At the sight of a guest, she quickly wrapped up the call and, smiling, issued something along the lines of “I’m Betty. It’s great to meet you.”
Stepping just inside the cottage, the senses are overwhelmed with the feeling of warmth, the sight of Christmas décor and the smells of cinnamon and freshly baked cookies. At least three Christmas trees, tall and small, can be spotted upon touring the house; round Christmas tin lids cover the burners on the stovetop.
“Christmas is just my season. I love Christmas,” Porter said.
And like the characteristics of her favorite holiday, Porter is jolly, kind-hearted, giving and effervescent — a perfect mixture for helping keep the spirit of Christmas alive at a children’s home during the holidays.
Despite their young age, the children have already experienced hard knocks. Some have been abused; their parents may be in prison; most are hungry when they get to the home. It has been a life of withouts.
“Last year, one of the little boys we had was so excited because Santa Claus had never come to his house,” Porter said.
Porter and her husband, Will, serve as a childcare couple at Broyhill Baptist, living with eight or so boys in one of the home’s five cottages. Most of the kids who stay at Broyhill Baptist have at least one parent or relative living, but have been removed from their own home for one reason or another. Some were abused or neglected, with drug use by their parents a common culprit. For others, their parents may simply have been too poor to provide adequate care.
‘An expression of love’
Several community members pitch in to make Christmas special for the children at the home.
“They are so excited about the parties and people giving — an expression of love,” said Linda Morgan, director of Broyhill Baptist Children’s Home. “They know what it’s like not to have presents so they are very appreciative.”
One of the longest standing contributors that ensure Broyhill children are not without during the holidays is the Pigeon Valley Bassmasters fishing club, which has hosted a Christmas party for the kids for 25 years.
“As long as the bass club survives, we will continue to support the children’s home,” said Patty Blanton, secretary of the Pigeon Valley Bassmasters. “It’s worth it because we saw smiles on the faces of those children,” she added.
The bassmasters raise money year-round to buy at least one gift for each child at Broyhill. Members of the club go on a shopping spree, armed with a wishlist of each kid’s three most desired items — within reason. They ask for dolls or rain boots or toy cars.
“They don’t ask for the moon,” Blanton said.
The annual Christmas party is a big to-do. There is food, Santa and, of course, the presents carefully picked out by the bassmasters.
The celebration was held a couple of weeks before Christmas in Broyhill’s gymnasium. Tall black curtains cordoned off part of the gym; long tables were set up, covered with red cloths and lined with candles and wreath-like centerpieces.
Sitting in front of the hanging curtains were three decorated Christmas trees (one large tree in the center and two smaller ones to the sides), reindeers statues made of wire and white lights and a large pile of presents perfectly positioned around the large tree. The children took turns getting their picture taken with Santa and tearing into their presents as they were passed out.
This year the Blue Rooster restaurant in Clyde catered the event. The eatery cooked honey-butter ham, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, mash potatoes, green beans, candy, fudge, individual coconut pies, cookies and lemon squares, said restaurant owner Mary Earnest, trying to list off the dinner’s menu.
“I can’t even think of everything,” Earnest said. “Just a really family kind of comfort food meal.”
City Bakery in Waynesville also donated cupcakes for the children.
Earnest offered to make food for the Christmas gathering after hearing that the bass club did not have the money to invest in a big meal after buying all the gifts.
After her experience this year, Earnest already has plans in mind for next year’s event, saying she wants to craft a menu the kids can order from and give the kids the full restaurant treatment, with waiters and all. Earnest said she and her staff most enjoyed the experience of watching the children’s excitement when opening their presents. Simply seeing the kids’ faces light up and their expressions of gratitude upon seeing the food, Santa and their gifts brought Earnest to tears.
“It was an amazing thing. It really was,” Earnest said. “There were tears running down my face, and I was serving fried chicken.”
For members of the bass club, the event is about showing the children that they matter. Every time the children look at the dolls or cars or clothes they received, they will know someone cares, Blanton said.
“That is what its all about,” she said. “That is what Christmas is all about.”
Keeping the spirit alive
The Christmas celebration at Broyhill Baptist does not end with the bassmasters’ party.
Come Christmas Eve, Porters’ two biological sons visit Broyhill Baptist with their own children to celebrate the holiday with their parents and the boys in their cottage.
