Almost 300 staff members and trustees of the Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina (BCH), Cleveland County dignitaries, supporters and friends came together on Sept. 11 for the groundbreaking of three new homes near Shelby, N.C. River Hill Refuge, as it will be known, will allow BCH to provide care to vulnerable children in Cleveland and surrounding counties who need a safe home.
In his remarks to guests at the River Hill Refuge groundbreaking, BCH president and CEO Michael C. Blackwell referenced the hymn, “I’ve Got Peace like a River.”
“This place – this sacred, holy ground – will be a place of peace for children who have felt hurricanes of abuse and tornadoes of neglect flood their lives,” Blackwell said. “This place will offer them, as the old hymn states, peace like a river.”
Realizing Blackwell’s dream of establishing a BCH location in this area of the state began with Shelby natives Jay and Wes Westmoreland. The brothers donated acreage from their family’s River Hill Angus Farm, the inspiration for the project’s name, in honor of their late father, Dr. Ted G. Westmoreland.
During the program, Jay shared the dream for the family farmland where he and his brother spent many years raising award-winning cattle alongside their father.
“A few days after dad’s funeral in 2017, I returned to walk the property,” he remembered. “I called Wes and invited him to join me. I shared the growing vision that had been implanted in my heart, and Wes immediately embraced the concept. We developed ideas together, and we reached out to our friends at Baptist Children’s Homes to invite the organization to minister here in Cleveland County and surrounding areas.”
“We see the needs of so many disadvantaged children – their current circumstances are grim as abuse and abandonment is far too common,” said Wes Westmoreland. “Our efforts come from a desire to see this change.”
In addition to the gift of property, the brothers made a lead financial donation to build the first home in memory of their father, a long-time veterinarian in Shelby and BCH supporter, who passed along his love for BCH and heart for philanthropy to his sons. Their efforts provided the momentum needed to begin raising the $4.3 million that is required to build the homes.
During the groundbreaking ceremony, Blackwell announced another incentive to help make River Hill Refuge a reality – a $100,000 matching challenge issued by an anonymous donor.
“Let that sink in – this anonymous donor will give $100,000 if you and I and others join hands and hearts and also give a hundred thousand dollars,” Blackwell explained. “I know you will want to be part of this challenge.”
With the groundbreaking taking place on the date of Sept. 11, the program began with a time of remembrance. The Cleveland County sheriff’s office honor guard led in a presentation of colors ceremony followed by the singing of the national anthem by BCH trustee and former Miss North Carolina Dana Dixon. Nancy Hall, chair of the BCH board of trustees, led in a moment of silence in remembrance of those who lost their lives and were impacted by the events of 9/11. She also offered a prayer in memory of BCH staff member Micah Lee who died recently. Lee served as BCH Director of Development, Metrolina/West Central Area and was deeply committed to raising the necessary funding and awareness to see River Hill Refuge realized.
Doug Bridges, chair of the Cleveland County Board of Commissioners, brought greetings on behalf of the county. John Butler, director of operations at the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSC), brought greetings from BSC executive director-treasurer Todd Unzicker and his staff.
“This is a very special day in a lot of ways. Obviously, 20 years ago our country went through a time where people wondered, ‘is there hope anymore?’” Butler said. “But I’m reminded that God said three things remain: faith, hope and love. Hope remains, and we have the opportunity to invest, by faith, in the hope that so many children need to experience.”
River Hill Refuge’s three homes are a part of BCH’s growing foster care program. Each home will have a set of BCH-recruited and licensed foster parents who care for as many as six children at one time. The foster parents will care for the children the same way as other foster parents, except they will live in these BCH-owned homes. The foster parents will also have the ongoing support from BCH’s foster care staff.
The establishment of River Hill Refuge, and an additional foster care office in Shelby, gives BCH a presence in 32 communities throughout North Carolina, South Carolina and Guatemala. The nonprofit serves boys and girls who come from traumatic circumstances where often North Carolina Departments of Social Services have taken custody of the children for their well-being.
“It has been a long-held dream to establish a location in this area of the state for children,” Blackwell said “With the gracious support of the Westmoreland family and our many donors and friends, this dream is coming to fruition, and children’s lives will be forever changed because of it.”
Anyone interested in helping with River Hill Refuge may contact Brenda Gray, BCH executive vice president of development and communications, at 336-689-4442 or [email protected].
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Blake Ragsdale is the director of communications for the Baptist Childrens’ Homes.)