Christmas memories are cherished moments for both children and parents. The memories that are created on Christmas morning bring joy not only in that moment but in the years and decades that follow. This Christmas, as families everywhere gather around the Christmas tree, a special family at Epworth will be making their own lasting memories.
Bria came to Epworth in August at a critical crossroad in her life. She was a 22 year old single mother with a one and half year old daughter, Jaci, and a three month old son, Devin.* Life had never been easy for Bria but recently things were spiraling out of control. She lived in an unstable environment that was not the nurturing home that her two young children needed. To compound the situation even further, she had struggled off and on for many years with a drug addiction. The stresses of her current conditions led her to using again and her young family’s life was in a destructive downward spiral.
By the end of the summer, Bria had to make a choice: get the help she needed or Jaci and Devin would be removed from her care and placed into the foster care system. Bria loved her children dearly and reached out for help. She had entered a rehabilitation program in the past before her daughter was born and she knew that she needed something different this time. She wanted to get away from her lowcountry home to remove herself from the temptations around her, but she did not want to be separated from her children.
Bria’s plea for help and fear of separation from her children was exactly the right situation for her to enter Epworth’s Family Care Center (FCC). Established in 2013 on Epworth’s campus, the FCC allows a mother with substance abuse addictions to move into a secure, supervised environment with her young children. While in the program, the mother receives the treatment she needs through a local outpatient addiction program with the Lexington-Richland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council. Meanwhile her children are cared for by Epworth staff. In the afternoons and evenings, the family spends family time and meals together. This unique program is unlike others that often separate mother and child. Other programs often create a situation where the jmother does well in treatment but is often overwhelmed when reunified with her children, increasing the likelihood of a relapse and children entering the foster care system. In the FCC model, over a six-month period the mother receives parenting skills training and gradually gains more parental responsibilities so that she can grow into her parental role post-recovery.
When Bria arrived at Epworth in August she struggled to adapt to her new environment. She began her rehabilitation program but was very distrustful of those helping her take care of her children. She had come so close to losing her children that she was fearful that the Epworth staff were just trying to take her children away from her. As she went about her day, she lived in a constant fear that every little thing she did, or did not do, would jeopardize her ability to stay with her children. Each day the FCC staff spoke to her to calm her fears and remind her that this was a safe place designed to help her and her family. The help she was receiving with her children and parenting responsibilities were to support her and her recovery, not replace her relationship with her children.
After four weeks of resistance and reluctance, Bria finally started to be receptive to the support system that was assembled around her. Rather than fearing the staff’s help, she began to embrace it. As she did, her children began to blossom in new ways. Each morning as the family finished breakfast and Bria left for her treatment program, Jaci would get up from the table, give her mother a hug and run down the hallway to her classroom in the FCC. Ms. Mary, the primary caretaker of Jaci and Devin during the daytime hours, would do activities with the children to build their early childhood skills. After reading and doing a lesson they would often do craft projects to give to Bria when she came home. Ms. Mary took Jaci and Devin on a daily walk around campus and a special trip to the Epworth playground. On Fridays they walked two blocks to the local public library story time and to check out new books for the weekend.
When Bria returned home each evening, she was responsible for going to Ms. Mary’s classroom to pick up the children from their day at “school.” Jaci and the staff would share all of the fun things she and her baby brother did that day. The sharing of the day’s activities was the beginning of a special family bonding time each afternoon. Then they would come back to the living area and have a snack together and do the chores for the day. Sometimes Jaci would have “homework” from Ms. Mary’s class and Bria would help her complete it, other times they would play games together or go on walks. As the weeks went by, Bria stopped her old habits of relying on television and the baby swing to pass the time and she developed her active parenting skills to strengthen her bond with her children.
The daily routine became a blessing for the family. Not only were the children blossoming, but Bria advanced in her treatment program. She learned self-coping skills that were helping her overcome her substance abuse and also become a better mother. By November, she entered phase two of the program as she neared the end of her treatment program and began to look for part-time employment. Once she secures employment she will move into phase three of the program to move out of the direct-supervised living area and into a less supervised apartment setting at Epworth. This step-down approach to the program allows her to build the pieces necessary for her to live independently when she graduates from the program later this winter.
Bria and her family also became a sort of mentor family for another family who moved into the FCC in November. She is helping the other mother adjust and trust the program staff and the children are playing and bonding together. The two families are creating their own support system and helping each other stay on track and strengthening their young families.
All the while, Bria, Jaci, and Devin are growing closer together. Part of the family bonding is ensuring that they are creating family memories. On the weekends, the staff takes the family to community centers and parks for special activities and events. In October, the family went to the State Fair for the first time to ride the rides and share special treats like cotton candy. Epworth arranged for a volunteer to come take professional family portraits. Near the holidays the arts and crafts from Ms. Mary’s class turned into special keepsakes. At Halloween, Bria took the children shopping for costumes and then they all went trick-or-treating.
On Thanksgiving the family had a very special day. They started off the morning by putting on their new matching outfits that Bria picked out. Then they joined the cottages at Epworth for a trip to the University of South Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium where they had a Thanksgiving meal with the Gamecock football team. Bria’s favorite part was having the big football players take pictures holding her little baby boy.
After the time at the stadium, they returned to Epworth to begin their own Thanksgiving meal preparations. The “Sinners” Sunday School Class at Trinity UMC, West Columbia came by a few days earlier and provided all of the supplies for a bountiful Thanksgiving feast. The FCC staff helped Bria and the other mothers prepare the meal. Somehow, as they worked together to prepare the meal, the turkey earned the nickname “Roberta.” That evening the family gathered together and shared a wonderful Thanksgiving meal. At the table Jaci proclaimed, “Roberta tastes gooood!”
Soon after Thanksgiving the preparations for Christmas began. The living area does not have a fireplace for stockings to be hung, so the FCC staff surprised the family and created a faux-fireplace made from construction paper taped to the wall under a shelf. The shelf made a perfect mantle for hand-made decorations and stockings. Volunteers from Trenholm Road UMC visited campus and decorated the outside of the building with beautiful Christmas lights. Inside, the staff and mothers in the FCC decorated the tree and made the space look and feel like home.
Bria is doing her own shopping for gifts for the children, and Epworth’s community volunteers are providing a few extra “surprises” for the whole family. Everyone is getting new pajamas for a special pajama day including wearing it to church on Christmas morning for a Blessing of the Toys by Epworth’s Pastor Meg.
In just a few more months, Bria, Jaci and Devin will be graduating from Epworth’s Family Care Center program. The family is thriving at Epworth which is a wonderful achievement. It is especially important because the treatment and life-skills that are learned by both mother and child are transferable to the next steps in life for the weeks, months, and years to come. As they grow together as a family, they will remember this time at Epworth as not just a treatment program or a learning experience, they will carry with them the lasting memories of handmade crafts, a turkey named “Roberta,” and a very special morning where the peace and joy of Christmas was felt by all.