In the savage pioneer days of Arkansas in the late 1800s, tragedy was common and families could easily be torn apart by a twist of fate. The most vulnerable in society, children, were so often left behind in the wake of personal disasters that very few resources or organizations existed for their benefit. But a group of Arkansans, guided by their faith in God and their hearts filled with generosity, became determined to do something to help the abandoned children. The result was the Methodist Orphanage in Arkansas.
The state had not yet set up a reception system, or even a child protection service. In 1897 a group of Methodists from Arkansas saw the need and met in Little Rock to devise a plan of action. After finalizing the plan, a board of trustees was formed and the church spent two years raising funds for orphaned and abandoned children. In 1899 the house was ready to open. The board was headed by Colonel George Thornburgh, a Civil War veteran, newspaper publisher, and prominent Mason.
The Arkansas Women’s Industrial Home offered its properties in Little Rock to house children, and the house was soon up and running. Thornburgh successfully raised funds for a new home in 1910 and moved the Methodist orphanage across town.
It became a labor of love for the administrators and employees as they provided a safe home for the hundreds of orphans who passed. The children attended schools in Little Rock. Thornburgh served as administrator of the house – without pay – until his death in 1922. Dr James Thomas, also one of the original administrators, then took over as supervisor, also serving without pay until upon his death in 1943. A prominent Little Rock physician, Dr. William Snodgrass, provided free medical care to all children in the home while Judge Thomas Mahaffey provided free legal services to the home and children.
After World War II the home was moved to a new location in southwest Little Rock and the official name changed to Arkansas Methodist Children’s Home. In the 1960s Reverend JE Keith was appointed to run the children’s home and established several new homes across the state to expand the services they offered. New houses have appeared in Fort Smith, Magnolia and Searcy. In the 1990s, this expanded to six residential group homes across Arkansas, including Lexa in Phillips County, Magnolia, Searcy, Springdale, Batesville, and Fayetteville.
In the late 20th century, the needs of Arkansas children became more complex as issues of abuse and neglect became increasingly apparent. The children’s home was facing statewide problems with children suffering from mental illness and drug problems, and families with no one to turn to for help. In turn, the children’s home has stepped up its efforts by offering individual and family counseling as well as drug treatment services.
In 2001, the children’s home formed the Methodist Behavioral Health affiliate. The two merged in 2003 as Methodist Family Health. Today, Methodist Family Health provides a variety of services across the state, including 24-hour emergency admissions, therapeutic foster care, school-based counseling services in nine northern school districts of Arkansas, a behavioral hospital in Maumelle, an emergency shelter in Little Rock, eight counseling clinics, two residential treatment centers and eight group homes in Heber Springs, Helena, Mulberry and elsewhere.
From the work of a group of dedicated men and women came this network of dedicated professionals across the state who have literally saved hundreds of lives and countless families.
This article originally appeared on the Fort Smith Times Record: History Minute: Methodist Family Health