SEAN MILNER: Our swimming pool used to be right there. You see where it is. Now they've placed it over there. But it used to be right there.
KIM HENDERSON, SENIOR WRITER: We’re at a former campus of The Baptist Children’s Village of Mississippi. Sean Milner came to live here when he was 5 years old. He and his 4 siblings.
MILNER: And I can remember laying on this hill, right here. And I can remember just laying there looking at the sky, and I would see a plane go over. And in my head, I would always think, “I wonder where those people are going. I wonder if I'll ever do anything to where I get to fly. I want to be an important person like that.”
That was more than 50 years ago. But in many ways, Milner has never really left the Children’s Village. He came back. To help kids. And these days, he flies a lot.
MILNER: And I think of that every time I get on a plane, I think about laying right there. Thinking about, “Hey, you know, I need to do something where I'm important.”
The work of helping kids in crisis is important, and the debate over what's really best for those kids? Well, Milner would be the first to tell you, it’s heating up. This episode will explore what one organization is doing in its unchanging mission to pair the gospel with the support kids in crisis need. What does that mission look like when it comes to older kids? Or young adults aging out of the system? Or kids who need a little more structure than the typical foster family can provide?
From WORLD Radio and the creative team that brings you The World and Everything in It, this is Effective Compassion.
I’m Kim Henderson.
UNDERWRITING SPOT: Effective Compassion is made possible by listeners like you. Additional support comes from World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization working to deliver food and Bibles to starving, persecuted Christians in North Korea, one of the most dangerous nations for Christians. A gift of $20 sends a Bible and a week's worth of food to a North Korean brother or sister. More at worldhelp.net/podcast.
Sean Milner is a foster care success story. He thrived at The Baptist Children’s Village, then excelled at a nearby Christian college, where his head of red hair and wide smile made him standout on the school’s cheerleading squad. He easily got a job after graduation.
MILNER: I moved to Tupelo, Mississippi, to go to work with an insurance company. Rented an apartment. They helped me with all that. Helped me get my car . . .
Milner’s story also includes law school and a comfortable career as an attorney. A long and happy marriage. Two well-adjusted kids.
But in 2016—after nearly 25 years practicing law—Milner made a change. He came back to lead the Children’s Village. He’s the only former resident to serve as its executive director. In fact, there’s no one with that distinction serving as the head of any Southern Baptist child care agency in the whole country.
The ministry Milner runs—The Baptist Children’s Village of Mississippi— takes no money from the government. It depends on donors to fund an annual budget of $5.5 million. That money supports ministries that serve more than 400 children each year.
MILNER: So that's one thing. I always understood what it was like to grow up here. What I did not understand was what it takes to run it.
Today the Children’s Village provides residential childcare much like it did when Milner lived here. Seven campuses are spread across the state. Each campus has “cottages.” Boys live in one, girls in another. The cottages operate like individual homes. They have houseparents. The houseparents make sure the kids eat, bathe, do their homework, get to bed on time. Residents attend public schools and local Baptist churches.
THAMES: This cottage is the one I lived in most of the time that I Iived at the Baptist Children's Village. Precious, precious memories here . . .
Chrystelle Thames also grew up on this piece of rolling land with woods and a scattering of buildings. Like Milner, she also came back. She’s the longtime communications director for the Children’s Village, and she got permission for us to come through the gates here. We’re driving through the campus. Milner and Thames are pointing out where they used to live. What it was like for them.
THAMES: I remember Miss Ernestine Winters was the house mother when I first came here . . . her trying to teach a bunch of teenage girls what was appropriate and not appropriate. And certainly teenage girls coming from a lot of different places and with a lot of different experiences.
In today’s orphan care terminology, group homes are sometimes referred to as residential care or congregate care. The group homes at the Children’s Village are open to ages 1 through 20. They’re designed to provide long-term care until the child is reunited with family or placed in another family. Some residents remain at the Children’s Village until they’re equipped to live on their own.
