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DeKalb History Center exhibit shares stories behind United Methodist Children’s Home

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DeKalb History Center exhibit shares stories behind United Methodist Children’s Home

Home, the exhibit on the United Methodist Children's Home, shares stories from residents, employees and volunteers of the home from 1943 to 2017. The exhibit is on display at the DeKalb History Center. Photo by Zoe Seiler.
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Decatur, GA — An exhibit at the DeKalb History Center called Home takes visitors into the world of the United Methodist Children’s Home. With photos accompanied by audio, the exhibit shares stories of those who lived, worked, and volunteered at the Children’s Home.

The photos and oral history details life at the Children’s Home from 1943 to 2017. The history was documented by Beate Sass and Moira Bucciarelli. Sass also turned the work into a manuscript, and copies are available inside the exhibit. When Sass started the project, she wasn’t sure what it would lead to.

She had heard about the possible sale of the Children’s Home in January 2017, and it piqued her curiosity. She had lived in Decatur for about six years, at the time, and didn’t know much about the property, although it was about a mile from her home.

“I went to the property to take a look, and I was enchanted with the beautiful property that has these expansive lawns that lead up to these small cottages,” Sass said.

When the city purchased the property, Sass began taking photos right away, before anything had changed. She began photographing the landscaping and exterior of the buildings, but soon realized she would like to see inside the buildings as well, hoping to find some mementos or clues about those who lived at the Children’s Home.

“I thought we really need to tell the stories of the people who here. I asked [Debora Burger] if she’d be willing to sit for a portrait and to be interviewed,” Sass said.

Burger was the president of the Children’s Home Alumni Association. She was a resident of the Children’s Home in the 1970s and came back to work at the home as a social worker. Berger also agreed to help Sass and Bucciarelli connect with others who lived, worked, or volunteered at the home.

Around the same time, Sass also met Dorsey Nobles, who opened up the buildings and cottages for Sass to be able to take photos. Nobles also grew up at the Children’s Home and worked in maintenance at the home. When Decatur purchased the property, Nobles was brought on as a city employee and is the facilities manager at Legacy Park. His story is also featured in the exhibit.

The interviews were also recorded and incorporated into the exhibit. There are QR codes located throughout the display, so visitors can scan them on their phones and listen to parts of the interviews, and hear from the people who were photographed. Sass and the history center encourage visitors to bring headphones so they can sit and listen while taking in the exhibit.

Sass said the process started off slow in terms of gathering interviews, but in the end, the participants were eager to share their stories.

“Even though they came with trauma, all the [residents] we interviewed…were so grateful to have the home at a time when they so needed a place where they felt safe, and they were loved,” Sass said. “That was really transformative for me.”

The exhibit begins with the early history of the Children’s Home. It was founded in 1871 by Rev. Jesse Boring in Norcross as a home for children orphaned by the Civil War. It transitioned into a group home over the years.

The Children’s Home moved to 500 S. Columbia Drive in Decatur in the 1870s and was there until 2017, according to the history center’s website.

In the early years, the Children’s Home had a farm with livestock and equipment, an on-campus school, housing for the children and staff, and recreational facilities. It was self-contained for the most part. In 1945, the Rev. B.C. Kerr was appointed superintendent and encouraged the kids to go out into the community for church and school.

The Children’s Home reached its peak with 150 children in 1951 and was renamed the United Methodist Children’s Home in 1969.

“Kids were brought to the Home for a number of reasons, nevertheless all were brought here because their families could not properly care for them,” a poster in the exhibit says. “For many, this campus became a haven from a much harsher reality that was beyond their control.”

The city of Decatur purchased the United Methodist Children’s Home in 2017. The 77-acre property on South Columbia Drive is now known as Legacy Park. At that time, the Children’s Home rebranded as Wellroot Family Services and moved to Tucker. Wellroot still provides family welfare services.

For Sass, some highlights of the exhibit included interviewing Mela Kirkwood. Her father, Beverly Cochran, was the administrator of the Children’s Home from 1969-2012.

“She shared with me a lot about her father’s background,” Sass said. “He lived a very traumatic childhood and was greatly helped by a particular individual who took him under his wing when he was a high school student. Because of this troubled past, he was able to connect with the children, especially the teenagers.”

“Many times it’s one person who you look back at who really had the care and the interest to help an individual. Mr. C was that to so many children,” she added.

Cochran also played a significant role in integrating the Children’s Home in 1971. Cochran wanted the children to learn about each other’s differences and get along, Sass added.

“Cochran was progressive for his time and he strongly believed that the church needed to reflect the society that it served,” one of the exhibit posters says. “He knew that the children would re-enter an integrated world, so he felt the need to reflect that in the Children’s Home.”

The audio clips of the interviews are also available on the History Center’s website. To listen to them, click here.

The DeKalb History Center is located at 101 E. Court Square in Decatur, on the Decatur Square. It is open Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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