Christmas in foster care

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, December 18th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: children in need.

The federal government says more than 260,000 children needed home placements last year, either temporary or permanent. Some go to individual homes, but others go to group homes.

EICHER: So what’s Christmas like for children in those group homes? WORLD Radio’s Kim Henderson visited one campus to find out.

KIM HENDERSON, REPORTER: It’s 4 o’clock on a chilly Friday afternoon. The last rays of sunlight are peeking through the pines outside a brick two-story house known as the boys’ cottage. Inside the house, the halls echo with after-school arrivals.      

AUDIO: Ok, I’ll sign you planner – Bring backpacks and put them in the game room…

As houseparents at the Baptist Children’s Village in Brookhaven, Mississippi, Garry and Sherry McDugle have the afternoon routine down pat. They’ve tidied the kitchen and posted the evening schedule. They’re ready and waiting with hugs and homework help for the boys. There’s also a round of high fives—well, attempted high fives—for the resident overachiever.

GROUP: Student of the month, wow. Ahhh. Wrong hand. Missed. You did it again. Now come on. You can do it! (laughing)

Sherry serves a spread of snacks on the dining room table, just like she does every day about this time. A trio of brothers—ages 8, 11, and 14—crowd around to see what’s on today’s menu.  

SHERRY AND CHILD: Well, have your apple and peanut butter. How much apple do we get? Richard’s not eating apples, so you can have several. Oh, thanks. Just leave some for your brothers. Yes, ma’am…

The fruit dip is a hot commodity. It’s a favorite—something Sherry makes with honey, peanut butter, and a little lemon-lime. Right now, the three brothers are the only residents at the boys’ cottage. That means she can focus on learning their other favorites, especially this time of year.

SHERRY: I’m constantly preparing for Christmas. So, I shop. I cook. I bake. We do cookies and pies and cakes and some chocolates…

Just off the dining room is a sunken den with a rustic vibe. It fits boys well—cypress walls, a pair of brown leather couches, a calf-skin rug. Garry has pulled out a large box of Christmas decorations. The brothers are spending their second Christmas at the cottage, and it’s time to decorate the tree.

GARRY and KIDS: Y’all remember how we did this last year? Make sure the same thing doesn’t end up next to each other, right?

During the holidays, houseparents like Garry and Sherry work hard to make special memories with the children in their care. At the same time, case managers’ efforts are focused on biological family reunification. That means the kids could be in the cottage for Christmas, or they may go home at the last minute.

There’s a third possibility, too. Qualified volunteer families sometimes take the children in.

But at the boys’ cottage, plans are set. The three brothers are staying put.

SHERRY: It’s Christmas. I like to get them to talk about family. We’ll pray for the families that they have and that the Lord will come into their lives and reveal Himself to them.

Across the campus at the girls’ cottage, the tree is already decorated. Six girls are outside playing ball—and singing.

GIRLS: Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, had a very shiny nose…

They stop long enough to list their favorite Christmas foods.

GIRLS: I love to eat cookies! Hot cocoa and gingerbread men. Me, too! Me, too!

Two sisters stand off to the side. The 13-year-old recalls past Christmases and describes what an ideal one would look like.

GIRL: A great Christmas for me would be like me being able to have my whole family there with me. Like, I don’t really care for presents that much and a tree. I just want my family to be there…

Not all children share that wish. Sean Milner understands that. He’s now the executive director of the Mississippi Baptist Children’s Village, but he was once a resident. Milner and his four siblings came to live at the Village when he was just 5 years old. Their mother was an alcoholic, and he had no notion of what Christmas should be like.   

SEAN: When I was 8 years old, I was introduced to a family. My visiting family was a Richard and Jerrie Carraway from Jackson, Mississippi. And uh, I went home for Christmas with them. They fell in love with me. I fell in love with them and that relationship.

Milner has great memories of their first Christmas together. It was the 1970s, and the Carraway family had a station wagon. Milner and the other children sat on the tailgate and rode through town looking at Christmas lights. It was the first time he’d ever done something like that.

SEAN: The night before Christmas, on Christmas Eve there, all of their extended family came to their house. Everybody brought food. Everybody hugged. Everybody Merry Christmased. There was hot cocoa, hot cider, and Christmas carols were sung. They had all bought me presents, the extended family had bought me presents…

When the Carraway children woke him up at 5 the next morning, little Sean didn’t understand what was going on. More presents?

SEAN: So they roll in this bicycle, and I’d never owned my own bicycle before. So all of those kind of things are just super special memories.

But the Carraways’ investment in Milner went deeper than a holiday. They included him in family activities like camping and snow skiing. Years later, he spoke at their funerals.

Today Milner’s own family celebrates much like he learned from the Carraways. And that’s his goal for children in the residential homes, too.

SEAN: We’re looking to teach them about Christmas so when they get married and they have family, they understand that it’s valuable to bring that family together. To create their own memories for the family and to create their own traditions and their own gatherings.

Back at the cottages, houseparents and kids alike are enjoying the season. For Sherry, it’s part of her around-the-year effort to care for the fatherless. It just looks a little different at Christmas.

SHERRY: It’s their introduction to Christ. This is their introduction to the Christmas joy we all get to celebrate…It’s a start for them and their future.

AUDIO: [Children singing “I Wish You A Merry Christmas”]

For WORLD Radio, I’m Kim Henderson reporting from Brookhaven, Mississippi.

(Photo/Maggie, Flickr

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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