But group homes like those making up the Children’s Village have fallen out of fashion in recent years.
Critics say kids do better emotionally, physically, and educationally when placed in family settings. In an individual home. It’s the same debate reformers had about orphanages at the turn of the century. You heard about that back in Episode 1.
But Milner says while critics of group homes focus on what’s best for most kids, they’re missing what’s best for some.
MILNER: What everybody doesn't understand is not all children want that home. No, they're good right here. They're happy. They're safe. They don't, maybe a little more institutional suits them well.
About 70 percent of the kids who come to the Children’s Village are referrals. Their families are in crisis. Milner explains how it works.
MILNER: Let’s say I get a call from a pastor. And he's like, “Man, we got this situation. It's not in my church, but it's down the road. And what can we do about this?” Then what I'll say is, “Hey, look, number one, love the people. Just go by and introduce yourself. Just go by and say, ‘Hey, looks like you're having some problems. What can we do to help?” Develop the relationship. And then if it is what you think it is, just ‘Hey, do you know there's somebody that can help y'all?’ And it's the Children's Village.”
In such cases, the government isn’t involved. Parents retain custody. It's a voluntary placement. The Children’s Village believes caring for at-risk children and families begins with making sure basic physical needs, like food and safe housing, are met.
Milner tells about a time when one of their houseparents happened upon a distraught woman in a parking lot. Children were in her car.
MILNER: She says, “Ma'am, can I help you? She said, “No, you can't help me. My husband’s left us. All I had was this car. Now I'm out of gas. You can’t help me.” And the houseparent said, “Oh yes, ma’am. I work at the Baptist Children's Village. I can help you.”
And she did. Within two hours, the woman was on a campus, seeing where her children could be placed. Her car was full of gas, and she’d gotten a call about a job opportunity.
MILNER: We had those kids maybe 18 months while she got really stable. Of course, she's seeing them all the time. We're hooking that up. And then 18 months later, a family's back together . . .
Milner says a lot of people think the only help available is through the government, so they don’t seek it. The referral method puts them at ease.
MILNER: So, if they know there's somebody willing to help, and it's not going to cost them anything. We're not going to charge them. We're not going to call lawyers. We're not getting judges, you're not giving up custody. So if that woman had come back the next day and said, “Give me my children,” We’d of handed them to her. We don't have any legal rights to hold them.
Milner believes it’s imperative to get the word out to churches. The Children’s Village is a resource, ready and waiting. And so many children are in need.
MILNER: Those needs are too big for any one church, any one person, any one county. We get that, but they're not too big for us. That's what we do. So just love them enough to see if you can develop a relationship where you can introduce us.
The remaining 30 percent of residents at the Children’s Village arrive via Child Protection Services, which you’ll hear referred to as C-P-S. A lot of these residents are teenagers.
MILNER: We receive those older children from CPS to keep them while CPS tries to get them in a permanent placement, like adopted . . . we know that they're harder to place for CPS. Well, from our standpoint, it doesn't matter. We're going to keep them.
Continuing on our drive-through, Milner points to an open area near the gymnasium. He says he had fun telling his elementary school friends he had his own gym.
MILNER: This is where everybody came together. You know, we all played, ran, rode bikes, played football on every piece of grass that you see out here. (KH: Sounds idyllic.) It was extremely idyllic. It was you know, yes, we had emotional issues. We weren't with our parents. They worked with us at the administration building on that kind of thing. But it was incredibly idyllic. And we'd, when you're young, you don't appreciate all of that. When you get older, you're like, “Man, people really worked hard to make this happen.”
Milner knows his take on life as a Village kid isn’t shared by every current or former resident. He says he has friends who have never told anyone they spent time there. They even keep it a secret from their spouses and children.
But the residential model of caring for at-risk kids, with its group homes and houseparents, suited Milner. He says he loved his mother, even though she was an alcoholic.
MILNER: But she was my mom. I didn't want her losing her rights. I wanted her to be my mom.
