Looking for a Few Good Men -- and Women
HOT SPRINGS, Arkansas — Tony and Kerri Ballard gather with other houseparents at the COMPACT Family Services pavilion at 3:30 on a warm late October afternoon. As they wait for the busload of students to arrive after school, Tony lifts up specific prayers on behalf of staff and the young residents of Hillcrest Children’s Home in Hot Springs, a city of 37,000 in the Ouachita Mountains.
Tony, 43, and Kerri, 40, are among the 49 employees providing care to abused and neglected children in age- and gender-based housing on a 65-acre campus. They are full-time parents around the clock, 10 days in a row, until getting four consecutive days off.
The couple greet half a dozen girls ages 6 to 10 as they file off the bus. For the next 4½ hours, the Ballards will be dealing with a cauldron of emotions at Garrison Cottage. The girls might be affectionate, mouthy, isolated, cheerful, and energetic. At some level, all are needy and demanding attention.
Diana, a wiry girl of 10, hugs Kerri, whom she calls “mom,” before she skips back to the cottage. The chattering Diana is proud that she just learned to ride a bicycle without training wheels, and that she helps keep the cottage clean. She says she isn’t so grateful that her younger sister — also a resident of the cottage — bosses her around.
After-school activities include chores, dinner, homework, showering, playtime, a snack, taking prescribed medicine, and a bedtime story. Rules posted on the wall include respecting houseparents, respecting peers, using an indoor voice, and maintaining a good attitude.
Still, the Ballards don’t primarily view their role as rule discipliners. They realize it’s paramount to provide structure and a sense of security for displaced children who may be struggling with attachment and abandonment issues.
“If we are too stern in their eyes, they see us as just like the abuser who put them here,” Tony says. “I don’t want to mess up the entire night because a child didn’t eat the beans on her plate.”
Many of the placements at Hillcrest stem from a child being removed from a situation because of physical or substance abuse or neglect. In addition to the bodily or emotional pain a boy or girl suffers, there also is the trauma of being removed from the family of origin. Some kids are in survival mode when they arrive.
“This is a mission field to an unreached people group,” Tony says. “Even if it’s a tough day, you still know you are walking in obedience.”
The Ballards have been at Hillcrest only since May, but they seem more seasoned. It helps that they earlier served as youth pastors at Open Arms Assembly in Beebe, Arkansas, and Kerri spent 9 months working for Amazima Ministries in Uganda, while Tony worked for organizations that provided orphan care in the African nation. Even so, COMPACT isn’t exactly what the Ballards envisioned.
“It’s very rewarding, but emotionally challenging,” says the patient and nurturing Kerri.
The evening meal, white bean chicken chili and cornbread, is scrumptious and filling. Everyone around the table has opportunity to share something good and bad that happened during the day.
When a child is argumentative or disobedient, the even-tempered Tony rationally explains the consequences — typically loss of certain privileges — of continued bad behavior. The girls refer to him as Daddy, Poppa, or Mr. Tony.
“I welcome them to call me whatever they choose, as long as it’s not vulgar,” says the quietly passionate Tony. “Even in the least traumatized situation, these kids still have been completely rejected.”
This night, story time in the living room before bed features the account of Queen Esther. Kids sit on couches, an ottoman, and a bean bag as Tony leans on a table and reads. The girls like to interrupt, and Tony makes sure insults hurled at others aren’t over the top.
The Ballards’ 9-year-old son, Kohl, lives in a bedroom separate from the hallway housing the girls. Tony and Kerri make sure to give Kohl, who rides the school bus with the Hillcrest kids, some quality time after the girls go to bed at 8.
Because they have self-contained living quarters in the cottage, the Ballards can come and go undisturbed while not on duty, and they tend to go somewhere with Kohl on weekends. “Relief parents” move into a spare separate bedroom for four consecutive days to give the Ballards a breather.
Hillcrest needs 10 houseparents to be fully staffed; one of the cottages is closed because COMPACT is short three couples to serve as houseparents. Both regular and relief houseparents are needed.
“One of our primary needs is for the Lord to send good quality, God-fearing people to take on this mission,” says Brian J. Page, COMPACT administrator. “It’s a tough job.”
Houseparents don’t need to be ordained pastors or missionaries. A college degree isn’t required. They must believe in Jesus as Lord and adhere to Assemblies of God doctrinal beliefs.
“Ideally, we are looking for a husband and wife who can model what parents look like for the kids,” says Page, 46. “But we also need single men and women willing to serve in a relief houseparenting capacity.”
Page sees a large part of his role as supporting houseparents. A majority of Hillcrest’s 52 youngsters have been placed by state agencies after removal from abusive and/or neglectful home environments. Increasingly, COMPACT houses kids in therapeutic care, those who have suffered trauma beyond traditional foster care needs. Children in therapeutic care typically stay 12-18 months before returning to relatives, going into private foster care, or being adopted.
“Houseparenting can be draining,” Page says. “However, what we can accomplish for a child’s eternity is immeasurable.”
Baron and Regena Way, both 42, have been houseparents at Hillcrest for 5 years, working most recently with the five residents of the Transitional Living Center (TLC), an independent apartment building. Residents who age out of Hillcrest at 18 can stay an additional 4 years if they are enrolled in college or in a career development plan.
The Ways provide transportation to jobs, school, and appointments, as most of the transitional residents don’t own a vehicle.
“We’re just there to help them be prepared for living in the real world,” Baron says. These young adults may have missed out on basic life skills. The Ways teach them how to drive a car, budget, shop for groceries, do laundry, cook meals, prepare a résumé, and balance a checkbook. The young adults pay modest rent, but the money is deposited into an account that is returned when they leave.
The Ways also try to provide a sense of community, offering a regular dinner night, game night, and movie night for residents.
Baron found COMPACT ministry appealing after being laid off as a building materials distributor office manager, a job he held for 15 years. Regena had child care experience. The Ways have been longtime volunteers at Hot Springs First Assembly of God, and he actually taught some of the boys now in TLC years ago in Royal Rangers. Hillcrest kids attend Wednesday and Sunday services at the church.
The Ways have two sons, Logan, 17, and Hudson, 10. For 3½ years, the Ways oversaw high school boys at Hillcrest.
“Our kids had to learn how to share us,” Regena says. “A lot of the time, residents’ needs came first.”
Jason and Abbey Lundy, both 33, became Hillcrest houseparents in June, and currently watch six boys, ages 12 to 16. They have their own 12-year-old son, Zach, officially adopted at age 9 after living with them for 3 years. Zach had half a dozen placements in the previous 2 years.
“Zach is adjusting to sharing us,” Jason says. Having a child with foster care experience living with his adoptive parents has benefits and drawbacks at Hillcrest, according to Jason.
“He has flashbacks, being in the system in a similar environment,” says Jason, a former police officer and a children’s residential worker. “But at times he can assure the other boys that things can turn out all right.”
The Lundys have been married a decade. Nine years ago, Abbey says God assured her in a church service that she would be mother to many children, even though she is unable to conceive.
“I’m not their mom, but I’m being mother while they’re here,” says Abbey, an Evangel University graduate and former elementary as well as middle school special education schoolteacher. “The biggest piece is learning to stay calm no matter what they’re doing. A calm face and a calm voice helps them to calm down.”
When either Abbey or Jason becomes frustrated to the point of exasperation, the other takes over.
“We can only break down their defenses by building relationships,” says Jason, who is obtaining a Master of Theological Studies from Assemblies of God Theological Seminary at Evangel. “Even if we’re just giving these kids a vacation from the hell they’ve gone through, we’ve accomplished something.”