It’s easy to become so wrapped up in daily life that the places passed by every day simply blend into the background. Thousands of Midlands residents drive up and down Millwood Avenue ensconced in their own world of concerns — that big project at work, getting the kids to their after-school activities, what to prepare for dinner that evening. Many fail to notice there is a sprawling piece of property on that busy stretch of road with hopes to capture people’s attention.
For 118 years, Epworth Children’s Home has provided care to young children and teenagers in need of help. Originally established as an orphanage, the home is now a source of assistance to those ages 4 through 18 who, through abuse, neglect or a difficult family situation, are in need of a safe haven. Funding for Epworth currently comes from government support and a modest endowment begun by the United Methodist Church, along with donations from area churches and private support. Through those funds, Epworth is home to as many as 86 children at any given time.
Mitzie Schafer, executive vice president for Epworth, joined the organization about five years ago with the goal of helping to move Epworth away from having to rely on government support. “One of the challenges that we face is simply awareness within the community –– making people aware of the fact that we exist and of what we do,” she says. “Not only do we provide shelter and food to our residents, we also focus heavily on education and counseling. We want to address the whole person: their medical needs, emotional support and development of life skills as well as their spiritual needs.”
Residents at Epworth arrive through private or government placing such as the Department of Social Services. Staff members, and a dedicated team of professionals and volunteers, work to develop a specific, individualized plan for each child. “Many of these children have suffered traumatic events, and due to their family circumstances, they display pain-based behaviors,” Mitzie explains. “We help them grow out of those types of responses and learn a new way to approach life.”
Andrew Boozer is vice president of development at the home and recognizes the tasks that lie ahead of him. “We take a child who has experienced some type of abuse or neglect, give them a safe place and enable the process to experience what should be a normal life.”
On average, a child will live at Epworth about a year and half, but depending on circumstances, they can stay as little as a few weeks or as much as several years. Each child attends school in the neighborhood and has the opportunity to develop and practice life skills. “We tell them that their ‘job’ is school,” says Andrew. “We’re teaching them a sense of belonging, a sense of pride and giving them the tools they need to lead a productive life so they won’t fall back into that cycle of poverty, abuse or neglect.”
The home makes every attempt to keep siblings together. In addition to counseling for the residents, services include family counseling and parenting classes. The Family Care Center is available for mothers and their children who are at risk of losing custody because of substance abuse. “We want to keep families together so they can learn as a family what it means to be healthy,” says Mitzie.
Of great concern is the fact that once a child ages out of the foster care system at age 18, there are few options available — either they return to the environment from which they came or try to make it on their own. “We work with the youth who are in their last year of high school,” says Andrew, “so that when they transition out of foster care, they have a place to land.”
National statistics show that only two percent of kids in foster care graduate from college. To help those who want to further their education, Epworth provides a higher education program. For students enrolled in a four year college that provides on-campus housing, Epworth will help with scholarships and expenses, allowing the students to focus on their studies. “We recently expanded this program to provide help for students attending technical schools, where housing may not be available,” says Mitzie. Students can continue living at Epworth while attending these vocational programs.
“There is no magic fairy who comes when you turn 18 and makes you an adult,” adds Andrew. “We are there to help prepare them for what is in front of them.” Another factor is that it takes funding to keep these programs running. As part of leadership’s vision to help make Epworth more self-reliant, Mitzie took a bold step to launch a new kind of support for the home, the Friends of Epworth.
“I was one of those people who drove past Epworth every day but never really knew what the place was,” says Spann Laffitte, who serves as the current chair for Friends of Epworth. “My first personal experience with Epworth came from a story my mother-in-law shared with me when she attended a Grandparents Reading Day at my daughter’s elementary school. A classmate sat alone as he had no one to come hear him read, my mother-in-law asked if he would read to her and he did. After reading his story quite well and leaving her with a warm hug, we learned that he lived at Epworth. That story just touched me so, that I felt compelled to help these kids. Shortly thereafter a good friend and fellow board member, Scott Gambrell connected me with Mitzie Schafer, for which I’ll be eternally grateful.”
Friends of Epworth was founded in 2012 after several members of Leadership Columbia completed their project at Epworth and maintained their friendship with Epworth for the purpose of both friend-raising and fund-raising for the home. Spann credits the group’s first president, Steven Taylor, with setting the bar to create a working and engaged board. “He truly laid the foundation for this group through his passion for the cause,” he explains.
In just two short years, Mitzie has already begun to see results. “The strategic goal for Friends of Epworth is networking,” she says. “Spann is a classic example in representing all our board members because they are an active, ‘boots on the ground’ type group. Their connections have caused a ripple effect, and we have begun to make contact with businesses and individuals that we may have not been able to reach before.”
To help raise awareness, the group created a few events, including a Food Truck Rodeo and an annual gala. “The gala is our signature event and provides the most financial support for our group. The rodeo is more about friend raising as the financial return is small. It provides a wonderful opportunity to open our campus doors to the community to increase awareness. People are amazed once they actually come to Epworth to see how large the facility is, what it offers and how many children we are helping. Personally what I love the most about it is that it gives our kids an opportunity to have some fun,” says Spann.
Another undertaking stems from a bit of Epworth’s history. In its early years during the Great Depression, the home received government food subsidies, including peanut butter. The home also happened to be a working dairy farm. With these two staples often in abundant supply, peanut butter ice cream became a treat for the kids. “Friends of Epworth, when they learned this story, decided that it might be a good opportunity for a social enterprise,” says Andrew. The groundwork has begun to create, market and sell Epworth’s Peanut Butter Ice Cream.
The group received support from Creatathon, an annual initiative through Riggs Partners that provides advertising and brand development for non-profit organizations. They also worked with a marketing class from the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business to develop a marketing and sales plan. They sought expertise from the dairy experts at Clemson University on developing the ice cream itself, based from the original recipe created those many years ago.
“It’s our hope that one day in the not-too-distant future you will be able to buy Epworth’s Peanut Butter Ice Cream from a local food truck or from an area grocery store,” Andrew says.
With services provided to 182 children in 2013, Mitzie understands the task with which Epworth is charged. “Each child that comes to us has a story that no child should have to endure,” she says. “Our goal is to continue to provide the best possible care to the children, for however long they are with us. We are not a quick-fix remedy nor are we a short-term relationship. We are in this for the long haul, and when you can wrap care around a child that is holistic and real, doing it together, it really can break the cycle. That’s what we’re about.”
Spann adds that many of these children do leave Epworth transformed. “By showing a child the love and support that they deserve coupled with encouragement and accountability they are better able to support themselves when their time on campus is over. Unfortunately, without additional funding we are limited in the amount of care that we can provide. For every child we help, there are hundreds more that are lost in the foster system or alone outside of it. I’m thankful for my involvement with Epworth and the perspective it has provided about what really matters in a child’s life. It’s the goal of the Friends of Epworth to be the voice of these children in the community and we will make certain it’s heard.”
To learn more about Epworth Children’s Home and how you can help, visit www.epworthchildrenshome.org.