May 9, 2009
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Skinned knees and funny poses, school plays and runny noses. Homework, chores and playground fun; tussles, learners'' permits and big homeruns. If it were possible to write a job description for moms, the line items would fit right in, somewhere between wondering where the instruction manual is and becoming a grateful grandparent. For the house mothers at Palmer Home for Children, the tasks, freely undertaken, are never done. There is always another child in need of that special acceptance and patient, tender care.
"It''s difficult to compliment our house moms because words can''t capture the scope of their love and commitment, yet we try because they''re so deserving of our praise and encouragement," shares Jeff Miller, executive director of Palmer Home.
The number of boo-boo''s kissed and spirits nurtured by house mothers since the first child in need was admitted to Palmer Home in 1898 numbers in the thousands. For more than a century, a long line of dedicated houseparents has made the Palmer mission possible: " ... to provide a loving, stable, long-term Christ-centered home for children who lack an adequate family structure."
The extended Palmer Home family resides in a total of eight cottages located on the Columbus campus, the Sheriff''s Boys and Girls Ranch near the Golden Triangle Regional Airport and a campus in Hernando. Caring for the 69 children -- five of them in college -- are 12 house mothers (most with house dads alongside). Four are classified as "relief moms," full-time moms who rotate among cottages, usually for a week at a time, as other house parents are away.
"We just have two prayers to finish," says Kaye Ferguson in a gentle and genial voice at bedtime. "I don''t like my little ones to go to sleep without their prayers."
After five youngsters in Brotherhood Cottage -- three girls, ages 4, 6 and 7, and two boys, ages 5 and 7 -- are tucked in, the longtime relief mom talks a little about her uncommon life choice. Kaye has been loving and raising children at Palmer Home for more than three decades, as has Bertie Via.
"I came 35 years ago because I felt like God was calling me into some type of ministry," Kaye explained. "I had graduated from Mississippi State University in elementary education, so I felt it was to work with children, and I didn''t think the Lord wanted me to throw away my education. ... Here we''re just a normal family -- if you can define ''normal,''" she laughs. "A big family, but a normal family."
As in most households, children at Palmer Home rise and shine for school, play soccer, football and basketball, join the band and practice cheerleading. They have homework, get sick, take on chores, playfully bicker, need a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on ... and they love each other. The difference for a Palmer house mother is that the longer she ministers, the more often the cycle repeats itself.
Not always roses
As much as the dedicated houseparents, counselors and staff wish and pray for it, not every child who comes into their care is going to find it the right fit. Each arrives with his or her own unique stress and circumstances and, try as everyone might, seeds sown may fall on ground not yet ready to receive them.
"I know that not all stories are going to be success stories, but even then, we still love ''em," stated Via. "Mama Bertie" has been a beloved fixture at Palmer Home since she and her late husband, Gordon, moved to Columbus to become houseparents 34 years ago.
She now enjoys stature as a revered "house grandmother." She and her own daughter, Beckie Ward, team up to care for the children in Faith Cottage at the Sheriff''s Boys and Girls Ranch campus in western Lowndes county. Becky''s husband is a steadying influence in the cottage, too.
"It takes a lot to give up on a child; you don''t want to. That''s one of the hardest things to do," Bertie lamented. "Children are children, and they don''t know all the answers; you just have to be there for them. That''s one thing that''s been so fulfilling for Kaye and I. We''ve been here long enough that we''ve seen many of those children come back and see that some of those seeds planted worked."
No child left behind
The house moms smilingly say Palmer Home has its own "no child left behind" policy -- this one for salvation and eternity.
"To see a child growing in his faith and understanding is just a blessing that is almost inconceivable," shared Kaye. "And it brings me great joy to see them break the cycle and become good mothers and fathers themselves."
Bertie and Kaye, like the younger house mothers who help make Palmer Home the secure spiritual and physical home it is, are quick to say no one considering becoming a houseparent should look on it as a job, but as a privilege and heartfelt mission.
"This is missions," stressed Bertie. "It''s not over in Africa or somewhere; it''s right here in Columbus. It''s the children who are Palmer Home, and we''re here for them."
Time hasn''t dimmed the conviction both women feel toward the call they answered so long ago.
"The Lord chose to keep me here even after Gordon passed away in 2005, and I''m so glad for that," Bertie shares. "It''s been a good healing thing for me. I love these children dearly; I feel like they''re all mine!"
Kaye adds, "I tell people all the time that I''ll leave when God shuts the door and shows me it''s time to leave. Until then, I''m going to keep on trucking. Retirement''s somewhere out there, but I hope he calls me home before I have to do that."
Miller is filled with appreciation for the unselfish and bottomless love all of the women bring to the Palmer Home family.
"All these mothers have purposed their hearts to love kids who may or may not be willing to accept it. They love with no guarantee of return on this side of heaven, yet they do so consistently, deeply and without wavering."
For the house moms of Palmer Home, as for mothers everywhere, every day is Mother''s Day.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.