Milner had an opportunity to live with a host family who he often joined on holidays and vacations.
MILNER: I had a conversation with the Caraways one time, because they were so good to me, and specifically talked about taking me into a foster home. I specifically said I don't want to go.
That kind of response doesn’t fit the current narrative. Don’t all kids want forever homes?
MILNER: Not all kids do. And some of our kids now don't. Now . . . I have to be real careful with that because sometimes people think, “Oh, he says that residential care is better than these other things.” I am not saying that. I'm saying residential care is one of the things, and you don't need to try to say one is better than the other. We need all of them.
Proponents of group homes like those at the Children’s Village say system reformers need to differentiate between poor-quality and high-quality residential care.
Both Milner and Thames agree on the main benefit of Christian residential care: kids see a positive example of family life.
MILNER: That's the chapel there. A lot of people, including somebody in this car, were married in that chapel.
He’s talking about Thames. She and her husband met while they were both residents at the Children’s Village. It’s been 42 years since the couple married in the chapel right over there, surrounded by friends and staff members.
THAMES: That is one of the biggest values for both myself and my husband during our time here was modeling for us a healthy family dynamic. You just cannot overstate how powerful that is . . . you can tell someone, “This is how husbands and wives relate to each other. This is how families work together to get this done. You should communicate this way, you should work together to accomplish these goals.” But if you are living that experience, and you have folks that are modeling that family dynamic for you, that's so much more powerful.
Thames says what they witnessed at the Children’s Village became a driving force for her and her husband when they started their family.
THAMES: We recalled those things that were modeled for us that were very different from his family or my family.
Milner’s background was different, too. At the Children’s Village, he saw houseparents and host families handle disagreements calmly, with respect. He wasn’t used to that. He learned from their Christian example.
MILNER: Nobody threw anything. Nobody slapped anybody. And you're just sitting there watching this . . . Well, he didn't hit her. What's happening here?
So a big key to helping children thrive in residential care is houseparents who are able to set the right example. But finding them is tough. The Children’s Village has a recruiter who speaks to churches. They advertise in magazines.
THAMES: We tell people all the time that this is not a job that you just, “I want the job” and I come and apply for it. These are missionaries that God is calling to the work that He has specifically called to this work to show unconditional love to children in very difficult environments, with children that come from lots of different places.
MILNER: You're literally asking a couple or a single person to leave their home, come live in a part of the state they might not know, or a part of the country they might not know. Now they're put in a home with kids who are already there. They're already established. And so now you're interjecting this brand new person or a couple into this situation and you're asking them to acclimate, win the kids over, bring that about your personality and then implement trauma-informed care, trust-based relational intervention, and all of these things. So it is a huge lift.
Houseparents at the Children's Village work two weeks on, two weeks off. Their salary and benefit package is competitive. Administrators ask new hires to give it their best shot for at least a year.
MILNER: It's going to take a year for you to really get control of the house, for you to really see, okay, this is me, this is me. And then those that stay, you know, one year, if they stay two years, they're probably going to be there 18 years. They stay a long time.
RESIDENCE MEETING AMBI
It’s Thursday morning in Water Valley, Mississippi. Dew is still on the ground, but sunshine is pouring through windows in the boys’ cottage at Reedy Acres. Reedy Acres is one of the 7 campuses operated by the Mississippi Baptist Children’s Village. It’s in the north part of the state. A group of houseparents have gathered here for a staff meeting.
Tim and Lisa Lampley are the houseparents at this particular cottage. The Lampleys are in their 50s. Tim has a beard. Lisa has a blonde bob.
LISA: I had the feeling that maybe the Lord might be calling us to maybe foster. And I thought, “But Tim's going to think I'm crazy.”
It turns out her husband had gotten a call. An official at the Children’s Village asked him to let his church know the Children’s Village was in need of houseparents.
