Cullman’s Pilot Light Home (Photo courtesy Peggy Harris)
CULLMAN – Pilot Light Home, a program of Pilot Club of Cullman, a local chapter of Pilot International, has for three decades offered shelter to children in crisis. Today, though, the home faces a crisis of its own: it is temporarily closed due to a lack of house parents to care for the children brought there by the Cullman County Department of Human Resources (DHR) and law enforcement agencies. Pilot Light, Inc., the board that oversees the home, is asking for someone in the community to step up and help.
The Pilot Light Home is described by the board as “a 24/7 hour foster home and emergency care facility licensed by the department of human resources and governed by an all-volunteer board of directors. The home provides care for six foster children by two house parents, one salaried. These children are abused and/or neglected, abandoned, or whose parents are incapacitated with no relatives to provide care.”
The last house parents left the home in June. The Pilot Club has taken the opportunity to renovate and refurnish the house, but now it is ready for business and needs help.
What is the Pilot Light Home?
Board Chairperson Peggy Harris provided information on the history of the Pilot Light Home.
Prior to 1982, when law enforcement and DHR case workers would find Cullman area children in crisis (often in the middle of the night) who had no readily available family to take them, those kids could end up at homes in Bremen or Brushy Pond if space was available. In some cases, with no space available in designated homes, children would even be temporarily housed at the county jail.
Local DHR staff wanted a home or shelter in Cullman where children could be taken in emergency situations or when other homes were full.
Callie Smith, with Cullman DHR, told The Tribune, “We search until we find a placement. I will say that we like to place in close proximity to where our county base is, which is here (in Cullman). We do have quite a few of our children that are not placed in the county that they’re from.”
DHR’s Amanda Buchanan told The Tribune earlier this year that anywhere from five to 20 new kids will enter the local foster system each month, balanced by typically comparable numbers leaving. The most common reason kids enter the system is drug use by their parents. At that time, Cullman County had 194 children in foster care, but a shortage of homes meant that 67 of them were being housed in other counties.
Said Buchanan, “Whenever kids have to come into care, we’d rather them be in a home that’s close to where they were already living, ideally continuing to go to their same school, you know, change their environment as little as possible. But if the resource is not available, sometimes it’s not possible.”
The importance of local placement to the foster children was explained to The Tribune earlier this year by “Skye,” a Cullman area foster child herself, who spent time in another county before being placed in this county. Read her story at www.cullmantribune.com/articles/2018/08/20/cullman-dhr-foster-care-expo-draws-prospective-parents.
Chartered in 1981, the newly-formed Cullman Pilot Club became interested in helping establish a children’s home/shelter, so it became the primary sponsor of what would become the Pilot Light Home. Under the leadership of Lorene Scott, the Pilot Club was joined by other local civic clubs, churches, industries, businesses and concerned citizens to open a home in Cullman. This home was supported by DHR child welfare payments, Pilot Club and Cullman community donations from civic clubs, churches, businesses, bank and individuals, and later the United Way.
Visits to Operations Home, a community-supported facility in Decatur, created the model for such a place locally. The home was DHR-approved like a foster family home and had house parents.
When Pilot Light, Inc. was incorporated, and its board of directors was named, provisions in its bylaws placed the director of Cullman DHR, the director of Juvenile Probation, the immediate past president of the Pilot Club of Cullman and the Cullman County sheriff or designated Cullman County Sheriff’s Office representative on the board. House parents were hired after completing a home study, medical evaluation, criminal background check and reference checks. The first Pilot Light Home opened in April 1982.
The first home was located in a small house owned by the Cullman City Board of Education between 1982 until 1985. During that span, five sets of house parents lived in the house and cared for approximately 250 children. In 1985, the shelter moved to a larger house provided by the (then-named) Cullman Medical Center, where it operated under four sets of house parents until 1995. When the hospital moved to Alabama Highway 157 in 1995, the house was sold. The board began looking for property on which to build its own home.
A special donation made possible the purchase of property in east Cullman. Dennis Gutherie and the Cullman Homebuilders Association volunteered their services in construction, and materials were purchased through extensive and often creative fundraising efforts. A permanent debt-free home, complete with donated furnishings and appliances, was completed in early 1996.
The permanent home has five bedrooms and a nursery for children, three bathrooms plus one half bath, a great room with kitchen and dining areas, an office/visiting room, a suite for the house parents, a covered porch and an attached double garage with lots of storage space.
Becoming a house parent
Harris explained, “Although the house parent is paid a salary, furnished a vehicle, gas, food and a home, it has been difficult to recruit foster parents for the home and it has been closed a few times when there were no house parents. It takes a special person to take care of other people’s children and follow all of the rules imposed by DHR. It is truly stressful. Many of the children in care have behavioral problems and need therapy or medication. Children are required to visit with their parents unless there is a safety issue and court has prevented (it). The rights and privacy of the children and parents have to be respected. All identifying information about the families must be kept confidential.”
