Ciara sifts through a variety of toys and necessities delivered by motorcyclists for the children living at Mills Home. The container of gifts is so large that the arms of the 23 year old can barely reach the bottom. Item by item, Ciara helps the case workers, cottage parents, and staff find and sort the gifts purchased by the bikers for every boy and girl. Standing a few yards away, Mills Home children watch with wide eyes as the presents are organized by each of their names.
Almost exactly ten years ago, Ciara and her younger sister Erica would’ve been among the children anxiously waiting to receive their gifts. They were 13 and 12 at the time and had only moved to Baptist Children’s Homes’ (BCH) Thomasville location not even two weeks earlier.
So much has taken place in Ciara’s life during the past decade. She became a believer on her 16th birthday. As a high school junior, she
received a $1,000 scholarship for her speech as a part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Oratorical Contest. She has shared her testimony twice at the Annual Meeting of the Baptist State Convention of NC. And she just graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
It is obvious to those who know Ciara that her past, that is entrenched in tremendous loss and hurt, has not held her back.
“My sister and I are from a small town in Tennessee. You wouldn’t even know it existed because it’s off of an exit that’s basically a big U-turn and with a lot of trees,” Ciara describes. “Our mom was a single parent who had a drug problem. It was her way of coping with a lot of trauma.”
Their mother’s battle with addiction culminated with tragic results. In July 2013, an overdose would take the single parent’s life and mark the beginning of an entirely different life for her two daughters. Ciara and Erica went to live with an aunt in North Carolina, but after only four months, she made arrangements for the siblings to live at BCH’s Mills Home in Thomasville.
“In the end, it was a better decision for every- one because BCH offered a lot more resources than my aunt could access—like grief counseling and just counseling in general,” Ciara explains. “I’m glad she made the decision to get us (in BCH) because I have met some awesome people.”
The two she met first were Dan and Alice Arrington, the cottage parents that were there the day they moved to BCH. Gene and Dayna Bird were the other half of the cottage parent team at Johnson Cottage, the sisters’ new home along with the other girls living there.
“I love them. They’re so fantastic,” Ciara says of her cottage parents. “They’ve all taught me so many different things. Collectively, I have a lot of ‘tools’ in my back pocket.”
Through the modeling of Ciara’s cottage parents and her church involvement, the girl who never knew her biological dad learned about the unconditional love of a Heavenly Father. On her 16th birthday, Ciara made the decision to follow Christ.
“My faith upholds me,” Ciara shares. “It was very personal because I (made the decision) by myself after years of going to church, being
around church groups, and doing devotions with my cottage parents.”
Academics were also a personal priority for Ciara. That focus translated into success as Ciara graduated as Valedictorian from her 2019 high school class and was accepted into UNC Chapel Hill. Scholarship opportunities, including funding available through BCH’s advanced education program, made it possible for Ciara to realize her college dreams and live in an on-campus dorm.
What could not be foreseen was how COVID-19 would turn the beginning of her college journey upside down. The University shut down the entire campus in Fall 2019 requiring Ciara to leave the dorm. Being 18 years old and a legal adult, returning to live at her former Mills Home cottage was not possible. However, leadership
at BCH’s Thomasville location quickly came up with the support Ciara and other higher-education students needed. Their solution was to repurpose Huffman Cottage, a Mills Home cottage that was empty because of recently-completed repair work, into a place for Ciara and other displaced former residents.
As pandemic restrictions subsided, Huffman continued to be home for Ciara whenever she was on college break. It now also serves as a transitional living cottage for other former Mills Home residents who are making preparations to become independent adults.
“I definitely believe we’re very fortunate,” Ciara explains. “It gives you adulting experience without having to go full throttle into it. We still have some guidance from our case managers and relationships that we’ve built with the cottage parents and other adults here at Mills Home.”
One of the other Huffman residents is Erica, who is not far behind her sister in completing her college education. Once Erica graduates in Spring 2024, she and Ciara will be the first two college graduates in their family.
“I’m just very proud of her,” Ciara says of her sister. “She’s so smart. Her GPA in school is higher than mine. She has an internship and she’s applying for jobs.” “She’s just great – I love her to death.”
Ciara graduated on December 17, 2023 with a B.A. in Management and Society and a minor in Education. Her degree opens up a variety of opportunities for Ciara including an employment option she plans to pursue at the Carolina College Advising Corps (CCAC) with UNC Chapel Hill. Through the program, recent graduates serve as college advisors and are placed in underprivileged or underrepresented high schools in the area.
“I’ve always enjoyed helping others and helping them figure out things,” Ciara explains. “It’s why I’ve done things like tutor the kids (at Mills Home) when I’m back or serve as a tour guide at college telling others about the school based on my personal experiences.”
Ciara is excited and poised for a future she originally could not foresee. She divulges that the Ciara who grew up in the small Tennessee community a decade ago did not expect to flourish as she has today.
“I grew up in an area where no one had any hope of getting out of,” she reflects. “When I look at my mother’s friends there, because I am still in contact with some of them, our lives are so different.”
What could have been a deadend road if she had remained
in the rural town off that highway exit has turned into a life
driven by hope.
“I don’t want to say I’m glad for the events that happened that caused me to move to North Carolina and come to Baptist Children’s Homes, but I’m so appreciative of all the opportunities I’ve been given,” Ciara shares. “It’s ironic because so many people think, ‘oh, a group home is the lowest of the low – there’s not much you can get from there.’” That’s where they’re wrong.”
NOTE: Ciara's success is an incredible example of how hope is shared and lives are impacted when you give to Baptist Children's Homes. Please be a part of changing a child's life -- make a gift today. Thank you.
Written by Blake Ragsdale, BCH Director of Communications