Home for Christmas, like always, no matter how crazy my schedule. It was 1997 and I decided to spend the afternoon visiting my friend at the shelter for children she’d started back in 1992 in my hometown of Meridian, Mississippi. When I stepped off the front porch into the living room, it was warm and cozy, with soft couches against the walls and a thick colorful rug on the floor. Not like what I’d pictured a shelter to be at all.
“Hi,” my friend said, relieving me of the armful of packages I’d bought for the kids at the local Wal-Mart that morning. We knelt down and piled them under the brightly lit Christmas tree in the middle of the room. “That was so sweet of you to bring these.”
As I stood up to give her a hug I noticed a pair of little boys standing against the wall. I could tell they were brothers, not so much by their matching brown eyes, but by the way they alternately laughed and fussed. “Merry Christmas,” I said, smiling at them.
The younger boy turned away shyly, but the older one smiled back.
“Merry Christmas, ma’am,” he said.
Maybe it was the simple down-home politeness of that “ma’am.” But at that moment something melted in my heart. Their shy smiles, the way they shuffled their feet nervously. There was such a sweetness and promise to them. I just wanted to scoop them up and take them home with me.
I pulled my friend aside. “Tell me about those boys,” I said.
“It’s a sad story, Sela,” she said, “but a much too common one. Michael and Jimmy are eight and nine. They were taken out of their house because their father had been abusing them. He’s in jail now. No one knows where the mother is. Drugs, probably.”
“What will happen to them?” I asked quietly.
“They’ll probably be split up, sent to different places in Mississippi,” she said. “With our overtaxed foster-care system it’s too hard to keep them together.”
If only they could be placed together somewhere, I thought. Someplace safe. That’s what kids need most. To feel loved and protected. Growing up in Meridian, that’s what I had felt. That’s why I came back with my own kids every chance I got.
I was raised here in the Deep South, loving Bear Bryant on Saturday and worshiping Jesus Christ on Sunday morning, savoring sweet tea and porch swings, corn bread and courtesy and all the tender mercies of a Mississippi childhood. It took a lot to leave and when I finally did I traveled north to New York and then west to southern California where I became an actress in TV shows like Sisters and movies like The Fugitive. I married a tall handsome beau and started a family, who became the center of my world.
I thought I had everything. But midway through my life’s journey, I began to realize what I’d been missing—the good, irreplaceable things I’d left behind in the South. And though I’m not in the South most of the time, I am undeniably of the South. The roots of my family tree run deep into the red dirt of Mississippi. There have been Wards living in and around Meridian for six generations—since the 1840s. Daddy grew up there in the Depression, and the concept of helping was always familiar to him.
In 1953 Daddy met a dark-haired beauty named Annie Kate Boswell who would become his wife and, not long thereafter, my mother. She had an indomitable sense of pride, a regal bearing and steely dignity. And like all good Southern women, Mama believed in the secret power of manners.
Our neighbors took turns hosting weekly card games and our house would fill with friends and laughter. But Sundays were different. After breakfast, Mama would dress us for church. My two brothers wore slacks and coats and ties. My sister and I, like our mother, would die a thousand deaths before showing up in pants. It was plain and simple; dressing up was a matter of respect for God. We Wards attended First Christian Church in downtown Meridian, and we always sat in the balcony. The gentle faith that was passed on to me required a belief in the authority of the Bible, a conviction that you had direct access to God through prayer and a commitment to love your neighbor as yourself. That was something else Mama believed in deeply. So did Daddy.
I went off to college at the University of Alabama, and then to New York and Los Angeles for my career. But I’d never miss a Christmas in Meridian. Every time I returned, the sight of those humble hills and red-clay hollows became dearer to me than I could possibly express. That’s why when my husband, Howard, and I started our family I knew we needed to have a place there. We bought a farm on a pond and put out a porch swing for visits from neighbors. I was afraid if I didn’t take care, my children might never get to know this part of me and of themselves.
And then I met those two little boys, Michael and Jimmy, at that shelter my friend had started. They’re part of my family too, of my community, my town. They were part of the very fabric that had given me my life, my sense of self. I couldn’t just walk away.
I had to do something for them. I went home to my businessman husband and told him about Michael and Jimmy and all the powerful feeling they had stirred up in me. “What can we do?” I asked him. “How can we help the next Michael and Jimmy?”
“If what kids like these need is a good safe permanent home,” he said, “then let’s build one.”
And that’s what we set out to do. We discovered an abandoned building on a grassy hill in Meridian that had once actually been an orphanage. Now I just needed to be able to afford to buy it. I contacted a friend back in L.A. She helped me broker a deal to do an ad for Kentucky Fried Chicken. That did it! I made enough to buy the home and surrounding land. Within months renovations began on the building and our dream had a home: Hope Village for Children, a permanent refuge for abused and abandoned kids.
Howard came up with the idea to make Hope Village more than just a safe and comfortable place for kids to live until they turned 18. He suggested that we make it “a campus for the care of children.” We could teach the kids all kinds of practical skills—the kinds of things more fortunate children learn from their parents, the sorts of things I learned from mine. Even after they left we’d still be available to offer them advice and guidance. And we started wading through all the red tape—building codes, state child welfare laws, the state of Mississippi foster care bureaucracy. Not surprisingly the people of Meridian pitched in. Teachers volunteered to start tutoring programs, doctors set aside time to work with our children and churches organized groups to help out. Some even took over the decorating.
Hope Village is now a reality. We have more than 40 kids living there. Every time I come back I stop by to see the boys and girls and I end up feeling both small (in a good way) and useful.
Christmas is for children. Maybe that’s why I would never miss coming back to Meridian. For if there is one lesson Christmas teaches us, it is to love and care for our neighbors in every way we can.