By JB Clark/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Just a month after the 25th anniversary of the tragedy that took the lives of two young Tupelo women, the home for girls that bears their names is looking forward to how it will serve the community for the next 25 years.
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.
“She said she would love to name it the Gardner-Simmons home and that’s the way it got started,” Simmons said.
The call came not long after Simmons’ daughter and her best friend Margaret Gardner, both Ole Miss students, died when they were hit by a truck on Highway 6 outside of Oxford while participating in a walkathon for Chi Omega sorority.
The memory of the two young women inspired the community to rally behind the home that First United Methodist Church previously had difficulty starting.
The home has served as a group home for girls and has expanded to organize foster families to care for girls who need a home.
Sue Gardner said the home has been a blessing.
“If there was a good thing that came out of the accident, it was the home,” she said.
Sara Simmons agreed, “It got our attention and took our thoughts away from the accident.”
As the home approaches its 25th year, support for the home is still strong.
“Every year, I get a stack of acknowledgments of those who support the home and that tells me there are still a whole lot of good folks who support this thing,” said Judge Thomas Gardner. “It makes me believe that the why of how we came to be here hasn’t changed and I think there are girls out there who need a safe place to stay and grow up and we’ve got it.”
Since the 2008 court order following Olivia Y., et al. v. State of Mississippi, group homes have seen declining populations.
The ruling requires the Department of Human Services to consider foster child placement in the order of first, placement with relatives, then foster home care within the child’s community, then foster home care outside the child’s community and then group home placement.
Because of this ruling, the Simmons and Gardners, along with the home’s board of directors, are looking for new needs to meet or a way to continue serving abused and neglected girls in their home.
“We’re at a circumstance, primarily because of the Department of Human Services, where we are trying to make adjustments and figure out where we go from here and I think all of us are committed to making the adjustment in some way or another,” Thomas Gardner said.
The accident on Highway 6 was revisited on its 25th anniversary in the May issue of The Oprah Magazine in an article by Chi O sorority sister Paige Williams.
Both families said they have seen a response to the article in the community through phone calls and support.
The organization is constantly looking for new families for their foster home and the group home is still serving live-in residents.
Both families agreed that the continued support of the community, Chi O sorority and local churches will keep the home open while many homes around the state are closing.
“We know there is a need out there,” Sue Gardner said.