V ivian Dorsett never doubted Christ’s Haven for Children changed the course of her life.
Born to a 22-year-old woman who was already the mother of five children, Dorsett spent infancy in the care of an elderly grandmother. Eventually, a church stepped in and relocated the baby and older siblings to a home on its property. Days after the move, the young mother abandoned her family. Dorsett, age 2, spent the rest of her childhood in foster care.
“My biological family lived in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Tarrant County. Both of my parents were alcoholics so I have no doubt we would have become prostitutes or drug addicts,” says the assistant professor at Texas A&M University in Commerce. “I don’t see how we would have become successful at all.”
Arriving at Christ’s Haven in Keller as a sixth-grader helped Dorsett develop core values of self-reliance, responsibility and compassion. Today the Prairie View A&M graduate, who earned a doctorate in juvenile justice, advocates for those in the foster care system. In addition to working for positive policy changes at state and national levels, she mentors young adults aging out of foster care.
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“As an adult, I realized I was raised in the best possible situation,” admits Dorsett, a Christ’s Haven resident in the 1970s and early 1980s. “It was faith-based, and living in a cottage provided the closest thing to a family atmosphere. We had a mother in the home, a father who worked outside the home and we went to public school and church.”
Dorsett is one of the more than 5,000 success stories made possible by Christ’s Haven since Homer and Lillian Steadman started the charity in 1954. Hoping to provide a home for disadvantaged children, the Fort Worth couple purchased a large house on East Vickery Boulevard and soon welcomed 10 youngsters into the household. As need for their ministry grew, they began looking for land where cottages could accommodate more children.
Assisted by the Church of Christ community, the Steadmans purchased a Keller farm in 1956 and founded Christ’s Haven for Children.
“It was a group effort, from the wealthy down to widows who banded together to buy an acre,” recalls Carolyn Samsill, the Steadman’s adopted daughter. “That’s how they purchased the property. It was an incredible grassroots operation.”
Sixty-two years later, the non-profit organization continues to provide residential care services for children ages 0-18, including teenage mothers and their babies as well as young adults in college. Five active cottages, a chapel, administrative building, gymnasium, playgrounds and other amenities are part of a 156-acre cam pus that meets the needs of 37 children currently in residence. Many youngsters, placed in the family-based cottages, receive healing therapy to help them overcome the abuse, neglect or abandonment they experienced.
“It’s a great place to work because I believe what we’re literally doing is saving lives,” says Dwight Robarts, executive director at Christ Haven since 2010. “We’re certainly impacting lives for the good.”
Children arrive at Christ’s Haven because of family issues involving incarceration or other factors like homelessness, mental illness or poverty. Sometimes a single mom is unable to care for her youngsters or there’s a problem with drug or alcohol abuse.
“Many times it’s a multiple of these things,” Robarts explains. “A family could deal with one problem, but when everything comes together, it becomes the perfect storm and they can no longer provide for their kids.”
Families in crisis try to find solutions “and so they find us,” adds the director, who receives referrals from churches, therapists, school counselors and law enforcement.
The parents of kids at Christ’s Haven are not bad people. “They are people who had things happen to them or made bad choices,” he insists. “We’re a rescue mission. We try to help those kids and families heal from whatever happened to them.”
Youngsters, like those pictured within this story, live at Christ’s Haven an average of two to three years, but some residents stay longer and eventually age out of guardianship. The “Life Path Transition” program prepares older teens for life beyond Christ’s Haven by teaching them decision-making skills like budgeting, automobile care and time management.
High school graduates can continue living on the property if they sign a code of conduct and are in school full time or taking courses and working part time.
“In exchange for that, we provide them with a scholarship, health insurance and a monthly stipend,” Robarts explains.
Results of the new program are mixed.
“Some kids do well, meet their goals and graduate from college or earn a certificate as a dental assistant or mechanic,” he continues. “Others have a hard time fig-uring out what they want to do and drop out.”
Offering guidance and a healthy, stable home life is key to breaking the cycle of domestic abuse, teen pregnancy, poverty or substance abuse that defines some birth families.
“You can’t replace what kids have lost, but we can create something that is really good for them,” Robarts says. “It helps them overcome what happened to them so they can rewrite their family history. We believe every person has the opportunity to do something different.”
Before retiring in 2014, Peggy and Terry Smyers spent 23 years giving youngsters at Christ’s Haven the tools and motivation required to become successful, responsible adults. In addition to three biological daughters, the house parents raised more than 200 “bonus” kids placed in their care.
Peggy Smyers says her mixed brood never looked like the typical family but that’s where the difference ended.
“We were parents and had a fierce love for our children,” explains the foster mom who spent most of her married life caring for someone else’s offspring. “Our days were filled with laughter and heartaches, giggles and upsets, triumphs and mistakes.”
Living in a cottage, with as many as eight youngsters of different ages and with different needs, wasn’t always easy. There were difficult days that sometimes stretched into months.
“But that’s not what I remember,” Smyers continues. “The kids were so worth it and so full of life, happiness, creativity and joy. I’m thankful God picked me to be their mom. This is the life Terry and I were meant to live.”
Dorsett credits Christ’s Haven and house parents like the Smyerses for the positive, faith-based foundation that gave her a head start in life.
“At Christ’s Haven, taking care of children was never a money-making thing,” she adds thoughtfully. “It’s a ministry.”
Did you know?
You can shop and support Christ’s Haven for Children at the same time?
Bearly Used Resale Store at 301 N. Main, Suite A, is owned and operated by Christ's Have n for Children. Many children that come to Christ’s Haven have only the clothes on their backs, so Bearly Used provides a site to collect and organize material donations made to the charity. House parents can come to the store to finds items to meet the needs of the house children, such as clothing, shoes, toys, furniture, and anything else that can be of use in the home.
What isn’t used by families is sold at the store, and the proceeds are used by Christ’s Haven for operational costs. Barely Used welcomes the donation of gently used clothing, furniture and household items and toys.
Hours of operation:
Monday – Friday: 9:30 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.
Saturday: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Donations are accepted daily, but donors are asked to call first- 817-43 1-5718.