A Real Dream Vacation
When the 2023-24 school year began in Hot Springs, Arkansas on Aug. 14, students from the Hillcrest Children’s Home were excited to share about their first dream vacation: a trip to Branson, Missouri, in July.
For most of the two dozen foster children living at the home, it marked their initial venture outside Arkansas. Among their thrills were visiting Dolly Parton’s Stampede, seeing a production of “Queen Esther” at the famed Sight & Sound Theater, and enjoying a meal at the Grand Country Buffet.
Resident Director LaDana A. Pate recalls how as a child the first week of classes was always a time to share about a vacation or other fun activities students enjoyed during the summer. This year Hillcrest students could say, “We went to Branson.”
“Now they have some normalcy in their lives,” says Pate, 52, a former pre-school and elementary teacher. “Our kids don’t ever feel normal and this was a time that they did.
“They didn’t know what a vacation was; they had no clue. To them, vacation now has a meaning. It has a happy memory. That’s big in the world of foster care. In group settings they don’t get to do that.”
In addition to residents, 20 direct care staff members, office staff, case managers and some family members went to Branson. It took an eight-vehicle caravan to shuttle the 61-member entourage on the four-hour drive. The trip was made possible by a $30,000 donation from an anonymous donor who doesn’t even live in the state.
“She just wants these kids to get to know Jesus,” says Alan B. Bixler, 53, who recently celebrated his first anniversary as executive director of COMPACT Family Services. “She’ll say constantly, ‘We’re still getting these kids to know Jesus, right? Take them on vacation so they can get to know Jesus.”
Hillcrest is one of several agencies operated by COMPACT, the Assemblies of God’s national child welfare agency. It offers foster care, adoption, and family assistance programs. With offices in Arkansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma, Bixler is talking with parties in other states, with an eye on eventually expanding services nationwide.
The shift in recent years in residential care from a long-term to short-term (typically one year) focus—mandated by the Family First Protection Act—made the recent family vacation that much more meaningful.
Seeing the kids’ faces when the horses rode in during Dolly Parton’s Stampede and all the food that went along with the show let Bixler know the children appreciated the time. Before going to see “Queen Esther,” a staff member led a devotional time so the students would understand the dynamics of the Old Testament story before watching the two-and-a-half-hour live stage production.
“Some of the kids may have grown up in church, but for others it’s a completely foreign thing,” Bixler says. “They have no knowledge of church or Bible stories. We laid that foundation and I think that was helpful.”
The break was a wonderful time for the director to be able to connect with employees and residents—which he doesn’t often get to do because of his travel schedule. Bixler also had some “pivotal” conversations with residents and taught a couple of the special needs children how to play pool, including holding a cue stick and hitting the ball.
“You have moments to do that when you’re removed from your routine,” says Bixler, who is familiar with Hot Springs because of his time there as a youth pastor in the 1990s. “Vacation and other breaks happen because of faithful donors making it possible to provide extras for these kids. We’re donor-reliant.”
Because all foster children have state case managers, and some residents are developmentally disabled, Pate points out that securing permission slips and handling other logistics required a lot of behind-the-scenes work. But she knows it was worth it.
“I still hear them talking about it,” Pate says. “We had a mission team here the first week of August and one said, ‘You just went on vacation, didn’t you?’ The kids were telling them all about it and were still excited about it. It clicked with them. It’s something they’re going to take with them for the rest of their lives.”