LISA: And he said, “But you're going to think I'm crazy now. I'm thinking maybe that's that ministry that we might want to go to.” And I said, “No, I don't think you're crazy, because I haven't told you this. But this is what I've been feeling.”
As Lisa talks, she’s standing in the cottage’s dining area. The staff members are seated around a table with 10 chairs. There’s a grandfather clock against one wall. A couple of computer stations. A pass-through window to the kitchen, where something in the crockpot smells really good.
Lisa moves to a corner, still explaining how she became a houseparent.
LISA: Really and truly, the Lord spoke to me and my husband separately. And we were (interrupted by sound of phone ringing) . . .
Lisa takes the call. It’s Tim, her husband. He’s at the doctor’s office with a boy from their cottage who’s sick. When she puts the phone down, the whole room is waiting to hear what the doctor said.
LISA: It's flu. (someone in background: Bless his heart.) Yeah. So . . .
Lisa’s day just got complicated. The boy will have to quarantine until he’s free of fever. A holiday is coming up. Some of the children will be making home visits. She doesn’t want to spread the flu.
LISA: We try to protect the rest of the house, so everybody doesn't get it. Most everybody has their own rooms here. This resident in particular has a brother and they do room together. But and and we have a nice setup. Everybody has their own restrooms and their own room. So we're not sharing those facilities. And so we just have to contain the illness as best we can.
Lisa takes her seat at the table where everyone is focused on a zoom call. It involves staff from all over the state. It’s a recurring meeting.
SPEAKER ON ZOOM: Once again, thank you to everybody for taking the time. (Interruption: Can ya’ll hear me?) Yes sir. (Okay, we were trying to mute. Apparently we didn’t.) Laughing.
Then there’s prayer.
SPEAKER: Go ahead, Brother Tim.
TIM: Well, grateful to be a part of the prayer time this morning, and I want to pray for our resource center and all of our staff . . .
The staff does need a lot of prayer. Especially the houseparents. They’ve gathered this morning not only for the zoom call. They’re having a training session on a new focus at the Children’s Village. It’s called the trauma-informed approach. But Sean Milner says it’s really not new.
MILNER: Trauma-informed care is really something that we've been doing. We didn't know what to call it, but it's a huge thing right now nationally.
The Children’s Village wants their staff to be trained to recognize trauma. They want them to be able to respond to the needs of children and their families by creating a safe environment. By that they mean not only physically safe, but also psychologically and emotionally safe.
A staff psychologist has come to Reedy Acres to train the houseparents who lead those cottages. He’s teaching them about a method of trauma-informed care.
PSYCHOLOGIST: T-B-R-I is Trust Based Relational Intervention, right? It's a program that developed out of TCU in Texas . . .
Did you get that? TBRI stands for Trust Based Relational Intervention. Child psychologists at Texas Christian University developed this method of trauma-informed care. It’s based on the relationship between the developing brain and trauma.
Sean Milner explains.
MILNER: House parents forever would get frustrated. “What were you thinking? Why did you do that?” Well, what they have learned is their synapses are separated, and they were never fully developed based on different traumas. And if you stay in flight or fright mode all the time, then you don't develop these kinds of things. So in reality, the kid doesn't know why they did it. And so we need to learn that so our houseparents don't just go, “Wow, maybe you're just being obstinate.” Well, maybe so. Maybe not. But let's take a look at it first.
TBRI is an evidence-based approach. Milner says it can really help kids.
MILNER: That has been proven to way more influence a child and affect their benefit, affect how they make decisions.
The houseparents at Reedy Acres have lots of questions at their training session. Milner says much of it comes down to awareness.
MILNER: Let me say it this way. My daughter would come in the room, and I would just say, “Oh, you're so beautiful. I just love you. You're so beautiful.” And she knew exactly what I meant. And she'd come hug me and crawl up in my lap. And my son, I'd say, “Hey, do that. You know, sometimes, Hey, knucklehead, come here, you know. you got it up, but he knew you had it, uh, You cannot make those same two statements to our children. It means something totally different.
