Nurturing During Parental Absence
Taking care of Martha and Harry Thomassen’s kids entails a $6,500 monthly grocery bill. Footing the bill for shoes, clothing, and summer camp costs $10,660.
The Thomassens direct Pleasant Hills Children’s Home, a 1,000-acre campus in Fairfield, Texas, with capacity for 48 children ages birth through 18.
The Christ-centered facility, founded in 1947 and owned and operated by Texas’ three geographic Assemblies of God districts (North, South, West), includes four residential cottages, each with a married couple as houseparents. The grounds also feature a chapel, dining hall, gym, administrative offices, welcome and resource center, playgrounds, baseball field, maintenance and auto body shop, fishing ponds, a swimming pool, and a barn for raising cattle, horses, and pigs.
Harry is executive director, Martha directs development, which entails fundraising nearly 100 percent of the budget. She travels to speak to congregations, civic groups, and other agencies about the home. In addition to hundreds of children they have cared for — all for free — since assuming leadership of the home in 2001, the couple has two birth children.
While licensed by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, which conducts regular inspections, Pleasant Hills isn’t an orphanage; none of the children is a ward of the state. Every child has been voluntarily placed by a parent or guardian. Many are sibling groups. Martha Thomassen explains the home’s three programs are reunification, care, and aftercare.
Reunification aims to help parents or guardians get on their feet through their child’s short-term stay, typically 24 months. A recent arrival is an example: three children, two in diapers, from a homeless family living in a car. The parents, unskilled laborers, couldn't support the family. The state planned to intervene. Pleasant Hills keeps the children while parents obtain vocational or technical training, plus find employment. Parents can visit in the interim. After finding work, saving money, and locating a place to live, the family can reunite.
In other cases, parents may be drug dependent or going through a rehabilitation program.
“They may have supervised visits with children,” she says. “We want to help families heal and become whole again. That’s not always possible.” Long-term residents are in the care program, which entails raising children from childhood, typically 10 to 12 years.
Once children reach 18, they may sign an accountability agreement to live morally, obtain an education, and maintain good grades. Then they are able to receive assistance from an account the home’s board of directors designated to help children after they graduate high school to further their education.
The home includes aftercare studio apartments, which house eight college students during breaks. Pleasant Hills provides food, shelter, and spiritual nurturing.
“If you don't help them as young adults, they'll fall right back on the street,” Thomassen says. “We provide the support of a family structure.”
Pleasant Hills creates a normal family life centered on daily devotionals, church, school, sports, and extracurricular activities. Though the nearest Assemblies of God churches are 45 minutes away, the children attend Sunday morning and Wednesday nights. Sunday nights the home holds its own chapel services on campus.
“We want them to connect to the fellowship of a church family, so as adults they will desire to find their own church family,” she says.
The home doesn't use corporal punishment, which Child Protective Services forbids. To maintain discipline, the Thomassens created a motivational program. Even if parental abuse or abandonment took place, she says children must learn to be responsible for their own behavior.
Proper conduct includes greeting peers and adults, asking permission, following directions, accepting feedback, keeping a clean bedroom, doing chores, and being a positive role model to peers. Children can earn privileges and freedoms such as an allowance, visiting friends, and having friends stay. Older kids can earn alone time, go on dates, stay up late on Friday nights, and work a part-time job.
“It puts the responsibility of behavior on the young person, and it works,” Thomassen says.
As the daughter of AG pastors in Arkansas, she says her call to ministry came as a sixth-grader teaching Sunday School. At 16, around the time she started picking up kids in rough neighborhoods to attend the AG girls program now called Mpact, she says the Lord called her to serve in children's homes. While a children's pastor in an Arkansas church, Hillcrest Children's Home offered her a job, where she met Harry, a caseworker from New Jersey. Wedding guests included Hillcrest’s 72 resident children. The couple also worked at children's homes in Missouri and North Carolina.
In 2001, the Thomassens came to Pleasant Hills, which had gone without a full-time director for two years. Bills hadn't been paid in five months; soon after they arrived, the water supply went dry because of nonpayment. The couple had to rely on God as never before.
In 2003, Harry went to a bank for a loan for the children’s home, while Martha stayed behind to plead with the Lord to perform a miracle. En route to the bank, he stopped at the post office, even though another employee had checked the home’s box earlier in the day. He found an envelope containing a $10,000 check for the home. He never went to the bank.
“I learned what it really meant to trust in the Lord and lean not on my own understanding,” Martha says. “If I worry, I'm leaning on me and saying I'm bigger than God.”
Ambrosia Hagler, 26, couldn't read when she came to Pleasant Hills at age 12. She lived with an elderly aunt who could no longer afford to care for her. A CPS caseworker connected the family to Pleasant Hills, where Hagler lived the rest of her youth. Hagler went to a community college in a nearby town, staying at the home during summers and holidays. She recently joined the Pleasant Hills custodial and dining hall staff.
“Pleasant Hills was a place where I felt loved and I could go to sleep safe at night,” Hagler says. “It’s taken me farther than I ever thought I could go in life.”