Photos Andy Calvert
The Open Door Children’s Home opened in Rome in 1927 as an orphanage. Though it has evolved over the years, its mission has remained constant: to care for the needs of children and youth who have been subject to child abuse and neglect. Despite the challenges of 2020, the Open Door Home staff are still working tirelessly to uphold this mission.
Open Door operates two facilities in Rome, one for boys and one for girls. According to Executive Director Tracie Ball, 10 boys and 10 girls are currently living in the homes. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the youth’s school schedules have been hectic, with quarantines and digital learning, meaning that they have had to adjust to being in the home more often.
“[Because of quarantines,] I think maybe I can count one day where we’ve had all of our kids actually in the school building,” Ball says. “The kids are pretty resilient, but I think they’re getting tired, too.”
To combat some of the 2020 fatigue, the Open Door Home staff try to get the youth out of the house as much as possible, taking them on fun group outings. One outing, in particular, kicked off the home’s holiday celebrations. Over Halloween weekend, the youth visited Copper Creek Farm for festive fall activities such as a pumpkin patch and corn maze.
On Thanksgiving each year, the Open Door Home hosts a big Thanksgiving meal for those youth who are not away on family visits. After Thanksgiving, they start decorating the home for Christmas. “Christmas is always huge,” Ball says. “We always have a tree and the kids are involved in decorating it.”
Ball says that although the holidays are always a big deal at Open Door, they can bring residents challenges. Whitney Gates, Open Door’s clinical administrator, says that starting in October, she spends time helping the youth prepare for the holidays and learn to cope with any difficult emotions that might arise.
“I think a lot of our kids come to the realization that they’re not going to be home for the holidays. It’s always bittersweet for them,” she says. “A lot of them maybe don’t have happy memories over the holidays. Some of them come from families that may not have been able to provide, so the adults were stressed and the kids picked up on that. It can be like a first time Christmas for them.”
To Gates, it’s essential for the youth to recognize and normalize these feelings and develop coping skills. “We talk about gifts because a lot of times the kids are worried about their families,” she says. “We make time for them… to buy gifts for their family or to make cards so that they feel like they have made that connection and that they’ve had the opportunity to give.”
Open Door resident says that being away from her family is hard, especially during the holidays. However, she uses some of her favorite activities to cope. “I play Just Dance, I try to paint, draw, sing in my room,” she says. “I try to get my mind off stuff by doing things I enjoy.”
In order to make sure that each resident feels comfortable and included during the holidays, Gates says that they try to incorporate some of each child’s traditions into the Open Door celebrations. “We try to talk to each individual child and try to bring a little of what they would like to see happen,” she says.
This could come in the form of a holiday baking day, a particular Christmas carol, opening a few presents on Christmas Eve, or going out on Christmas Day. “Some… just want a break from Christmas, so we can do normal things, something that’s not very Christmassy. Maybe we go for a hike so that they can have a little bit of an escape from the holidays. I work a lot through the holidays to make sure that kids are supported.”
The holiday season is often considered a season of giving, and Open Door is grateful for the Rome community’s generosity at Christmastime. In years past, church groups and other organizations have sponsored meals, cookie decorating, and other residents’ activities. Due to COVID, Ball says they are very cautious about how many visitors are allowed inside the facilities. Still, they are taking small steps towards allowing groups to bring food or activities every month.
This year, some things may look a bit different, but not everything has changed. The best way to give to the Open Door Home this holiday season is through their Amazon wish list. In preparation for the holiday season each year, the youth make wish lists of their needs and wants. Items range from tennis shoes and hoodies to electronics or room décor.
At the beginning of November each year, Open Door posts an Amazon wish list on their social media items. This is a fun and simple way for community members to sponsor a Christmas gift for an Open Door resident. We hope that the community can be as good to us as they have been in the past,” Ball says. “I don’t know that there’s been a year that we haven’t received everything the kids have asked for.”
Above all, the community is an essential part of the holidays and Open Door in general. Gates says that she encourages the youth to lean on each other and staff. “Open Door really cares about the kids,” she says. “Having worked a lot of different places, I think it’s so special that they’re willing to take each individual kid and meet that individual kid’s needs.”
Though she says that building relationships with people she didn’t know has been a double-edged sword at times, NAME has found community at Open Door. “I grew up in this place,” she says. “There have been some hardships, but I know the people here love me and I love them too.”