The $500 bill framed in Diana Johnson’s office has no monetary value – but to her, it’s priceless. Given as a thank you from an 8-year-old, the bright-orange Monopoly money serves as a daily reminder of why her work is important.
“A gift from my heart,” the little girl spelled out on a piece of lined paper. “Tell me if it isn’t enough. You have done everything for us. Thank you for keeping us safe.”
At Connie Maxwell Children’s Home in Greenwood, S.C., Johnson leads a program that offers up to two years of resources and shelter for at-risk families working toward independent living. Launched with a grant from The Duke Endowment, Family Care has served 75 parents and 151 children since beginning in 2012.
The goal is to reach single parents in crisis and help them gain the skills they need to tackle obstacles and grow stronger.
“Some of our mothers or fathers are on the verge of being homeless,” says Johnson, director since 2015. “Some are starting over from domestic violence. Some are recovering addicts. We’re here to give them hope and support as they focus on moving forward.”
Built on a rolling campus in rural South Carolina, Connie Maxwell began as a ministry of the South Carolina Baptist Convention in 1892. With its own school, infirmary, bakery, dairy, gymnasium and church, it first served as a home for orphans.
Today, the organization focuses on helping children who have been abused or neglected, or who have been placed at Connie Maxwell by caregivers experiencing challenging times. Through Family Care, the organization seeks to reach families “upstream,” preventing disruption perhaps even before child welfare agencies have intervened.
“Residential care is our heritage, and Family Care is a way for us to effectively use other areas of our campus to serve children and families,” says Tim Duncan, vice president for programs.
On the Greenwood campus, single parents and their children live together in two cottages and in a former staff house. There’s room for up to 10 families at a time, and there’s no fee for the services.
A program at Texas Baptist Children’s Home served as a model. Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina offers a similar program as well, and received Endowment support for the work.
New Ways to ‘Do Life’
Connie Maxwell says there are many reasons why families might need a program designed to promote independent living. Clients come from all walks of life – but most are at risk of losing custody of their children, or already have. Many arrive physically and emotionally exhausted, depleted of resources and hope.
Family Care offers them life skills classes and parenting workshops, financial education, counseling, goal setting and spiritual guidance. There’s also follow-up support after families leave.
“When people hear about our program, most of them think, ‘Two years? That’s a lot of time,’” Johnson says. “But in the whole scheme of life, we’re just a very small piece of the puzzle.”
The program works in phases. In the first three months, participants gain emotional stability and structure. The eight-month second phase focuses on stable employment, education, and developing a healthy support system. For the final 12 months, participants hone the skills they need to transition to independence.
Daily expectations include being on time for meetings, keeping the living quarters clean and eating dinner as a family.
Seventy-six percent of the parents have enrolled in school and or found employment.
“We offer a structure that allows the family to learn new ways to ‘do life’ with a positive attitude,” Johnson says. “Our approach isn’t, ‘This is what you need to do while you’re here,’ but ‘What do you need in order to heal the brokenness that has enmeshed you for so long?’”
Leaders says the program is limitless in what it can do, but limited in that it can only serve a small number. So far this year, Family Care has helped 11 families – from 82 referrals. In 2018, the program helped 14 families – from 168 referrals. Most referrals come from government agencies, but also clergy and counselors. Johnson’s team assesses each family’s history and their needs, but many placements depend on space.
It’s also expensive to run. Providing transportation and child care is both complex and costly. The program receives minimal federal and state support, so fundraising is ongoing.
Connie Maxwell’s president, Danny Nicholson, says now that Family Care has evolved into a strong model, the dream is to expand into a campus neighborhood with individual living units devoted to the program.
“The research and outcomes have indicated a true calling for this service and we’re making significant strides,” Nicholson says. “We want to do all we can to continue to be there for the many families that will need us in the future.”
Phillip H. Redmond Jr.
Director, Child Care