He says that can be hard for houseparents who are used to raising their own children a certain way, whether it comes to affection, discipline, even expectations.
MILNER: We have to tell them your kids may be running the country. We don't know. But you don't get to raise these kids the same way. “Well, I'm a good parent. You know, I've done . . .” Well, God bless you. Wonderful. Ain't gonna work here. And that's sometimes very hard.
When Texas Christian University held a TBRI training event on the Gulf Coast last year, the Children’s Village was well-represented. A donor footed the $3,500-per-person fee for 10 staff members to attend.
MILNER: There was only one agency in the state that had that many. Nobody had more than us. But there was only one agency that had that many. And that was the Department of Child Protection Services.
Two hours south of ReedyAcres, you’ll find the headquarters of the Baptist Children’s Village. It’s a brick building on a shady lot in a nice business park. This is Ridgeland, Mississippi, a suburb just north of the state capital.
Milner has an office here.
MILNER: And in here, I just always love to be reminded of who we are, and where we came from and what we're doing. So what you see on the walls, these are all pictures of village kids . . .
It’s a sea of black and white images. Baseball teams. Girls in starched dresses. Kids eating watermelon right down to the rind.
MILNER: This is kind of a fun one. Well, I think that's it. No, here it is. The trains used to come through and drop food from all over the state. That's how they got their food. A lot of times they would just drop food at the depot. And they would go out in a wagon and stuff and pick it up. Yeah, just totally donated.
The photos are like a visual timeline showing the evolution of residential childcare. They give weight to what Milner says about the Children’s Village having a progressive approach, about being on the forefront. They started out in 1897 with dormitories on institutionalized campuses. Their own schools. Meals cafeteria-style. Then came residential homes. Family-style homes with houseparents. The Children’s Village was the first such entity in the state to have case workers. Now they’re even offering off-campus help to families in crisis.
And other changes may be coming, too. Milner says two of their seven campuses are closed because they don’t have enough houseparents. But instead of seeing that as a problem, he sees it as an opportunity to implement new programs. One idea is to have a place for young people who’ve graduated from the Children's Village to return to if they have trouble making the transition.
Milner says the transition was tough for him.
MILNER: I can remember the first night, I had to call Mamaw Blanton and go, “Hey, how do you cook something for supper?” you know. And I went to the grocery store. I don't know how much money I spent on groceries. But when I got back to my apartment and unpacked it, then it was time to cook supper and I realized nothing that I had bought had any nutritional value whatsoever. It was all cheese puffs and Little Debbies and all of that. So we do a much better job.
Today, the Children’s Village has 50 professionals on staff, and one of them handles transitions.
MILNER: Our case managers and our campus directors are already doing transitional living. And then he comes in behind for, “Okay, what have we not gotten yet? Do we know how to balance a checkbook? Do we know how to change a flat? Do we know how to—” So all of those kinds of things. And so we try to stay on top of that. So nobody spends their whole first paycheck on Little Debbies, like I did.
Beyond bad food choices, the young adults who leave their care at 18 often find life on their own isn’t what they thought it would be.
MILNER: So we want a transitional living home. Alright, let's get you all back in. You've realized the world is different. Now, let us talk to you about college. Let us talk about trade skills . . . It's just heavy on our heart. We're tired of seeing this revolving door now going to prison.
If the photos in Milner’s office could speak, they’d probably shout this: real help for kids means long-term commitment. And it takes all sorts of forms. Milner’s law degree is also framed and hanging on a wall. How does it factor into his role as a crusader for kids?
MILNER: It does help me keep up with a lot of the legislation, both in federal legislation and state legislation. to What we can do. What other people can do, and how to operate inside the system. So that's very, very helpful . . .
Milner mentioned legislation. In 2019, he helped get the Children’s Promise Act passed. It’s a tax credit that benefits charities. It’s based on a statute from Arizona.
