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Christmas in the cottage

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 260,000 children needed temporary or permanent home placements last year. Some go to individual homes, but others go to group homes. So what’s Christmas like for kids in group homes? I visited the Baptist Children Village’s Brookhaven campus, Dickerson Place, to find out. 

When I drove up on that chilly Friday afternoon, the last rays of sunlight were peeking through the pines outside the brick two-story house known as the boys’ cottage. Inside, the halls echoed with after-school arrivals — kids hauling backpacks and wanting a snack. I was met by houseparents Garry and Sherry McDugle, who have the afternoon routine down pat. They were ready and waiting with hugs and homework help for the boys. There was also a round of high fives—well, attempted high fives — for the resident overachiever, fourth-grader named Student of the Month at his school.

And, of course, there were snacks. Sherry served a spread of them on the dining room table, just like she does every day about that time. A trio of brothers — ages 8, 11 and 14 — crowded around to see what was on the day’s menu. I noticed right away that her fruit dip was a hot commodity. It’s a favorite — something Sherry makes with honey, peanut butter and a little lemon-lime. Right now, the three brothers are the only residents at the boys’ cottage. That means she can focus on learning their other favorites, too, especially this time of year.

Just off the dining room there’s a sunken den with a rustic vibe. It fits boys well —cypress walls, a pair of brown leather couches, a calf-skin rug. It’s where Garry pulled out a large box of Christmas decorations and involved the boys in decorating the tree. The brothers are spending their second Christmas at the cottage.

During the holidays, houseparents like Garry and Sherry work hard to make special memories with the children in their care. At the same time, case managers’ efforts are focused on biological family reunification. That means the kids could be in the cottage for Christmas, or they may go home at the last minute. There’s a third possibility, too. Qualified volunteer families sometimes take the children in.

But at the boys’ cottage, plans are set. The three brothers are staying put.

Across the campus at the girls’ cottage, the tree was already decorated. I was met by six girls playing outside and singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” They also stopped long enough to list their favorite Christmas foods — cookies, hot cocoa and gingerbread men.

Two sisters stood off to the side. The 13-year-old recalled past Christmases and described what an ideal one would look like: “A great Christmas for me would be having my whole family there with me. Like, I don’t really care for presents that much and a tree. I just want my family to be there.”

Not all children share that wish, though. Sean Milner understands that. He’s now the executive director of the Mississippi Baptist Children’s Village, but he was once a resident. Milner and his four siblings came to live at the Village when he was just 5 years old. Their mother was an alcoholic, and he had no notion of what Christmas should be like until he spent one with a volunteer family, the Carraways.

Sitting in the Dickerson Place offices, he told me about his first Christmas with them: “On Christmas Eve, all of their extended family came to their house. Everybody brought food. Everybody hugged. Everybody Merry Christmased. There was hot cocoa, hot cider and Christmas carols. Even the extended family had bought me presents.”

When the Carraway children woke him up at 5 the next morning, little Sean didn’t understand what was going on. More presents?

“They rolled in this bicycle,” Sean remembered, “and I’d never owned my own bike before.”

But the Carraways’ investment in Milner went deeper than a holiday. They included him in family activities like camping and snow skiing. He explained, “When I was married, they were stand-in parents for me at my wedding. They were Mimi and Pawpaw to my children. I spoke at both of their funerals and buried them when they passed on from this life.”

Today Milner’s own family celebrates much like he learned from the Carraways. And that’s his goal for children in the residential homes, too. “We’re looking to teach them about Christmas so when they get married and they have family, they understand that it’s valuable to bring that family together. To hold that family together. To create their own memories for the family and to create their own traditions and their own gatherings.”

Back at the cottages, houseparents and kids alike are enjoying the season. For Sherry, it’s part of her around-the-year effort to care for the fatherless. It just looks a little different at Christmas. “It’s their introduction to Christ. This is their introduction to the Christmas joy we all get to celebrate. It’s a start for them and their future.”

Wesson resident Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com.