MONTICELLO – She strolled slowly along the familiar sidewalk with a sweet smile on her face. Her eyes were focused on the sprawling front porch and dozens of chitchatting adults and teens near the large white, double front doors. Momentarily, she would be among family.
She moved gracefully for an 83-year-old, her graying hair fixed just right for the event, her lavender outfit perfectly pressed and her husband so close by her side, that the couple nearly looked as one.
Henrietta Finch-Caseltine was home sweet home.
Finch-Caseltine was among the more than 200 Arkansas Baptist Home alumni, current and former staff and residents, and friends that took part in the Baptist Home Alumni Day. Held at the Monticello Baptist Home for Children June 8, alumni from as far away as California attended the biannual event.
“My husband and I have been coming to the reunion for many years, driving down from Ohio,” shared Finch-Caseltine, who arrived with her brothers at the Bottoms Baptist Orphanage (now Baptist Home for Children) in 1948.
The Home reunion is one of several events taking place this year in celebration of the 125th anniversary of Arkansas Baptist Children’s Homes and Family Ministries (ABCHomes), which began as a dream of Hannah Hyatt in 1894.
The youngest of 10 children, Hyatt was born in 1857 to the Rev. Benjamin and Agnes Hyatt of Drew County, Ark. Throughout her life, she was active in church and community interests, but her greatest desire was to establish a home for the orphan children of Arkansas.
Following the death of her mother in 1886 and her father in 1887, Hyatt began opening the doors of her home to orphan children. Within a year she cared for 15 children. In 1894, she offered her inherited home and 80 acres of land to the Arkansas Baptist State Convention (ABSC) for the establishment of an Arkansas Baptist home for orphans. She married S.E. Gardiner in 1897, and they managed the home together until 1907.
By 1902, 55 children were living at the home. Two horses were purchased, as well as 160 acres of adjoining land. In 1923, following a fire that burned the boys’ dormitory and a schoolroom, Mr. and Mrs. George Bottoms of Texarkana provided major funding for two new dormitories. In honor of her generosity, the home was renamed the Bottoms Baptist Orphanage the following year.
Two years later, in 1926, the ABSC approved an annual offering to be taken around Thanksgiving to support the ministry to orphans. This offering has long been a means of financial support for the agency.
In 1938, fire destroyed the original Hyatt home, which served as the administration building. In its place, a new administration office was completed and dedicated in 1939. It still stands today.
Since the 1930s, most of the children in care were not orphans but dependent and neglected children. To better reflect this shift, the name was changed in 1961 from the Bottoms Orphanage to the Arkansas Baptist Home for Children.
Instead of large dormitories, children lived in single homes, which created a more family-like setting.
“Our emphasis is to preserve the family unit,” Baptist Home Supervisor Maurice Caldwell told a Pine Bluff Commercial reporter in 1967, adding that the New Testament challenges Christians to “help people in need … to help children, help families.”
A new era of growth began in 1968 when a Little Rock area office opened to assist with families and childcare needs in Central Arkansas. A year later, Jonesboro became home to an area office. Later, area offices opened statewide.
A Group Home for Boys opened in 1970 in Jonesboro, and Arkansas Baptist Boys Ranch was established in Harrison in 1989. Five years later, in 1994, the Jonesboro home was closed and relocated to the Ranch, which was opened to girls and siblings in 2019.
In 1977, the first of several emergency receiving homes opened for children who were in crisis, as the result of abuse, neglect, abandonment or family conflict. All have since closed or transitioned into long-term homes. “As we saw the needs for children change, we wanted to provide services that were appropriate for their needs,” shared Johnny Biggs, ABCHomes executive director from 1971-1995.
Continuing its ministry to children and families, the agency opened Promise House, a home for unwed teen mothers, in El Dorado in 1991. It was relocated to Little Rock in 1999 and closed in 2014.
“Times change; circumstances change, and we worked along with that and followed that,” said David Perry, ABCHomes executive director from 1995-2018.
Today, the needs of children and teens are still being met on land donated by Hyatt. The agency also operates the Ranch in Harrison and three family care homes for single mothers and their children in Jonesboro, Little Rock and Springdale. Counseling services are provided in seven locations around the state.
Connected foster homes provided care for more than 100 children in 2018. Twenty-eight of these children were reunified with biological families, and three have been adopted.
Recently, a sibling group of seven were welcomed to the Baptist Ranch in Harrison. To make the transition as comfortable as possible, Ranch staff traveled to pick up the siblings and their belongings. All seven siblings were able to ride together in one van to the Ranch, and now all seven live together with houseparents under one roof. They joined 13 sibling groups already in agency care.
“As we look around our world today, we can complain about a lot of things, but the main thing we have concern about is the breakdown of the family,” said Derek Brown, ABCHomes executive director. “Our children today are growing up without any picture of what a healthy family looks like.
“And if we can simply provide that picture of what a healthy family looks like to children, we can give them something to hold onto, something to live by.”
Brown’s glance brightens as he acknowledges the longstanding ministry to children and families in Arkansas. “In 1925, the state convention compelled us to move forward with a family focus and put children in intelligent Christian homes. When I think about what we are doing 125 years later, it is exactly that,” said Brown.
Furthermore, Brown said, “As I think about the services we provide, our goal in everything we do is to build, strengthen and restore families. From prevention to permanency, we want to have involvement in the life of a child, in the life of a family that is struggling.”
Visitors to the Home reunion June 8 praised the Baptist Home and its longtime ministry to orphans and families.
“The ministry is 125 years old …, and it’s an amazing story, but the best part is it’s part of our story,” said Tricia Goyer of Bryant. She and her husband adopted four Baptist Home alumni a few years ago. “This was our girls’ home for over three years. I’m grateful for those who cared for them until God brought them to us.
“It was wonderful to hug the necks of those who tucked them in, braided their hair and took them school shopping ... before I even knew them,” she added. “I’m thankful for those who had a vision for a home for children in 1894 – who saw their need.”
Many alumni milled around the crowd in the Baptist Home’s administration building, hugging, looking at old photos and reminiscing of days gone by. Others enjoyed campus tours and the unearthing of a time capsule buried 25 years ago.
Unfortunately, the time capsule experienced water damage, but many of the contributed items were still able to be enjoyed by all.
Finch-Caseltine and her husband made their way to the white rocking chairs on the front porch and reception area.
“I learned to play the piano here many years ago, and I learned to tithe to the church,” she recalled.
Since my time here, “God has been faithful to me,” she said. “I’m thankful for … this Home” for families.
“I’m so glad God placed me in the Baptist Home, just at the right time, so I could be saved at that time, learn all the Scripture verses I learned, and be prepared to face life’s trials with the ‘sword of the Lord.’”
Stella Prather is director of communications for Arkansas Baptist Children’s Homes and Family Ministries.
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