Their beds looked the same. The state of North Carolina provided the sheets and the pillows. There was nothing personal that gave these resting places a hint of the different paths that had brought these boys to the Juvenile Evaluation Center in Swannanoa. Only a nightstand separated the twin beds. But although Eddie was eleven and Steve was thirteen there was much more than two years between them.
Eddie had recently been orphaned, not by the death of his parents but by the death of their marriage. Neither his Mom nor his Dad was willing to be encumbered by a child as they attempted to start life over. So, Eddie was deposited in a new town with a grandmother who made no secret of the fact that “he’s not mine and I don’t really want him.”
It’s always difficult to start school in a new place. And making friends is even harder after the school year has started. But Eddie’s grandmother took him into town and registered him as a new student. The first day at his new school, several bigger boys beat him up and threatened him. The physical hurts couldn’t compare with the pain he felt inside. Rejection, fear, anger and confusion ruled his thoughts. Eddie made a simple decision: no matter what, he would not return to school. Rather than tell his grandmother he simply took his books the next morning and headed out the door. But instead of going to school, Eddie spent the day sitting in a field. At the end of the day, he returned to his grandmother’s home and she was unaware that he had failed to go into town.
After several days, the truant officer came to the farm and spoke with Eddie’s grandmother. She was angry to learn that he had not been going to school and complained, “He’s not my kid. I don’t want him. Why don’t you take him?”
The truant officer reported the case and within weeks, Eddie was incarcerated at the Juvenile Evaluation Center. For failing to go to school, he was kept inside a fence under tragic and degrading conditions.
In the bed next to Eddie’s was thirteen-year-old Steve. Red hair and freckles called attention to this sad-faced, quiet child. Steve had been separated from his parents shortly after birth and had no conscious memory of them. Growing up in a series of about twenty foster homes, he had bonded with only one person – an illiterate woman in the eastern part of the state who had no husband but kept children in her home. Whenever he was assigned to a new foster family, Steve would run away and return to the only person he had dared to love.
Because she could not read Steve read her mail to her, including the letters from the traveling salesman she had started dating when he passed through town. One day the letter contained a proposal of marriage with the condition, “You’ll have to get rid of the kids and we’ll live in Florida.” “She’ll do it,” Steve thought. So, he took a .22 caliber rifle and shot her to death, put her body in the garbage can and then called the police. “I’ve just killed my mother!” he said. “Please come!” The police came to the house. Steve showed them the body, the weapon and the letter. They sent him to the Juvenile Evaluation Center in Swannanoa.
I was only fifteen, but I knew something was very wrong with this situation where truancy and killing had resulted in the same response from the state. Indignantly I went to the director of the center, Mr. Ed West. “Mr. West, I understand why Steve needs to be here. But why does Eddie have to be locked up? Why isn’t he at the Presbyterian Children’s Home across the street?”
“That’s a good question,” Mr. West began. “But it would be better for you to hear the answer from Don McKenzie.” So, I made an appointment with Mr. McKenzie, the director of the Presbyterian Home. My father drove me to the appointment and waited while I talked with this dear Christian man. I told him the story of these two boys and asked again, “Why is Eddie at J.E.C.? Why can’t he be here with you?”
Mr. McKenzie’s eyes grew moist as he opened the drawer on the left side of his desk. With understated drama he set a stack of manila folders between us and said, “I have fifty beds. They’re all full. Here are fifty more children who have applied and been approved for admission. Every time there’s a vacancy, I go through these files and find the child who would best fill that spot. If I had twice as much space tomorrow, I’d have it filled. I always keep a waiting list and unfortunately your friend Eddie is not on that list.”
It was my first glimpse of the mountain of casualties that America’s epidemic of divorce and drugs is producing. In the years that followed, I discovered the tragic, multiplying problem of children who never received parenting producing children who don’t know how to be parents.
As Don McKenzie and I prayed together both of us shed plenty of tears. But they watered a seed that God planted in my heart that day. “Someday, I believe God wants me to have a home for children like Eddie,” I told Don McKenzie. Then in the car, I told my father. Through the years, I would tell many people about my dream before it became a reality. Research and experience have both broadened and sharpened the vision of what these children need. But the need for places where children are loved and taught the skills they need for life has only increased with the passage of time.
Today more and more children are growing up without adequate parental supervision and support. It may be that a parent’s health problem or continued substance abuse has made it difficult for a child to remain at home. Sometimes the job responsibilities of a single parent prevent them from providing the time and loving discipline which the child needs.
When a child is enrolled at Wears Valley Ranch, he is offered more than the academic preparation for college or for a job. He is given the opportunity to live in a home with a dedicated Christian couple who provide a loving atmosphere for learning the foundation of success in all of life.
Proper self-esteem and interpersonal skills are cultivated in the context of understanding God’s love and grace toward all people. The academic program is individually tailored for each boy or girl. Chores and recreation are planned to foster responsibility and healthy growth. These ingredients are important in order for children to reach their God given potential.
The confidential nature of a juvenile’s records prevents me from finding out what happened to Eddie and Steve. But in their own way, they played a pivotal role in the establishment of Wears Valley Ranch. I wish someday I could meet Eddie again and tell him that his pain was not wasted. His story has provided the impulse for others to give children a home.