The American Civil War left much devastation in its wake. Beyond the death, disfigurement, and economic upheaval, the war left many children without parents. A religious institution stepped in to provide many of those children with a place to be cared for. Founded in 1871 in Norcross, the institution later known as the United Methodist Children’s Home moved to Decatur in 1877 and remained there until 2017, when the property was sold to the city of Decatur.
After 152 years the institution described by its owners as “a beacon of hope for children and families for 152 years,” was the source of many stories of those who at some point in their lives made United Methodist Children’s Home their home.
In an exhibit that opened with an Aug. 31 ribbon cutting in the DeKalb History Center, firsthand oral histories from past residents, employees, and volunteers are chronicled in displays that include photos, narratives, and quotations drawn from life in the “Orphan’s Home” from 1943 to 2017. Several United Methodist Children’s Home “alumni” were present for the ribbon-cutting event. The unique and compelling history was documented through interviews and photography by Beate Sass with interview assistance from Moira Bucciarelli. Sass turned the combined work into a manuscript.
After an 1873 fire at the Norcross facility, the 226-acre property in Decatur was purchased for $6,000, according to material in the exhibit, which states, “The Children’s Home was equipped with a farm complete with livestock and equipment, an on-campus school, recreational facilities, and housing for children and staff. For the most part, the Home was self-contained until Reverand B.C Kerr was appointed superintendent in 1945 and encouraged the children to venture out into the community for church and school. As the years progressed, more buildings and resources were added to accommodate the increased population of the Home, which reached its peak in 1951 with 150 children. It was named United Methodist Children’s Home in 1969.”
Exhibit materials explain that while the facility started with war orphans, over the years, children came there for many reasons. “For many, this campus became a haven from a much harsher reality that was beyond their control,” the announcement from the facility’s owner, Wellroot Family Services headquartered in Tucker, explains.
One of several quotes emblazoned on the exhibit walls states, “My situation would have been much worse if I hadn’t been at the Children’s Home. Almost all the children there came from broken families. Some had lost a parent. I didn’t think I was any different or worse off than …any of the other boys I grew up with. We grew up the same.
They were my family and we cared for each other.”
Another such quote underscores how normal the young residents felt their lives to be. “We had best friends. We had boyfriends. We got in trouble. We had good times. We had bad times….I wasn’t treated any different at school or any of the sports I played. Most of the people I went to school with didn’t even know I lived here.”
The work of the UMCH continues to the present under the nonprofit’s current name, Wellroot, “Georgia’s longest-serving family welfare organization,” according to its website, which states that “Wellroot offers three evidence-based programs designed to build resiliency in children and families and connect those in crisis with needed resources to create a safe and stable home.”
The public can visit the grounds and see the structures, as it has been converted into Decatur Legacy Park. At the ribbon cutting, Decatur Mayor Pro Tem Tony Powers commented, “We chose the name ‘Legacy’ for a reason. It is indeed part of our heritage as a city.”
Many of the historic buildings remain, including the 1906 Moore Chapel. A new nonprofit, Legacy Decatur, currently manages the 77 acres as a park and leases the buildings to other nonprofits, according to the city of Decatur, which states that long-range plans have been developed to guide future changes.
The exhibit is on the first floor of DeKalb History Center, housed at DeKalb County’s Historic Courthouse at 101 East Court Square in Decatur. Open daily except for Sundays, Home: The United Methodist Children’s Home is free to the public; however, donations are welcome. For more information, visit dekalbhistory.org/exhibits/home-the-united-methodist-childrens-home.