In the Mountains: Grandfather Home for Children’s long legacy of service to the community

For more than 100 years Grandfather Home for Children has addressed the needs of children in the High Country

When Edgar Tufts founded the Elizabeth McRae Institute in 1900, he was addressing a need for books and learning opportunities for young people in the High Country. Over time, his contributions to the community grew. The institute expanded and eventually developed into what we know today as Lees-McRae College. He opened a hospital on the institute’s campus that was famous for never turning away a patient, and in 1914 he began the journey to develop the third pillar of his service to the children of the High Country: The Grandfather Home for Children.

In “And Set Aglow a Sacred Flame,” Margaret Tufts Neal, Tufts’ daughter, tells the story of her father’s acquisition of the land that would later become Grandfather Home. “On the Lees-McRae property was a farm known as Maple Meadows, which the school had earlier purchased from Mr. William Lybrook of Winston-Salem,” she wrote. “This he chose as the location of a children’s home, which was to be a department of Lees-McRae Institute.”

Inspired by the memories of the loss of his own mother early in life, and in recognition of the needs of the children in the region, Tufts turned his attention to providing a home for children who needed shelter.

“The Child Now Before Us” by Mary Dudley Gilmer talks of the conditions that led to the founding of Grandfather Home. She said, “the children who came to Grandfather Home were often malnourished, infested with lice, or ‘the itch.’ Some had never had a bath in their lives except for in the creek.”

The Home would be an extension of Tufts’ ministry that already included Lees-McRae Institute and the “small, busy” hospital. These three institutions were governed by the same Board of Trustees for the first 50 years of Grandfather Home’s existence and were unified under Tufts’ overarching desire to serve those in need. Residents of the Home were to be educated at the Institute, together creating a system that provided children in need with an opportunity to succeed as they had never had before.

Drawn to Lybrook farm on horseback from Yancey County by Edgar Tufts’ ad, John and Mettie Holcomb responded to Tufts’ search for a Christian couple to help run the orphanage. Tufts’ personal call to serve was shared by the Holcombs, making them the perfect pair to run the much-needed orphanage. Not only did they have a passion for helping others, but they also held useful skills and helpful knowledge that made them excellent caretakers for preparing children in need to become successful adults.

John and Mettie Holcomb

In May of 1914, when the farmhouse that later became the Home was barely furnished, and the newly moved couple who would become its superintendents were barely settled into their home on the estate, Mary Scott and Lucille Painter became the first two little girls to become part of the Grandfather Home “family.” Unbeknownst to them, this family would continue to grow over the next more than 100 years.

In the early days of the home, it functioned primarily as an orphanage. Children whose parents had died spent most of their childhoods growing up within the “family” at Grandfather Home. They were taught and cared for by the Holcombs, who became parental figures for them and were even referred to as "Mama" and "Daddy” Holcomb.

Grandfather Home in 1915

One of the Home’s early residents, Hattie Bond, lived there from 1915 to 1925. Gilmer’s book shares Bond’s account of her time at the home where she “learned to sew, patch, crochet, and tat—things that have given me pleasure all my life.”

From its roots with those first two little girls in 1914, Grandfather Home for Children has gone on to have a monumental impact on the region. The Home’s reach grew quickly, and for most of the first 50 years there were nearly 100 children living on the Grandfather Home campus.

As the Home continued to grow and develop, however, it moved away from the traditional orphanage structure and began to shift toward a model that sought to serve the emotional needs of children who were not necessarily orphaned, but still needed help and support in other ways.

The Home shifted from the label of “orphanage” to “childcare center,” and many children were being placed in the Home by social services due to problems in the home.

Anne Ruth Bryan, who served as the director of the Home from 1941−1967, “recorded in 1952 that fifty percent of the children at Grandfather Home were now from ‘broken homes’— a term used in those days to avoid the word ‘divorce’— but one that has remained as a poignant description of many other family breakdowns,” Gilmer wrote.

Other family breakdowns could include neglect, abandonment, or “lack of proper guidance at home,” but this shift to a “childcare center” also opened the door for the Home to serve children with emotional and behavioral problems, as well as those who had been victims of abuse.

A focus began to be placed on rehabilitation for these children, and the Home altered their strategy of care and Statement of Purpose to making “every possible effort to reunite the child with his natural family.” This approach remained the dominant philosophy for the next 70 years, although the directors took great care to never turn a child back to family members who abused them.

The Home continued to grow with the addition of new buildings that expanded the offerings the Home was able to provide the residents. While personal rehabilitation remained a priority, Grandfather Home was always looking for more ways to carry on Tufts’ original purpose by keeping up with the ever-changing needs of its children.

In 1997, a public charter school dubbed Grandfather Academy was opened on the home’s campus, with a Family Support Center opening around the same time. These developments sought to help and heal the entire family structure, rather than just one individual child as had been the case in the past.

Grandfather Home in 2022

“The youth of the late eighties and nineties would not be returning to Homecoming and Grandfather Home to show their own offspring ‘where I grew up,’ or to reminisce with their closest childhood friends,” Gilmer wrote. “Instead, the new generations would remember the Home as a place where they learned to face their neglected pasts and prepare to move out into a real family.”

In 2014 Grandfather Home for Children merged with Barium Springs, a similarly functioning children’s home in Statesville, North Carolina, to form Children’s Hope Alliance (CHA). The new organization allowed the original missions of both Barium Springs and Grandfather Home for Children to be unified throughout the region.

CHA continues the strategy of service that was established at Grandfather Home for Children in the eighties and nineties, providing family and therapeutic foster care, intensive family preservation and reunification services, psychological evaluations, substance abuse assessments and treatment, and much more.

The organization has continued their commitment to alter their programming and services as the needs of their children change, a sentiment that is echoed on their website, which says, “The future of CHA is bright, our stability lies in our deeply-rooted mission and a willingness to attend to the special needs of each generation.” Through this model CHA has been able to serve more children than ever before, a legacy that will continue in the latest pivot by the organization to sell the original land to Lees-McRae College.

The relationship between Lees-McRae College and CHA goes back to the roots of the organization when Tufts first set out to create the original orphanage and educate the children who needed that shelter at the Institute. Merging the Grandfather Home property with the college’s campus will allow for the land to continue to be used for its original purpose of educating the youth of the High Country through what is the new Lees-McRae South Campus at Grandfather Home.

Meanwhile, CHA has been able to service more children than ever before by shifting to a support model that works with children while keeping them in their homes and with their families. According to the organization’s website, in 2021 CHA served over 2,000 children and families across 62 North Carolina counties— a stunning increase for a program that started with the 16 children who lived at the orphanage in its first full year of operation in 1915.

By Maya JarrellMay 25, 2022
CommunityCampus Life