Samantha is beaming as she walks onto the stage. The bright blue and gold colors of her graduation robes are almost as vibrant as the 18-year-old’s smile. Like the passing of a baton, Samantha’s high school principal places the neatly rolled-up diploma into her outstretched hand.
Samantha soaks in every second of her graduation day; it is an accomplishment that was not always within her grasp.
Samantha has been in the custody of North Carolina’s foster care system since she was five years old. She lived in multiple placements, some which were so difficult that it put her future success in doubt. Her hope grew dim until almost five years ago when she came to live at Odum Home, Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina’s (BCH) cottage homes for vulnerable children located in the college town of Pembroke.
Once she began living with BCH’s caring cottage parents and the other girls, Samantha’s hope started becoming brighter.
“I saw Odum Home as a beautiful place,” Samantha said. “When I came here, I felt at home. I felt like I was safe.”
The night she arrived, her cottage parents had a bedroom ready and all the necessities awaiting her. Samantha quickly felt at ease.
“Sometimes children may come in with nothing, and we want to make sure they have what they need,” said Kathy Locklear, Campus Manager at Odum Home. “We want to always make sure they have something new and nice to sleep on so that they feel comfortable.”
“My first night I talked to my (cottage) parent, and I told her everything I had been through,” Samantha said. “She prayed with me, hugged me and told me everything was going to be okay.”
Modeling the love of Christ is the anchor of BCH’s mission of “sharing hope … changing lives.” Cottage parents lead daily devotions, take the boys and girls to church and ensure they know that God loves them unconditionally.
Odum Home has strong relationships with a number of North Carolina Baptist Churches including two of the first churches Samantha attended with her cottage – Bear Swamp Baptist Church and Berea Baptist Church, both located in Pembroke. It was in their services she heard the gospel message.
“You know when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, your heart starts beating fast,” Samantha said. “So I came to the altar, sat on the bench and I said ‘I need to be saved.’ That’s when I decided to start living for God.”
“Samantha is one of those young ladies that church and Christ mean a lot to her, and she has accepted Christ in her life,” said Locklear. “Christ being a part of the children’s lives and helping to give them hope for the future is phenomenal for them.”
In order to help Samantha and the four other Odum Home seniors be ready for the future, Odum Home case manager Heavenly Silva held transitional living sessions teaching them life skills needed to be successful, independent adults. In the past year, much of their time 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 said. “It’s about helping them make informed choices and understand that their time at college is an investment.”
With Silva’s help and the encouragement of each other, the five seniors were accepted to the University of North Carolina at Pembroke (UNCP). Samantha, who was involved in ROTC all four years of high school, received a $10,000 ROTC scholarship. Not only did she feel that UNCP gave her the best opportunity to succeed, the university is only a block away from Odum Home.
“It fit our budget and it was right here in front of Odum Home,” Samantha said. “If we need help, we can go across the street.”
“Our commitment is to be there for them no matter what they need,” Locklear said.
No matter their ages or circumstances, the support of North Carolina Baptists is integral to BCH’s ability to serve boys and girls at Odum Home as well as BCH’s cottage homes that stretch from the east coast to the mountains of western North Carolina.
Members of Clement Missionary Baptist Church in Autryville and Village Baptist Church in Fayetteville formed lasting, personal relationships with Samantha and Odum Home’s seniors that have grown stronger throughout the months and years.
“It’s so exciting! We’ve watched them grow. We’ve watched them mature. We are so proud of them,” said Vicki Burge from Village Baptist’s “Saved to Serve” class.
Members of Village Baptist’s “Saved to Serve” class not only celebrate the children’s 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.
“Ms. Vicki has really impacted my life,” Samantha said. “She has been there whenever I needed her.”
Leading up to graduation, Burge and her fellow class members worked carefully to keep a tremendous secret from the seniors – they were organizing a surprise graduation party. The group worked with Locklear to ensure it was a special day for all the Odum Home children but prepared several plans just for the seniors. One of those special treats included cooking each senior’s favorite meal which ranged from steak to seafood.
The day of the party, Samantha and the seniors entered the Odum Home gym which was adorned in ribbons, balloons and a back wall filled with gifts. Samantha covered her mouth in shock as the sound of cheers filled the building.
“We wanted to bless them with those things college freshmen need and also perhaps some things they might want,” Burge said. “It was overwhelming to see them so excited, pleased and proud of themselves. I think they truly felt special and that was really our goal.”
Equipped with the necessities and support she needs, Samantha moved into the dorm at UNCP and is now several weeks into her first year of classes. She is quick to credit Odum Home and North Carolina Baptists for helping her realize what, at one time, would have been an unreachable goal.
“My dream at UNCP wouldn’t have been possible because I didn’t have the financial support,” she said. “And actually, with me being abused I would’ve been traumatized where I couldn’t even think to go to college”
For her graduation day, Samantha could only invite a small number of people to watch her dream of walking across the stage come true. They included her mother and grandmother, with whom she stays in touch, Odum Home’s Kathy Locklear and Pamela Hailey, and Village Baptists’ Nancy Paul and Vicki Burge.
“There are people that aren’t blood that have been there for me and shared God’s Word with me,” Samantha said. “I don’t feel like I would’ve gotten saved if not for Odum.”
Burge sees North Carolina Baptists’ involvement with Baptist Children’s Homes as an opportunity to “make an eternal difference.”
“I’m just so thankful for Kathy and her staff,” Burge said. “I’m thankful that God provides the opportunity through the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina for our young people to have a place that’s safe, that provides, and above all, shares the Word of God.”
For resources and videos, including “Samantha’s Story,” to help your church collect an Annual Offering for Baptist Children’s Homes, visit bchoffering.org.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Blake Ragsdale is the director of communications for the Baptist Childrens’ Homes.)