By Riley Manning/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Executive director and founder Jerry Clayton has poured more than half his life into the Alpha House Home for Boys.
Since its inception in 1972, Alpha House has impacted more than 1,000 young men, but will close its doors for good on March 31 of next year.
The announcement was made at a press conference at the Franklin Street home on Monday.
“This is one of the saddest days of my life,” Clayton said. “I just want people to know that this was not our choice. The Alpha House has been a refuge for young men, a place for them to change the direction of their lives.”
Changes in child placement and regulations make the closing necessary, he said, along with increased competition for funding.
Sitting in the warm parlor of the house – decked with Christmas trappings, presents for the home’s children crowding the base of the tree – Clayton recalled memories of camaraderie with his boys.
“They are like college friends or old army buddies,” he said. “The older ones used to tease new boys by convincing them the house was haunted. They even got one of the maids to believe it.”
He said Christmas is a special time around the house. It’s a tradition that the boys have their own stocking with their name stitched on it.
“I remember one of the boys walked in from school one day and saw his stocking,” Clayton said. “He turned to one of the other ones and said, ‘Man I’m glad I live here, aren’t you?’”
Success stories of Alpha House boys abound. One boy came to the house after being abandoned by his parents at a service station and living in a junkyard. Now he works for NASA as a genuine rocket scientist.
One of the boys currently residing at Alpha House aspires to become an Olympic boxer. The southpaw trains with the Police Athletic League and holds a place on Tupelo High School’s honor roll.
“People often ask me about success stories,” Clayton said. “And it depends on how you measure success. I measure success by a young man meeting his potential, becoming a good citizen capable of assuming his responsibility as head of his own household. By that measure, the Alpha House has been extremely successful.”
Clayton has served every role imaginable in the house, from chef to chauffeur to someone to simply ask how their day went when the boys get home from school. Working closely with his staff of nine, he instills habits of manners and responsibilities that give them confidence to function and succeed.
“At Alpha House, the most important thing I tell them is ‘You are somebody. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not important,’” he said. “A kid has to feel good about himself before others can feel good about them.”
Clayton is proud of the fact that the home has never housed the child of a prior resident.
Clayton, then Lee County chancery clerk, got the idea for Alpha House while working as Youth Court referee. At the time, only one judge presided over an eight-county district. To help with the workload, the judge was allowed to appoint a referee, who would prepare court orders to be signed by the judge.
“I got the idea when I saw that I couldn’t make a good disposition because there were no options,” he said. “Kids from bad homes shouldn’t have to go back.”
Funding for the Alpha House has always been tight, said Clayton, who took no salary for his work at the House until 1988, but expenses were always met by local donors and businesses.
However, the regulations imposed by the Olivia Y vs. State of Mississippi lawsuit have stretched the home beyond sustainability, he said. The Alpha House’s board of directors voted last Tuesday to close the home.
The class-action lawsuit, filed in 2004 by New York-based advocacy group Children’s Rights, sought to reform the Mississippi Department of Human Services’ Division of Family and Children’s Services.
“Under the new restrictions, someone has to be awake in the house seven nights per week,” Clayton said. “In addition, children cannot be placed more than 50 miles from their home. Our boys are from all over the state.”
Clayton also said that foster homes and the homes of relatives now take precedence in court over a boys home like Alpha House when determining where to place a child. Fundraising has also become more difficult due to the increase in non-profit agencies in North Mississippi.
As for the Alpha House’s current roster, Clayton said placement for these boys has already been determined. The building on Franklin Street will revert to Lee County.
“I can’t thank the community that made the Alpha House possible enough,” Clayton said. “Hopefully other organizations will rise to meet this need. I have faith in the spirit of Tupelo.”