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Saving lives and families

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In the wild pioneer days of Arkansas in the late 1800s, tragedy was common and families could easily be torn apart by a sudden twist of fate. The most vulnerable in society, the children, were so often left behind in the wake of personal disasters as very few resources or organizations existed for their benefit. But one group of Arkansans, guided by their faith in God and hearts filled with generosity, became determined to do something to help abandoned children. The result was the Arkansas Methodist Orphanage.

The state did not yet have a system of foster parents in place and did not even have a child welfare department in place. In 1897, a group of Arkansas Methodists saw the continuing need and met in Little Rock to devise a plan of action. After finalizing the plan, a board of trustees was established and the church spent two years raising funds for orphaned and abandoned children. By 1899, the home was ready to open. The board of trustees would be led by Col. George Thornburgh, a Civil War veteran, newspaper publisher, and prominent Mason.

The Arkansas Women’s Industrial Home offered their properties in Little Rock to house the children, and the home was soon in operation. Thornburgh succeeded in raising funds for a new home in 1910, moving the Methodist Orphanage across town.

It became a labor of love for administrators and employees alike as they offered a safe home for the hundreds of orphans that came through at one time or another. The children would attend Little Rock schools.

Thornburgh would serve as administrator of the home without pay until his death in 1922. Dr. James Thomas, also one of the original trustees, then took over as supervisor, similarly serving without pay until his

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‘Arkansas History Minute’ By Dr. Ken Bridges HISTORY MINUTE (cont.)

death in 1943. A prominent Little Rock physician, Dr. William Snodgrass, provided free medical care to all the children at the home while Judge Thomas Mahaffey provided free legal services for the home and the children.

After World War II, the home was moved to a new location in southwest Little Rock and the official name was changed to Arkansas Methodist Children’s Home. By the 1960s, Rev.

J.E. Keith had been named to run the children’s home and established several new homes across the state to spread out the services they offered. New homes would appear in Ft. Smith, Magnolia, and Searcy. By the 1990s, this would spread to include six residential group homes across Arkansas, including Lexa in Phillips County, Magnolia, Searcy, Springdale, Batesville, and Fayetteville.

As the 20th century came to a close, the needs of Arkansas children became increasingly complex. The problems of abuse and neglect became increasingly apparent. The children’s home faced problems from across the state with children with mental illnesses and drug problems and families with nowhere to turn for help. Increasingly, the children’s home increased its efforts at individual and family counseling as well as drug rehabilitation services. In 2001, the children’s home formed a subsidiary, Methodist Behavioral Health, with the two merging back together as Methodist Family Health in 2003. Today, Methodist Family Health offers services of all kinds across the state, including round-theclock emergency admissions, therapeutic foster care, in-school counseling services in nine school districts in northern Arkansas, a behavioral hospital in Maumelle, an emergency shelter in Little Rock, eight counseling clinics, two residential treatment centers, and eight group homes in cities such as Heber Springs, Helena, Mulberry, and elsewhere.

From the work of one group of dedicated men and women came this network of dedicated professionals across the state who have literally saved hundreds of lives and countless families.

Dr. Ken Bridges is an adjunct professor at Southern Arkansas University and serves on the Arkansas Culture and Heritage Council.

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