In December of 2000, I was in my hometown of Meridian, Mississippi, and a friend took me on a tour of an emergency shelter for abused children that she'd started. Later that week, I went out and bought some gifts for the kids who were staying there through the holidays. When I dropped off the presents, there were two brothers, 9 and 10, who had just arrived, so I didn't have anything for them. I asked them what they wanted for Christmas, and as I started talking to them, there was something there—you know how you connect with some people? I just knew that if I could help these two kids at that moment, they would become healthy adults, as opposed to being lost in the system, getting the wind knocked out of them, and losing their enthusiasm about life. These kids who had been somewhat faceless in my mind—the sorts of people for whom you write a check or send a gift—suddenly became very real to me.
On average, foster children are shuffled through 12 families in a year. These brothers were so close. All they had left was each other. The idea that they were going to be separated just killed me. I left the shelter and couldn't get them out of my head.
My husband and I were trying to think of solutions, and I remembered that there was a 25-acre children's home in Meridian that had been abandoned. I thought, Oh my God, we can do this. I decided that we could refurbish the buildings and create a really safe, nurturing environment where siblings could stay intact. I met with Lisa Paulsen, president of the Entertainment Industry Foundation, and she connected me with Kentucky Fried Chicken's Colonel's Kids Program, which committed to an endowment. Thanks to them, we were able to buy the property and we were off and running. Hope Village opened a year later.
I had no idea how challenging this project would be, but that's the way I am: In art class, I wouldn't make the macramé belt first—I'd make the big wall hanging. Abused and neglected children aren't a sexy cause to raise money for; nobody really wants to hear about it because it makes people too uncomfortable. But as frustrated and overwhelmed as I get from the hard work, when I go and spend time with the kids at Hope Village all that melts away. Because even if I'm able to directly affect only the 40 kids who are there, you know what? That's okay for now. Those are the days I feel assured, knowing that these kids feel loved and safe.
For more information about Hope Village, go to hopevillagems.org.