MILNER: What the Children's Promise Act does is it allows corporations, any corporation in Mississippi or business entity, they can give they can donate to the Baptist Children's Village one half of whatever their income tax, state tax liability is. And now they only owe the state the other half.
Individuals can, too. Up to $1,000.
MILNER: You subtract it straight off your Mississippi state income tax return. So if you owe the state of Mississippi $1,500 and you gave us 1000, you now owe them 500.
It takes a lot of donors to support the Children’s Village. It takes a lot of money to provide help that really helps.
A small antique desk sits in one corner of Milner’s office. It’s special. It belonged to the Carraways, the host family that included him in their activities when Milner was a resident at the Children’s Village. The Carraways came to Milner’s wedding. He spoke at their funerals. The desk is where he writes personal letters to donors. A stack of about 25 are waiting for him.
MILNER: I will pray over these, and I will name every one of these people. I will sign every letter for every dollar that comes through the Baptist Children's Village. And that's what that is. Miranda’s going to get on me because that stack’s getting kind of high. So I have to get those signed and prayed over and back to her before the end of the day.
The Children’s Village is committed to helping at-risk children by pairing the right support with the hope of Jesus Christ.
That was clear during our driving tour of the old campus.
MILNER: This is the first cottage I moved in when I came. This was called Gaddis cottage. It was the newest cottage on the campus . . .
Milner was barely five years old when he came to live here. He remembers it well.
MILNER: It was a social worker came. I remember Miss Peterson, we rode in her car. My mom didn't have a car. And they come and got us. And I can vividly remember pulling in. That was the first night . . .
A lot has changed in residential childcare since then, but the main need of kids in crisis hasn’t changed.
As we complete our time at the campus where she, too, grew up, Chrystelle Thames talks about the Christian mission at the Children’s Village. She talks about former residents who are now all grown up.
THAMES: Comments on social media, or when they get together at alumni meetings, there is always conversation about church involvement, or “God did this” or “God used this housemother in my life,” or” God used the Village, I don't know where I would be without the influence of, you know, a staff member at the Baptist Children's Village” . . .
Thames says it’s pervasive in alumni culture—the positive talk, the spiritual talk. She says it is clear that most of their former residents know where to go for truth because someone at the Children’s Village planted a seed.
THAMES: That's what we want for our children today. We want to plant those seeds. We want them to experience God's love, so that maybe today, maybe tomorrow, maybe five years from now, or 10 years from now, they remember that someone shared about how precious they are to their Savior. And it matters. That is a changed life.
Milner says his family is living proof of what can happen when Christians do it right, this caring for at-risk kids.
MILNER: I tell people all the time, there were five Milner children who came here. Right now, there are 17 grandchildren . . . Not only were our lives changed, every one of our children's lives was changed. Every one of our grandchildren's lives was changed. So do the math on that now. Multiply that times some 12,000 who've probably gone through here. And those are the generational impacts that you're actually making.
Next week, we’ll meet people involved in one of the most loving—yet challenging —responses to at-risk kids—adopting children with special needs.
SALCHERT: And it came up that what if this baby has a life limiting prognosis? Or what if you knew they're not even going to live through birth? Or they're born and we don't know, have a terminal prognosis? You knew? It's all well and good for you to say that you're pro life. But what about, you know, families that can't walk through that? And I said, we'll take them.
Effective Compassion is produced by the creative team at WORLD Radio. I’m Kim Henderson. Leigh Jones is our producer, and Paul Butler is our executive producer. Technical assistance provided by Rich Rozel and Creative Genius Productions.
UNDERWRITER SPOT: Effective Compassion is made possible by listeners like you. Additional support comes from World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization serving the physical and spiritual needs of people in impoverished communities around the world. Help for today, hope for tomorrow. Right now, World Help has a window of opportunity to deliver food and Bibles to starving, persecuted Christians in North Korea, one of the most dangerous nations for Christians. A gift of $20 sends a Bible and a week's worth of food to a Christian living in this hostile country. More at worldhelp.net/podcast.
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.