‘People don’t know us:’ Blount County Children’s Home working through hard times
By Joel Davis | (email@example.com)
Ten years later, the Blount County Children’s Home is still looking for a new path.
Back in 2003, in the aftermath of the Brian A. vs. Sundquist lawsuit settlement, the Children’s Home stopped hosting children long-term as the state moved away from the use of group homes in favor of foster care.
The history of the Children’s Home, located at 901 McCammon Ave. in Maryville, dates back to 1885 when a group of women involved in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union movement began discussing the need for a home for children and destitute mothers. The women went door to door across the county, asking each family to donate 10 cents to establish the home. It opened Feb. 15, 1894.
Originally called the Blount County Industrial Home, it became the Blount County Children’s Home in 1955. It recently applied to change its name to the Historic Blount County Children’s Home to reflect its legacy, but the state has not approved the change yet.
What happens when a children’s home is no longer home to any children? That’s the question that the agency has been trying to answer for a decade.
David Kozacek, the newest executive director of the Children’s Home, talked frankly to The Daily Times about the challenges faced by the Children’s Home, which is still hurting from having to pay off $10,697 in property taxes it owed to the county and city of Maryville due to administrative errors.
“That put us on our knees,” Kozacek said. “We have a minimum amount in our account at the moment. We have limited funds. We finally had one month of showing that we actually made money since I’ve been here, which is the first time in a long time that happened.”
The Children’s Home spends roughly $5,000 per month in operational costs: utilities, salaries and phone service. The agency, however, has to raise between $2,000 to $3,000 per month in donations to meet that budget.
“We’re just trying to hang in there and stay operational,” Kozacek said. “A lot of times we’re in the red.”
Operating expenses were $156,590 in fiscal year 2012, pushed up by an unexpected property tax bill and overall expense increased, breaking down to more than $13,000 per month, according to an independent audit. Since then, the Children’s Home has cut expenditures by more than half.
“We don’t really have much of a budget,” Kozacek said. “We’ve done so many cutbacks. We’re running lightly. We’re able to pay our electric bill and keep our phones active. It gets tighter and tighter.”
Kozacek is the only full-time employee at the Children’s Home. He oversees three contract workers and relies on volunteers to keep everything running. Back in 2002, during its last year providing residential services, the home employed 24 people.
Children’s Home board member Lynn Waters acknowledges that the agency has seen rocky times during the past few years. “It’s looking positive, but it’s hard,” she said. “It’s very hard. Right now we have to have fundraisers just so we can pay our counselors.”
“We’re a true nonprofit,” Kozacek said. “We spend out everything that comes in. It goes back into the community. We are an agency that seems to be the poor helping the poor, but that’s what makes us stronger.”
An independent audit of the Children’s Home finances for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2012, offered a bleak assessment of its chances: “There is a substantial doubt about the entity’s ability to continue as a going concern for a reasonable period of time. ... If the trend of the last three years continues, working capital will be depleted.”
From July 1, 2009, through June 30, 2012, the Children’s Home lost $164,526, according to the audit.
Seeking a niche
Since residential services ended at the Children’s Home, the agency has operated several different programs as it tried to find a new niche in the community.
“We are off-kilter and trying to find our way by filling service gaps in the community,” Kozacek said. “It seems like the Children’s Home has been a duck out of water for many years now. It is very much needed in the community, but a lot of times we don’t know what the community needs from us.”
Currently, its largest program is Gardner Place, which is a supervised visitation program. Around 70 percent of the clients are Blount County residents who come from the courts. Noncustodial parents are ordered by Blount County courts to have supervised visitation.
The Children’s Home the only agency that provides this service in Blount County. The next closest supervised visitation program is Parent Place in Knoxville. What the program doesn’t provide, however, is enough income to sustain operations at the home. “It’s not lucrative enough to bring in money to sustain salaries,” Kozacek said.
Other programs currently offered are Kick Nic, which provides smoking cessation classes for minors, the Healers of Conflict mediation program, and parenting classes.
The newest program is called Foster Family Association Support Network-United Parents (FFASN-UP). “We are wanting to help kinship adoptions because they don’t receive the funding from the state as often as people who are in the foster family system,” Kozacek said.
The way forward to putting the Children’s Home may be found by looking backward. Kozacek wants to return the Children’s Home to its original function in some form.
“My first project is to turn this back into a residential place to hopefully get more community support,” Kozacek said. “I’m working on bringing back what we used to call the Crossroads Transitional Living Program.”
As Kozacek envisions, the program, renamed True North, would serve homeless young men 18-to-21 years old who have aged out of the state foster care program. It would offer a structured program to assist them with their educational and vocational needs for up to six months.
This demographic is at high risk, Kozacek said. “When they come out of the foster care system, they come back to the area where they are from. They have a very high risk of winding up in jail ... or (for girls) a high risk of pregnancy. We want to help them find some type of direction and provide them with a foundation.”
True North could bring in state funding and, perhaps, allow the Children’s Home to receive United Way funding again, Kozacek said.
The 120 campaign
The Children’s Home is also launching a new fundraising effort called the 120 campaign. Volunteers will set up outside of local businesses and solicit a donation of $1.20 from individuals in honor of the home’s 120th anniversary in February.
According to the terms of its warranty deed, if the Children’s Home property ever ceases to be used for a children’s welfare agency, it will revert to county ownership.
The Children’s Home is currently receiving about $3,600 in interest income per year from the Ellis Trust, which is administered by the Blount County Trustee’s Office. The $485,403 endowment is invested in certificates of deposit and is currently drawing about 1 percent interest per year.
The county, according to the terms of an order filed in probate, will allow the Children’s Home to continue receiving the income as long as it provides services to the youth of Blount County. It does not have access to the principal.
If the Children’s Home stopped providing the services, the county would continue to administer the trust. In general, if the purpose of a trust fails, the remaining money can be distributed to any living heirs of the estate.
‘People don’t know us’
Kozacek said the Children’s Home needs to change the community narrative about it. “I’ve heard a lot of negative,” he said. “People don’t know us. People don’t know what is up here. People don’t know what is offered. A lot of times unless you have been in court, you don’t have a reason to be up here. I don’t think a lot of people realize what the community could be like without these programs that we provide.
“We are trying to get some programs that aren’t necessarily going to have the court ordered aspect. We want the community to see what we’re doing.”
As part of its effort to broaden its community appeal, the Children’s Home facility now houses a youth art annex and the Maryville Youth Theater, Kozacek said. “It provides a low budget rental space for people who are teaching the arts. We’re letting them rent it so they don’t have to teach it out of their house.”
The rich history of the Children’s Home provides an incentive to ensure its future, Kozacek said. “When we have a fundraiser or Gardner Place is in full swing and the place is buzzing with kids, you can feel what it must have been like in the day when this thing was crammed full of children — the harmony behind it. We’ve got a legacy .”