By Ginger Jarvis
Greene Publishing, Inc.
The divisive topic of a children’s home drew about 60 Madison County residents to the United Methodist Coop- erative Ministries Center on Jan. 12. The session, sometimes contentious, allowed questions and comments about the possibility of a United Methodist Children’s Home being located in Madison County.
Rev. Bob Laidlaw, pastor of Madison First United Methodist Church, served as emcee for the event. Laidlaw is a member of the 35-person Board of Trustees for the UM Children’s Home in Enterprise, Assisting Laidlaw with answering questions were Mike Cummings, Director of Family Philanthropy for the UMCH; Rev. John Gill, Community Development Coordinator; Mark Nelson, Development Officer; and Dr. Steve Batson of Albany, Ga., whose company carried out a feasibility study in the area in 2011.
The board had been considering adding a facility in North Florida, and the chance to do so came in the form of a land gift from Billy and Diane Sullivan and their daughter, Beth. The Sullivans offered a 120-acre site bounded by Daylily and Dogwood roads off Dusty Miller Road in the northeast section of the county. Another family offered the funds to construct the first building on the site.
Some residents of that area, however, were strongly opposed to the home in their neighborhood. Several of them (including a person from Jacksonville and another from central Florida) cited points such as these: (1) the possibility of widening the road into the area; (2) unsupervised children running rampant in the area and damaging property; (3) the presence of the children curtailing burns and aerial spraying; (4) property owners were not notified of the plan until surveyors came to the area; (5) increased traffic and noise; (6) taxpayer burden placed on schools; and (7) taxpayer burden for infrastructure to serve the home. One resident said, “This will impact our lives and our children’s lives.“ Another stated, “We don’t want no (sic) change.”
Preston Mathews of Lee stated that he and his wife were houseparents at the Enterprise campus for four years. “The children are constantly supervised. The footprint of the children does not make a big difference,” he said.
Cummings assured the group that the UMCH des not yet own any property in Madison County. He added, “I have spent the day at the Barksdale Farm with the idea that we might use that location. If you know of any other property available, please let me know.”
Laidlaw assured the group that the proposed home is not a juvenile-detention facility with barbed wire and guards.
Batson said that the feasibility study by Cargill Associates centered around funding sources for the home. He interviewed people from Madison County, Tallahassee, and Jacksonville; the home would serve Madison, Suwannee, and Taylor counties.
Andy Barnes, Chief Financial Officer of the Madison County School District, explained that the children would have little impact on school funding due to state funding rules. Cummings added, “Most of these children are enrolled in Madison County schools. We will be serving children who are already here.”
Questioned about the numbers of children involved, Cummings said that the first two houses would have space for 20 children and their houseparents. Daily employees would include office personnel, therapists, and a chaplain to serve the chapel. “Our children go to church every Sunday,” he explained.
Gill said that he will install a foster-parent office in Madison, where children can be placed with Christian families.
Regarding infrastructure costs, Cumming explained that the United Methodist Church pays all those costs, as any other non-profit would do. He said, “No taxpayer money is involved.”
He closed by asking, “What does God want us to do to start this ministry? Remember that the King of Kings is in charge.”
Even though many opposed the project and many approved it, the session ended with friends and neighbors agreeing to communicate more effectively.