(Rebecca Morris) - The United Methodist Children's Home welcomed a new director in 2012, Dr. Blake Horne. As Dr. Horne transitions into his new role, he explained his vision and direction for this worthwhile agency.
What led to you pursuing the leadership vacancy at the United Methodist Children’s Home?
Foremost, I strongly believe in UMCH’s mission: To follow the example of Christ, by caring for all God’s children…..one child, one family at a time. Sixteen years ago, I briefly directed a group home cottage at the Methodist Home for Children and Youth of the South Georgia Conference in Macon, Georgia. I left the home to pursue doctoral work in marriage and family therapy at Florida State, but the experiences there really stole my heart for Methodist Children’s Home ministry.
Second, I felt like it was time for a new professional challenge in my life. After 12 wonderfully rewarding years directing The Samaritan Counseling Center in Montgomery, I found I had become more passionate about leading an organization than direct delivery of clinical services. UMCH stands at an important crossroads in its development – we are in many ways having to rethink and re-invent the way we carry out our mission. I felt like my experiences leading and growing The Samaritan Counseling Center made for a nice developmental intersection between where UMCH is as an organization and my emerging strengths as a leader.
You say that UMCH is re-thinking and re-inventing, and it stands at an important crossroads? Can you say more about that?
UMCH made the very difficult – but necessary – decision to sell the Selma campus over 2 years ago. That was a little bit like losing “the temple” for many of our United Methodist constituents and employees. We are still very much engaged in group home ministry for abused and neglected children in 8 different locations in Alabama and Northwest Florida. Yet the child welfare landscape is compelling us to learn how to “sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.”
We find ourselves in many ways where we were 75 years ago when there was very little assistance from government to care for lost and forgotten children. As recently as 5 years ago, UMCH was paid $35 per day by the state of Alabama to care for children in our group homes. This wasn’t enough to cover the full cost of caring for the child, but when we put that alongside the overwhelming generosity of our United Methodist laity and churches we could make ends meet. Today, UMCH receives a mere $11.80 per day to care for these same abused and forgotten children.
I wouldn’t be interested in leading UMCH if we didn’t do group home ministry, and do it well. However, we need to be a little more creative about how we deliver group home ministry. We also need to diversify our services in ways that are more privately supported than they are dependent upon state contracts.
Can you give an example of what you mean by “creative” when it comes to delivering group home ministry?
One example would be what we are doing with our Tuscaloosa and Florence group homes. Our group homes – though vital to our mission and near and dear to my own heart – are very expensive programs to run. They take a very large toll on the financial health of UMCH, forcing us to draw down at present more than is prudent on our unrestricted endowment.
We also have a restricted endowment designated for higher education. We have been only marginally successful in the past using these funds to provide a college education for children at different schools and universities around the state. Foster children can be very academically capable but tend to need more support services than your typical child from an intact family to succeed at college.
In a partnership with the University of Alabama and University of North Alabama, we will transform our Tuscaloosa and Florence group homes solely for the purpose of providing a college education for our children and other foster children around the state. By focusing our higher education efforts exclusively with the Tuscaloosa and Florence group homes, we believe our kids will have higher graduation rates and more fulfilling college experiences.
With the established support services in place at both Universities, along with our caring staff, the foster kids will have a better chance of success in a college environment. It will also help us save hundreds of thousands of dollars in operating costs that strain our unrestricted endowment.
When I look at my own life as a first generation college graduate, there were three key factors that maximized my life course – a loving family, a relationship with Jesus Christ, and a college education. By converting our homes in Tuscaloosa and Florence in this manner, we are providing young men and women with an opportunity to experience all three.
You mentioned diversifying the services offered by UMCH. Can you talk about that a little more?
I’d like to see our agency develop outpatient mental health services for children and families. We are already involved in family preservation services with families who are in jeopardy of losing custody of their children. However, these services take place in the home and are referred almost exclusively by DHR. We are often very successful with this program, but if we are not successful removing the child from the home is the next step.
I’d like to see UMCH not only diversify its services but also diversify where it meets children and families on the continuum of functioning. I’d like to see us offer counseling and therapeutic services that have a multi-generational impact. When a child enters one of our group homes, it’s often the result of a multi-generational process where each successive generation of the family has functioned just a little less effectively than the last. I’d like to see us offer outpatient family therapy and other mental health services on a large scale across our state that elevate access to care and get out in front of that multi-generational process. I’d like to see us develop as a mental health care provider as much as we have developed over the years as a social service agency. In this way, we’d be able to give back to our United Methodist churches and their members through these kinds of services.
Anything else happening with UMCH that you would like for us to know about?
I’m really excited about some developments taking place with our spiritual care program with our kids. Rev. Lonna Lynn Higgs, our Director of Spiritual Care, is the right person at the right time for UMCH in this area. She has a very difficult job – finding a way to meet the spiritual needs of over 200 children and staff who are spread out in 12 different locations all over the entire state of Alabama and Northwest Florida. She is putting together a volunteer team of clergy and lay leaders in the areas where we have group homes and programs to offset our geographical challenges and heighten the level of spiritual care in all of our programs.
In addition, we are in the early stages of planning our first foreign mission trip here at UMCH. I want our children to have the opportunity to both travel abroad and serve others in need. This may be the only opportunity some of our children have ever had to leave the country, and I think it’s important that they have a broader perspective of the world and where they fit into it.
Also, we are implementing new partnerships and seeking ways to “give back” to those people and churches that support the Children’s Home. For example, you will soon hear about our partnership we are working on with Driver’s Way, a car dealership in Birmingham, to implement a car donation program. We are also seeking to partner with churches to hold “Better Family” seminars in their churches or community, where we will provide credentialed speakers for these programs.
This is an exciting time for the Children’s Home and we are looking for ways to be an innovative leader in foster care and residential group homes. I know the direction I want to lead the Children’s Home will benefit the kids we care for and continue to fulfill our mission….To follow the example of Christ by embracing all God’s Children…one child, one family at a time.