When the end of the year arrives, it is a good time to reflect on the days gone by. The holidays make me very nostalgic as I look back on my childhood with happy memories. I have always considered myself lucky to have a loving family and a happy childhood.
Every child deserves to grow up in a good stable home with loving parents. I was one of the lucky ones. However not every child gets to pick their parents. Due to the growing number of drug addicted and/or abusive parents, there is a growing need for children to have a new stable environment.
I had been noticing small articles in the paper and on Facebook about a children’s home going in at the old school in Vanndale and was curious to know more. I sent out a message on Facebook requesting more information and my friend Michelle Slabaugh gave me a call. We talked for a good bit and she suggested that I do an article. I agreed and she gave me the name and number of Dr. Martha Watts. I gave Dr. Watts a call and she was happy to give me an interview.
I drove to the school in Vanndale and Dr. Watts met me outside. She was the only one working at the time and took me inside to show me the progress that had been made. She was also very excited about the future of the school. We sat down in the future dining area where I asked her if we could sit down and talk.
Dr. Martha Watts has a doctorate in theology with a specialty in special education. She is retired and has worked as a school teacher, administrator, special ed. supervisor in the region including Cross County, Wynne, Palestine, Wheatley and Lee County. Having been involved with the school system and the Dept. of Human Services she saw the children who had been abused or neglected. She said there was a policy of “mandatory reporting” if there was suspicion of any problem.
She saw the need for a place for these children to go and actually had a similar home on Highway 64 in 2005 on a much smaller scale. “This gave me the background knowledge to know what to do.” There is a lot of paperwork that has to be filled out but after a preliminary inspection feels confident that everything is ready for final inspection and hopes to have the children in by the end of January.
She said that she had been talking to the Cross County Superintendant Dr. Matt McClure for about three years on getting the building and on Aug. 2011 the Cross County School board agreed. She noted that is was a good deal for the school system as well as the kids. First of all the building had been vandalized and was deteriorating. Second the children will be going to Cross County School which will help the school system.
The first step in getting the school established was establishing a board which includes 7 members. “I would like to dedicate this school to the memory of Winnie Ruth Williams who helped me so much in the previous school.” Her daughter Renee Boeckmann is one of the board members. The pre-monitoring went well and a spokesman for the DHS said “I love what you’ve done. Keep it up.”
The children that will be coming to the home are “wards of the state” and are often from homes of neglect and/or abuse. However she stated that she would not be receiving children that have been sexually abusive to others or in need of mental help. “I am just not equipped to help in those situations.” The children can come from anywhere in the state but in the past not often from Cross County. However that doesn’t mean that Cross County is excluded. The parents are not allowed to come to the facility.
She noted that the kids are usually angry when they arrived and blamed the police for taking them away. However she helped them learn to adjust by praying for their parents. “We pray that their parents get their heart right so that these kids can be home with their families.” This simple act of taking turns praying seemed to help turn them around with a new attitude.
She noted that the ultimate goal was for the parents to meet the standards to get them back. Probably around 60-70% eventually do go back to their parents (and sometimes returned to the facility). Around 25% were adopted many by their relatives. However some will stay at the facility until they are 18.
The mission of the home is to “provide a safe, secure and loving environment.” She noted that she wanted to show these kids a different way of life, different than what they’ve seen because if that’s all they know they’ll repeat the pattern. She also wanted to prepare them for the outside world which meant getting them ready to go to college. “Without a college education you can’t get anywhere these days so it’s very important to me.”
I asked her what the children called her. “Sometimes they call me Grandma, Ms. Martha, or sometimes mom. I just ask that they don’t call me Martha because it sounds disrespectful. I want to be a grandmother figure to them.” Her desire for them is to have a moral, sound lifestyle. “We will pray before every meal and attend church.” There is a study room just for homework. There will always be an adult around.
I asked her about any religious affiliations and she said they would be attending the Vanndale Baptist Church mainly because it was so close and that they had a good children’s program. However if the child wanted to go to another church that she would be happy to provide transportation.
They will start out with 24 boys and girls in four separate rooms. They will be taking in children from 6-12 years of age. However she hated separating brothers and sisters so there might also be other ages even newborns. She stated that it might be expanded if necessary. There were a lot of computers that were left from the school and some of them will stay. However since each child in the Vanndale school system will be able to bring laptops home, there is not a need for all of them.
There is a really nice gym area and she is hoping to get a few more things to play with such as a ping pong table. She wanted to let me know she was not the only one that has been working on this project and has had many volunteers from the community as well as businesses help out. “The community has really been pitching in. It’s been a real blessing.” They have had beds, sheets, televisions, blankets, pillow, quilts, toboggans, etc. donated as well as much needed monetary donations.
I asked her what kind of items they still needed. Many times these kids clothes will have to be destroyed because of the residue from dangerous drugs. “Any clothes (gently used) would be nice including shoes, socks and underwear.” Other appreciated items would be books, ping pong table, playground equipment, toys, art supplies, computer games, musical items, and always appreciated monetary donations to help with restoration, utilities, and maintenance. She would really love one of the home theatre systems that had a projector so that she could show movies to all of the kids at once.
She smiled as dreamed of “Extreme Home Makeover” doing a show with the home on a featured special. (It could possibly happen if we all send a request.) There is also a need for volunteers to either help with the restoration and/or just be mentors to the kids. Everyone must fill out a simple background check which is standard procedure.
I was curious if she kept up with any children from the past home. She replied “Yes, I do correspond by email with some of the children. One plays football at Earle. I plan to go watch him play and see his brother.”
I asked her what inspired her to get in this line of work. She stated “This is not work. I am retired. I never draw a salary. I have my teacher retirement and social security to support myself. The Lord inspired me to have the home to help the children. I just hate to see children abused and neglected by the very ones that are supposed to be taking care of them.”
Before I left Dr. Watts took me to a bulletin board in which she had posted many pictures of happy, smiling kids from the former home she had directed. She pointed to one little boy with the biggest grin of all who was in a hospital bed. She told me a story of how they had rushed him to Little Rock and found that he had a hole in his heart. It was sad to me that the mother didn’t bother to show up but she was there by his side.
As I left the large building that seemed to have so much work but so much potential, I thought about how I couldn’t wait to come and get to know the children. Maybe they’ll call me “Aunt Regina”. I can play the piano while they sing and I’ll get to know each one of their names. I can vision the community helping out as they already have by showing these kids there are people who care.
While many people that look forward to retirement plan on fishing, traveling and taking a break, Dr. Watts is working harder than ever to make a difference. As we mature, we all reflect back on the years of our childhood. I don’t know what these children have seen but hope that we can all give them some good memories to reflect back on some day.
If you would like to bring donations by or to volunteer, she asked that you please call ahead. Many times she is in and out to get supplies. Her cell phone number is 870-318-7845 or home number 870-238-9302. The address to mail donations is Bridge of Hope Children’s Home, P.O. Box 123, Vanndale, AR 72387. If you would like to receive her monthly newsletter email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.