.
"This will be a great opportunity for others in the community to show their support for the Maggie House," said Holland. "We invite individuals from all the region to take part in this inaugural event."
Upon completion of the project and repayment of the loan, Moody and ambassadors for the Maggie House hope to keep the momentum going and work toward construction of additional long-term foster care facilities throughout Area II.
"The goal is to open more homes like the Maggie House, because the need is there," said Holland. "If we were to open 16 "Maggie Houses," in this region alone, that would just meet the current need. We need more places such as this one and hope that it will serve as a great model for projects to come."