By M. Scott Morris
TUPELO – In the early 1950s, a man felt a call to help children that he couldn’t answer by himself.
The Rev. T.C. Montgomery traveled through Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee – sometimes sleeping in his car – to collect money. He kept scrupulous notes because he wanted to be able to return the money in case his mission failed.
Montgomery’s mission did not fail. Sonya Laughlin, administrative director for Tupelo Children’s Mansion, estimated that more than 1,500 kids have come through TCM’s doors over the past 60 years.
“We got our first five children around Christmas in 1953,” Laughlin said. “Back then, there were a lot more orphans. It’s changed over the years. We do have some children who have lost parents, but most have been neglected or abused.”
Gov. Phil Bryant will speak at an invitation-only board meeting and banquet in honor of the anniversary at First United Methodist Church on Tuesday.
TCM is a ministry of the United Pentecostal Church, and it doesn’t receive money from federal or state governments. It’s supported by churches, individuals and corporations from Northeast Mississippi and around the country.
“Most of our kids come from other states,” Laughlin said. “It’s primarily done by referral. A pastor will give us a call, or a family member will contact us.”
Some kids stay a few months, and others stay until they graduate high school from Tupelo Children’s Mansion Academy. A fund also helps pay for college.
Numbers fluctuate, but, currently, there are 35 residents who range in age from 3 to 17.
“We do get children who don’t have anything,” Laughlin said. “They’ll come in with a paper sack or just the clothes on their backs.”
Annette Tomlinson, sponsor relations coordinator, said, “The first night they’re here, we give them a Teddy bear, brand new pajamas, a book and a Bible. On the first night in this new place, they’ll feel comforted.”
Residents also serve as an informal welcoming committee.
“The children, they’ve always been great with the new children,” Laughlin said. “They’ll embrace them. They’ll show them around. We’ve got some cooperative, caring, great kids here.”
One boy’s story
Clifton Parker, 61, of Pascagoula, doesn’t know what his life would’ve become without Tupelo Children’s Mansion. His father was an alcoholic and his mother was never around. An aunt intervened.
Parker was 5 years old when he and his three sisters arrived in the 1960s.
“I was there 12 years. In those days, we went to school in the community,” he said. “We used to have a big yellow bus that said Tupelo Children’s Mansion. They took us to Lawhon and Tupelo High School.”
Part of TCM’s 40 acres was devoted to fields at that time. The residents raised their own vegetables and took care of livestock.
One of Parker’s jobs was to slop the hogs before school each morning. He also remembers calls from Natchez Trace Parkway officials whenever someone hit a deer.
“We’d pick it up and skin the deer ourselves,” he said. “It taught me a lot. It was pretty awesome.”
He’s a shift manager at Ingalls Shipbuilding, and he’s not sure he would’ve gotten there without his experiences at TCM.
“When I was 5 and a half years old, I was just a little kid who didn’t have any future at all,” he said. “Now, I’m 42 years with the same company. I’m respected for the work I do. I’ve won awards. It all stems from being raised at the Tupelo Children’s Mansion.”
He and his co-workers at Ingalls take a collection every year to do something special for TCM kids. They’ve donated a bunch of bicycles and other items since 2004. The giving will continue after Parker retires in a few years.
“I’ve got my son who works at the yard,” he said. “I’ve set him up to take over my spot so the Mansion will still be supported.”
There’s always a new group of children who need help. Social workers and counselors are on staff, and spiritual help is available.
“We’ve seen it all since we’ve been here,” Laughlin said.
“These kids have, too,” Tomlinson added.
Some new arrivals have never been to a doctor or a dentist.
“We get them set up with Medicaid,” Laughlin said. “That’s one of the first things we do.”
The kids also find ways to be kids. The TCMA Crusaders field a basketball team and a volleyball team. Someone donated a swimming pool, and many of the kids take guitar and piano lessons.
“Each dorm gets to go on vacation in the spring,” Laughlin said. “For most of these kids here, that will be their first time to experience a family vacation.”
Volunteers from North Mississippi Medical Center visit TCM to decorate for each child’s birthday.
Salons in the area provide free hair cuts, and companies donate everything from suits of clothes to Christmas dinner.
Local churches of different denominations donate, and THS students have done senior projects at the Mansion.
“People in this community have wrapped their arms around us,” Tomlinson said.
“Sometimes, it’s just people who come by and drop things off for the kids,” Laughlin said.
More than 60 years ago, the Rev. T.C. Montgomery had a calling to help children. Since then, the Mansion has been a blessing for kids who desperately needed shelter.
But the blessing hasn’t been limited to the children.
“I don’t think there is anything more rewarding. I believe nothing we ever do for these kids is wasted,” Laughlin said. “When they give you a hug, you know that’s what it’s all about. That’s why you’re here.”