The couple’s sons were only in the second and third grade when they first decided to become a childcare couple about 29 years ago in Sevierville, Tenn., where they lived at the time.
The Porter’s parents had always worked with the youth at their church, and that tradition continued with her and her husband, Will. Then one day, a friend asked them to consider living at a children’s home in Sevierville, which was in need of more childcare couples.
Initially, the Porters were reluctant. They had two young boys of their own to rear. But, Porter said they prayed on the matter and eventually agreed to become a childcare couple, bringing up their own kids at the children’s homes.
“We don’t regret it,” Porter said.
After a few years, the Porters moved to Western North Carolina and became involved at Broyhill Baptist. Each year, the two Porter boys return to Broyhill for Christmas.
Porter cooks a big Christmas Eve meal. Then, everyone gathers in the living room to hear her or her mother read the Christmas story, after which they listen for the distinct clatter of Santa Claus who stops by with a gift for each child.
The visits from her biological children show the boys at the home what a loving family looks like.
“It’s good for the kids to see how family is supposed to work,” Porter said.
The positive impact of being a childcare couple is why the Porters have stayed, she said.
Just a few weeks ago, Porter recalled receiving a phone call from a man in Louisville, Ky. He had lived with the Porters at Broyhill Baptist years before.
The man said he struggled after leaving the home but eventually got a job, met and married a good woman and now has a couple children of his own. He thanked Porter for her caring and guidance during his time at Broyhill Baptist.
“It’s those stories that keep us here,” Porter said.
A children’s home at a glance
The Broyhill Baptist Children’s Home in Clyde serves kids ages 3 to 19 in North Carolina’s 17 westernmost counties and is part of a collection of children’s homes in state. Broyhill Baptist has five cabins, which house about 45 children in all.
Linda Morgan runs Broyhill Baptist under the title of director. But Morgan is a far cry from the angry, child-despising Ms. Hannigan from Annie — the only play about a children’s home that immediately comes to mind. Her coruscating good humor keeps everyone upbeat, said Betty Porter, a caregiver at Broyhill Baptist.
“I think that is one thing that makes this place so sweet and joyful and we are all happy because she just sets that tone. And, it trickles down,” Porter said.
Broyhill Baptist is nothing like the dilapidated orphanage of the play either. The cottages are clean, warm and homey. Each child has a room that they share with one other kid.
Far from an institutionalized or summer-camp-like setting, the cottages each house eight or so children, two to a room. There is a small living room with a fireplace where the kids can hang out, watch movies or play games. Each cottage also features a dining room with a long wood table, a kitchen and laundry room/storage space.
Each cottage has a live-in “childcare couple” to take care of the children, cook meals and offer loving guidance for children at the home. There are a total of ten couples serving the five cottages in Clyde.
Routine is key to making the cottages run smoothly and cooperatively, and giving the children a sense of security. They are roused from slumber at 5:30 a.m. every morning; breakfast is at 6 a.m. Before heading off to school, the children each have a chore, ranging from washing dishes to laundering clothes. The chores not only teach responsibility, but also basic home skills.
“It is also teaching them to take care of themselves later on. Because, chances are, if we don’t teach them, they are not going to know,” Porter said.
Children’s homes like Broyhill are not just for those who have lost their parents. In fact, nowadays, most are children who still have a parent or relative alive but were taken out of their home by the Department of Social Services because of abuse or neglect.
When Morgan first started at Broyhill Baptist almost 40 years ago, children would come to the home and stay for an extended period of time. Now, Morgan said, the focus is on reuniting parents and their child, if possible.
The home also provides temporary quarters for children waiting to be placed with a set of foster parents. On average, kids only remain at Broyhill Baptist for nine months — with only a few staying for two to four-year stints.
“The whole array of childcare’s changed,” Morgan said. “Now, you try to get them back into their parent or guardian’s home as soon as possible — or you get them into a foster home.”
Broyhill Baptist does its best to make the children in their care feel at home, but there is no home like your home, which is why the state tries to reunite the kids with their family.
“There is no place like home. It doesn’t matter if it’s a two room shack,” Morgan said.
But, as her decades of experience has taught her, reunification, more often than not, doesn’t work. Then, the child either stays at Broyhill Baptist or is placed in a foster home where they can receive more individualized attention.
Although rare, some kids choose to remain at the home after they turn 18 while they attend college, which the Baptist Children’s Home system helps pay for with scholarships.