Joseph walks along the roadway that weaves through the Odum Home campus in Pembroke.
The high school senior passes cottages and colorful flower beds as friends catch up with him.
“I applied to three colleges this week,” Samantha, another Odum Home resident, declares from behind.
“Have you applied to any?” she asks.
“No, not yet,” Joseph responds.
“You better come on!” she playfully prods. “If you don’t start soon you’re going to run out of time to apply for financial aid.”
Joseph takes Samantha’s remarks in stride. He and fellow cottage resident Maleki are used to the goading they receive from Samantha, Joann, and Rachel, all seniors living at Odum Home.
Odum Home provides services to children and families in southeastern North Carolina. Located in the “Land of the Lumbee,” the Baptist Children’s Homes facility serves a tri-racial community.
Students Rachel, Joseph, Joann, Maleki, and Samantha never imagined a senior year with COVID-19 restrictions. However, despite the challenges, the teenagers have achieved extraordinary success. The five seniors will not only graduate this spring, but they will all be attending the University of North Carolina at Pembroke together this fall.
“This group is so special,” says Odum Home Campus Manager Kathy Locklear. “They have been there for each other and encouraged one another. I have watched as each one stepped up.”
The teens’ challenges before Odum Home ranged from homelessness to family dysfunction to failed foster care placements. This past year, they faced a different challenge. The pandemic made attending in-person classes impossible and they spent a lot of time at Odum Home to reduce risks of exposure.
“The social aspect of school was completely gone. There’s no Spring formal or prom––we didn’t do any of that,” Rachel explains. “Samantha, Joann, and I did a lot of activities together like baking, watching movies, and having a picnic.”
One thing the seniors have enjoyed is walking Odum Home’s private roadway–– known as “the track.” It has given them an opportunity to talk about school, encourage one another, and laugh together. Throughout time, their bond grew.
“I’m thinking to myself, Samantha’s applied to three colleges this week, and I haven’t applied to one,’” Joseph says.
“The girls gave me a hard time, too,” Maleki says with a smile. “It got me to turn in my application.”
Like the others, Joanne and Rachel were turning in applications and the group has benefitted from the ongoing guidance from Keely Khriho, their college advisor at Purnell Swett High School.
Heavenly Silva, the Odum Home case manager for all five teenagers, conducts transitional living sessions with the group teaching life skills needed to be successful, independent adults. In the past year, much of their time together has focused on the process of pursuing higher education goals as well as exploring financial aid options.
“The children already had the dream of going to college, but what we don’t want is for them to get trapped by debt,” Silva explains. “It’s about helping them make informed choices and understand that their time at college is an investment.”
“Her classes really helped to lay out college options and the steps to get us going,” Joann says of Silva’s training.
Looking back, it would have been difficult for the children to imagine receiving this kind of support by coming to Odum Home. Their concern, based on misinformation, was that Odum Home would be anything but a positive place to live.
“Movies portray group homes badly, and I was worried I wasn’t going to be fed,” Joseph says. “I arrived late at night and everyone was very nice. It’s been really good.”
Rachel agrees. “Hollywood doesn’t really know. I think the media needs to understand how this can really benefit a lot of kids.”
In addition to Silva and Locklear, the teens’ cottage parents, who live with them around the clock, provide daily care and counsel.
“Ms. Hailey has been the greatest influence,” Rachel says about Pam Hailey, the cottage parent at Elmore Cottage. “She takes time to build a relationship with the kids. She’s giving me the emotional support I need.”
“They really help you,” Maleki adds about his and Joseph’s cottage parents, Tim and Karen Worthington and Keith and Harlene Hill at Latta Harnett Cottage. “They have devotions every night to help you get closer to God.”
Whether it has been overcoming challenges resulting from the pandemic or hurts lingering from past circumstances, Odum Home’s Christ-centered environment has been a source of strength.
“There are people that aren’t blood that have been there for me and shared God’s word with me,” Samantha says. “I don’t feel like I would’ve gotten saved if not for Odum.”
“It’s great all five are going to college,” Silva says. “It’s even greater that while they have been at Odum Home they’ve heard the gospel hundreds of times.”
Odum Home is not alone in offering spiritual encouragement. As always, many North Carolina Baptist churches regularly provide assistance, but two in particular have formed a close, personal bond with the group: Clement Missionary Baptist Church in Autryville and Village Baptist Church in Fayetteville.
“These churches have been teaching the children how to have God be in the center of their journey and the difference He can make,” Locklear explains.
Members of Village Baptist’s “Saved to Serve” Sunday School class have formed lasting relationships with the group of seniors. They not only celebrate their birthdays, organize activities, and drop off items they need, but members encourage the teens through phone calls and include them in their virtual Sunday School classes conducted via computer and smartphone devices.
“They have definitely made an effort to connect with us,” Rachel shares. “Sundays and Wednesdays have been great times to work on my relationship with the Lord. It’s very powerful the way they speak about Him.”
“Seeing people like them wanting us to get good grades and go to college has pushed me,” Joann says. “It makes me happy.”
The seniors’ efforts, with the support of friends, educators, and Odum Home caregivers, have brought their college goals within reach. In all, the group received a total of 10 acceptances.
The one college they all had in common was the University of North Carolina at Pembroke (UNCP). All five came to the conclusion that UNCP gives them the best opportunity to succeed.
“UNCP has a good nursing program,” Joann says. “In my high school nursing classes, I’ve learned more about the human body and how nurses help others. I have a good heart and love helping people.”
Between them, studies being considered include nursing, teaching, and cybersecurity.
“I’m focused on becoming a registered nurse, but I wouldn’t mind coming back and working with kids in the foster care system,” Rachel shares. “I think it would help them to work with someone who has already been through it.”
There is another important reason that factored into choosing UNCP––the university is located across the street from Odum Home. With some of the residents having minimal to no family support, the teens know they can always depend on their Odum Home caregivers.
“Our commitment is to be there for them no matter what they need,” Locklear assures.
“It’s a big benefit being close to Odum Home,” Joann says. “They will reserve a room for us during the holidays or be there for us in an emergency. I consider Odum Home family.”
The sense of family forged between caregivers and children, relationships that extend well beyond a child’s time living in care, is vitally important to BCH president/CEO Michael C. Blackwell. With their goals in sight, the accomplishments of the Odum Home seniors have not gone unnoticed.
“This is a monumental and historic occasion to have five Odum Home graduates going quite literally across the street to the University of North Carolina at Pembroke,” Blackwell says. “Each of these students has shown remarkable ability in character and scholarship. I look forward to following their successes in the future.”
Article written by Blake Ragsdale, BCH Director of Communications