By JB Clark/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Tupelo’s Gardner-Simmons Home For Girls is entering a new era of service, changing its focus to care for pregnant girls who need a safe home.
Since the 2008 court order following Olivia Y., et al v. State of Mississippi, group homes have seen fewer children referred by the Mississippi Department of Human Services.
The ruling requires the Mississippi DHS to consider placement for children in the order of first, placement with relatives, then placement in a foster home in the child’s community, then foster home placement outside the child’s community and then finally group home placement.
“We anticipate being able to serve a lot more residents through this change,” said Shane Robbins, interim executive director of the home. “That’s the whole reason for the change, to make a bigger impact on the community. For 25 years we’ve done the same thing and due to the Olivia Y. case, the need is no longer there.”
The home started in 1988 when Gill Simmons said Grace Clark contacted him and his wife with the desire to organize a home for abused and neglected girls. The home was named after two young Tupelo women who were University of Mississippi students.
Simmons’ daughter and her best friend Margaret Gardner, died when they were hit by a truck on Highway 6 outside of Oxford while participating in a walkathon for Chi Omega sorority.
Robbins said this change to a maternity group home seemed like a great fit because it can help two generations.
“The mission is going to be the same, serving girls in need,” said Jay Weir, president of the Gardner-Simmons Home for Girls’ board of directors. “We go from victims of abuse and neglect removed from their home through youth court to girls who are pregnant and need a safe place to stay.”
Weir anticipates when the home opens its doors on Dec. 1, it will get girls who are in abusive relationships with their boyfriends. But those served might also include women who are in bad relationships with husbands, parents or people who are pressuring them to terminate the pregnancy.
“When a young girl gets pregnant out of wedlock, statistically she doesn’t finish her education and works a menial job for minimum wage,” Weir said. “This might just be the answer to allowing this girl to continue her education and see that life doesn’t stop and her education doesn’t have to stop with the birth of this child.”
The home’s staff will help the girls continue their education and offer parenting education opportunities as well.
Robbins said they also want to help the women return to society better prepared than when they left.
“We’re going to partner with Tupelo public schools for girls still working on their education,” Robbins said. “For those who have a GED or high school diploma we will be working with them on job training and vocational training programs. We’re going to work to get volunteers in the community involved to provide mentorship opportunities so they have positive role models who can help realize what their dreams and aspirations are.”
Weir and others involved with the group home have expressed concern that they may lose some support from people because they will take in girls who have become pregnant outside the bounds of marriage.
Weir said they are in no way condoning non-marital pregnancies and sexual relationships, but they want to step in and help where there is a need.
“We’ll lose some contributors, and perhaps board members, and we’ll pick up some others as this goes public and is launched,” he said. “We’ll get some phone calls from people saying they want to be involved on the board and help with the girls. It has an element that draws a lot of interest.”
In a state that had a ballot issue involving abortion and numerous right-to-life campaigns, this home will meet the needs of women who want to carry their child to term and don’t have a safe place to do so.
“We’ll take donations and sponsorships to help lower the costs to the girls and we hope to be able to approach a lot of the area churches,” Weir said. “This has a pro-life element to it that you can’t sidestep and I think it will be an attention-grabber to a lot of churches who have a very vocal pro-life stance. These girls have chosen to keep their child and this will be a safe haven for them.”
The home will serve as a place for women to carry a child, have the child and possibly stay for a month or two after the pregnancy.
While at the home, Weir said the staff will work to help women arrange for their future, whether that be moving to a new residence to get away from an abuser or to put the child up for adoption. The home will not act as an adoption agency or a place to connect girls to government entitlement programs but Weir said they will connect each girl with the resources she needs.
“We are going to work to help them increase their self-worth, develop some skills to stay in school, complete their education and join the workforce,” Robbins said. “We’re going to help them plan so they don’t have to become dependent on others or the government to function successfully as a part of this community.”
Girls will come to the home through DHS and also through private referrals. Weir said they expect many of the girls to have already made their initial OBGYN visit and have a doctor, others will need help finding one.
The relationship with DHS referrals will be similar to the relationship the home had for abused and neglected girls as far as funding goes. Private referrals will pay privately and Weir said community members can sponsor girls or donate to bring the private pay costs down.
Weir said they expect girls to be between the ages of 14 and 20 and won’t allow additional children to stay in the home with the girls.
Robbins said they have girls who will be ready to move in when the doors open.