By Brett Hetherington*
“And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh.” – Ezekiel 11.19 (ESV)
These words are a promise of God to the prophet Ezekiel of what He will do for the people of Israel. They have also become the mission statement of the Christian Children’s Home of Ohio (CCHO) in Wooster, an Advanced Special of the East Ohio Conference, that has been changing lives for more than 50 years. CCHO is a faith-based children’s residential center that provides a safe structured environment to meet the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs of children from across Ohio who have been abused, neglected, and traumatized by the people they should be able to trust most.
Pastor David Walker of Belden United Methodist Church (Firelands District) found his way to CCHO a few years back and has become an integral part of the organization. “It truly is like one big summer mission trip, but it keeps going on every day,” he shared. “The spirit here is something special. You see the kids riding horses and playing baseball, and the therapists working with them. We are faith-based so you see the kids going to church if they want to. We even sometimes will baptize kids here. To watch these kids respond is amazing.”
The response that Walker speaks of is a painful one to write about. CCHO provides specialized counseling, therapy, and support to children from ages six through 18 who have been the victim of abuse, neglect, or some other form of trauma, most often at the hands of family that are supposed to be caring for them.
“Abused kids come from abused adults,” shared CEO Kevin Hewitt. “It is generational cycles of abuse. If we can help break that cycle of abuse, we are not just helping that child, we are helping that child’s spouse, their child, and even their community.”
CCHO offers many levels of support and services to children. Some of the issues that children are dealing with are not dangerous or traumatic enough to necessitate their removal from their home. While continuing to live at home, those children visit the CCHO site to meet with counselors and take part in different forms of therapies and other activities that will help them heal and cope in the ways that they need.
For those who need to live on-site there are nine cottages arranged in a small neighborhood of sorts. Just like children who live off-site, these children are provided with therapeutic, social, spiritual, and educational opportunities designed to aid them through their healing process, model for them how a healthy family functions, develop coping and life skills, and introduce them to Jesus Christ.
The support for kids who live in these cottages is great, and often runs deeper than one might expect. “Sadly, many of the girls we see have been impacted by human trafficking and we opened a fifth cottage specifically for girls last fall,” shared Dan Franks, Christian Children’s Home of Ohio director of Development.
“We work hard here so our kids can just be kids,” said Hewitt. “They have had to grow up too fast. Some of these kids have seen more at six- or seven-years-old than I will ever see in my lifetime. We are here to give them their childhood back.”
He further shared that the mission of restoring childhood works hand in hand with teaching young people how to process their trauma so that they can enjoy that childhood. “One of the things we know is until we actually deal with what occurred to us everything that happens to us in life is filtered through that trauma. We work real hard to get down and understand that trauma, and move past that, and understand who they are and that they are made in God’s image and help them see they have the opportunity to do huge things in the future.”
Walker shared that his own personal call as a UMC pastor is to make disciples, and that is an active call, not a passive one. “We can’t force church on the kids. We ask the kid, the guardian, a relative, ‘Can I introduce your child to Jesus Christ? Can they come to Bible study, can they come to chapel?’”
The mission of introducing children to Jesus is not just one-sided, however. CCHO partners with many churches across northeast Ohio including, according to Walker, about 10 United Methodist churches. Each Christmas his congregation at Belden UMC purchases gifts that children who are living on-site have requested.
“A lot of these kids have such low morale. One year at Christmas one of the boys ran back up to his room after opening his presents, crying. One of the volunteers followed him up and asked him why he was crying. He said, ‘I don’t understand why someone would want to buy me presents.’ All of a sudden these kids find out someone cares about them and loves them, and it melts their hardened heart and lets them come to Christ.”
Franks shared that the CCHO program is not intended for extended stay. He said the average experience for a child who stays on-site is around nine months. “A lot of these kids are getting special attention, good food, lowering their trauma for the first time in their lives. Our goal is to return them to a foster parent, a grandparent, a kinship of some sort. Every house has a treatment specialist, group therapy every day, and every other day individual therapy based on special needs they might have. We have an 80-85% success rate where kids who come here do not need to return,” he said.
Those looking to support the Christian Children’s Home of Ohio may do so by making a donation to EOC Fund 9977 and/or by volunteering their time and energy to support the efforts of the ministry.
“We are always looking for people to mentor kids one-on-one (background checks and training required), there are different events to participate in, you could volunteer in one heart stables (horses and other animals). Really, we want you to tell us what you are passionate about and let us help you put your passions to work. Come take a tour of the grounds. We want to identify our kids sparks, and capture that – whatever it might be. One kid here was having trouble sleeping. The overnight staff realized this kid liked to cook. The overnight staff then worked with this kid to help cook and it became a form of therapy for them. And of course, we are tremendously grateful for the numerous people who pray for us and advocate for us.”
In addition to the site in Wooster, CCHO operates Compass Christian Counseling offices in 14 locations throughout Northeast Ohio, partnering with local pastors to provide a resource they can refer to confidentially to help their congregation with Christian counseling. CCHO also has locations of Encourage Foster Care throughout Northeast Ohio to provide children who live off-site with a home as they work through their trauma. “A lot of our foster parents become adoptive parents,” said Hewitt.
Ultimately, the work of CCHO comes back to the mission. “Our purpose is to help more people experience their worth in Christ,” shared Hewitt. “So many of our kids have not understood who they are because so much of their worth is based on what has happened to them. Abuse, neglect, no hope. They have been told ‘you are going to be just like your ___’ fill in the blank. Here they get the opportunity to hear that Jesus died for them and that brings them inherent worth that is more than just what happened to them.”
Christian Children’s Home of Ohio is taking the heart of stone that has developed in many of the children because of their world experiences and replacing it with a heart of love provided by God.
The Conference Communications team would like to share other stories that highlight ways that each of us is answering the call of Bishop Tracy S. Malone to reach out to our communities in creative ways. Please e-mail your ministry story to EOC Director of Communications Rick Wolcott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.