Kinston's Kennedy Home celebrates 100 years of helping children

mquillin@newsobserver.comJuly 4, 2014 

— Children no longer work the 1,240-acre farm that Emily Hardee Kennedy and her husband, William Lafayette Kennedy, gave to the Baptists to start an orphanage outside Kinston.

But a century after it opened, the Kennedy Home still provides young people a safe place in which to grow.

“If I hadn’t come here, I’d be locked up,” said Reagan, 16, who came to live at Kennedy Home a year and nine months ago. (Reagan is the teenager’s middle name; officials of the home said they could not identify him more fully because of his youth.)

At the time, he was one of nine children — along with four of his siblings and four cousins — being raised by their grandmother in Lumberton. He was angry, he said. He was spending too much time on the streets. He was toying with drugs.

A church member told Reagan about Kennedy Home, part of the Baptist Children’s Home network of 19 communities across the state, and he saw it as a chance to get away.

He didn’t bring much with him to the sprawling campus: some clothes, his guitar, an attitude. But after a while, “I started to see they were trying to help me.”

This weekend, Kennedy Home will combine its annual homecoming event with a public celebration of 100 years of helping children. That mission that began at a time when families who couldn’t care for their own had few places to turn.

The Kennedys were not the first to establish a permanent orphanage in North Carolina; that was done by the Masons in the town of Oxford in 1873, when the state was still suffering from the devastation of the Civil War and the turbulence of Reconstruction. The state constitution in 1868 had provided for the establishment of “orphan houses” to care for, educate and train destitute orphans, but the government had left the work of doing so to fraternal and religious organizations, according to a history of Kennedy Home included in its 2008 application to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Heirless owners loved children

Local lore says that Emily Kennedy loved children, but had none. She and her husband lived alone in what was — and remains — a grand home, believed to have been built in 1832 by the widow of Isaac Croom. The next occupant was Henry Herring, who died in 1845 and left the house to his son, George, who sold it a decade later to Thomas Jefferson Kennedy. His son, William Jefferson Kennedy, who had been a Confederate Army captain during the Civil War, bought it in 1876.

In the 1880s, William and Emily added onto the house and converted it from Federal style to high Victorian.

Kennedy became one of the county’s largest landowners. He also owned a grist mill, was director of several banks in Kinston and built his farm into a model agricultural operation that was written up in the 1906 Kinston Free Press for the lushness of its livestock and its landscape. So successful was Kennedy in all his pursuits that he and his wife kept a yacht on the landing where their property met the Neuse River, and used the boat to travel to their summer cottage in Morehead City.

Having no heirs, the Kennedys decided in their late 60s to give their property to the Thomasville Baptist Orphanage to create a home for children in the eastern part of the state. They made the gift in 1912, reserving the rights to the mansion and the land immediately around it until their deaths.

Then, as now, the home relied on benefactors. Local supporters contributed money to build the first two cottages: one for boys and one for girls, which welcomed their first residents in 1914. A third cottage, for older boys, was financed by Emily’s sale of the diamonds her husband had given her over the years. It was completed one morning in 1917, according to the National Register application, and later that day, Emily Kennedy died.

Her husband survived until 1929.

Peak of operations

At its peak in the late 1940s and 1950s, Kennedy Home housed about 160 children. They went to school on the campus, attended church here and helped raise livestock or crops or worked in the laundry or cannery. Kennedy had by far the greatest acreage of any orphanage in the state, most of which produced much of their own food. This one produced enough to have a surplus of meat, hay and timber, which it sold to make money for its operations.

As child welfare practices changed, so did Kennedy Home. In the past, children might have come to the home at age 6 and remained here until they graduated high school. Today, Director Brian Baltzell oversees the care of about 20 children, though the number could rise to about 28 when the renovation of one of the campus cottages is complete. They still attend church services on campus, but they go to Lenoir County Schools, and participate in school and rec league sports. Some take dance classes. Some have part-time jobs in town. Their families come to visit, and they go to visit them.

The age range of current residents, Baltzell said, is from 8 to 18, but he gets a lot of young teens, more boys than girls, who come here because their parents aren’t taking care of them they way they should, and there is no relative available who can on the responsibility.

“Most of it is neglect, a lot of it is abuse,” Baltzell said, and often both are the result of the parents’ use of drugs.

Stays range from a few weeks to several years, Baltzell said, with the goal of reuniting the child with his or her family as soon as it’s safe to do so.

Donors provide most support

Children come to Kennedy Home through referrals from departments of social services, church members and family requests.

Blake Ragsdale, spokesman for Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina, said social services pays a portion of the cost of some residents, and families pay on a sliding scaled based on what they can afford, but most of the more than $17 million it takes to run its facilities across the state comes from churches, corporate supporters and individual donors.

Those folks — and anyone else who wants to come — are invited to attend Saturday’s event from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. it will include free hot dogs and ice cream, live music, horseshoe and cornhole contests, an illusionist, an antique farm equipment display and bounce houses. The manor house, called Cedar Dell, will be open for tours, giving the public a rare opportunity to see one of the region’s significant ante-bellum homes.

Reagan will be serving lemonade to visitors at Cedar Dell. But one day, he said, he hopes to be a returning guest at the annual homecoming event.

“I’m gonna come back,” he said. “I might come back and give a couple testimonies.”

Quillin: 919-829-8989

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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