Becoming a house parent is not a simple process. Smith explained that prospective house parents are required to complete an 11-week training program called Trauma Informed Parenting Solutions (TIPS). Each applicant must also pass a state and federal criminal background check, along with clearance through Alabama’s DHR central registry and that of any other state in which the applicant has lived.
Harris noted that the prospective house parents’ own children 14 and older who may live with them at the house must also undergo background checks. Anyone 19 or older must be fingerprinted.
Harris provided The Tribune with the Pilot Light Home House Parents Job Description below:
Role: You have many responsibilities to a number of individuals: the child placed in your home, the agency, The Pilot Light Board, the child’s biological family and your own family.
Goal: The goal is to provide for the physical, emotional, spiritual and social needs of the children.
Responsibilities to the Child:
- Provide a safe and comfortable home for the child to live in with a bed and place for his/her belonging.
- Provide for child’s basic physical and emotional needs.
- Provide for school attendance, monitor progress and note special needs and accomplishments.
- Provide appropriate clothing. See that the child is clean and well-groomed.
- Attend to medical and dental needs, including regular checkups as well as special needs.
- Provide recreational and enrichment activities that will promote the healthy development of the child.
- Provide love, care and supervision 24/7 for up to 6 foster children.
- Provide opportunity for children to be involved in church attendance and activities.
- To help and guide children through the grieving and adjustment process of removal from their families.
Responsibilities to the Pilot Light Home Board:
- Must be certified as a Foster Parent with Department of Human Resources.
- Must comply with state regulations and agency policies and procedures.
- Must have read, understand and comply with the Pilot Light, Inc. policies and by-laws.
- Must keep the board informed of problems and progress of the child, including any injuries to the child.
- Must be available for meetings with the social worker and the board members.
- Must summit all requested documentation in a timely manner.
- Must keep the agency and Board informed of upcoming request for changes in the household including pending additions to the family, notification of impending vacations, etc.
- Must provide prompt reporting of needed repairs and maintenance for home or van.
Position- Salary/ Benefits:
- Modest Salary
- Workers compensation
- Home provided for family and foster children – LR, DR, Kit combination, office, playroom, laundry rm., 5 bedroom, 3 full bathrooms, 1, ½ bath, extra-large double garage; fully furnished – furniture, appliances, kitchenware, cooking and eating utensils, dishware, and bed linens, towels, etc., on ½ acre or more lot.
- All utilities, insurance, phone, cable are provided.
- Van is provided for transportation; all gas, insurance and repairs are covered.
The job description concludes with a warning: “This job is not 9 to 5. It’s your life. The children that you are taking care of can make it one of the most stressful jobs that you ever had. You will take care of kids – abused, neglected – that come from broken homes, drug-abusing parents, that don’t usually want to be there. At the same time, it can be one of the most rewarding jobs, when you can be successful in making lifelong positive impacts for many children.”
House parent/foster parent applications are available from:
- Alabama Department of Human Resources, 1220 St. Joseph St. NW, Cullman, AL 35055. Contact Callie Smith at 256-737-5300, or email email@example.com
- United Way of Cullman County 256-739-2948, located in the Old Depot at 304 First Ave. NE, Cullman, AL 35055
- Pilot Light, Inc. Board of Directors Chairman Peggy Harris – firstname.lastname@example.org, 245-531-2525
Community support a crucial resource
Harris shared, “The Pilot Light Home is funded by the State Department of Human Resources child welfare payments, United Way of Cullman County, the Pilot Club of Cullman, with one-third of the budget, about $30,000, provided through donations from civic organizations, churches, businesses and individuals, as well as fund-raising projects. These funds are used to maintain the home inside and out, provide for the monthly cost of operation – house parent salary, utilities, food, household supplies, clothing, medicine, insurance, gas as well as upkeep for the home and van.
“The ability to continue funding the Pilot Light Home is dependent on financial support from the Cullman community. With competition from newer charities which help many, many people, it is more difficult to receive the donations needed to maintain the funds to support the Pilot Light Home. Donations are always put to good use and very much appreciated.
“This home continues to be a wonderful resource for children who need a safe, family-like setting until the plan for returning to their own family is accomplished. The house parents and children are encouraged to become involved in church activities, sports, community service by providing care and doing projects for those in need. Some, in the past, have worked at fast food businesses and volunteered at the Cullman library. All children are encouraged to help with yard work and house cleaning, basically learning to take care of themselves and develop job skills and service to others.”
Board member Renee Wright
Renee Wright is a member of the Pilot Light Board, and she is also the daughter of Pilot Light Home founder Lorene Scott, so she has watched the project grow from the very beginning. She talked to The Tribune about what it takes to be a house parent:
“It’s a hard job. It takes a special person; it takes someone with a mighty big heart and a care for children that are abused, that are born with a drug addiction. I mean, you know, all this comes into play; it’s hard to just say, ‘Hey, this is a wonderful place to work.’
“It is a wonderful place to work, and I’ll use one thing that my mom always said through the years: ‘The pay’s great. You may not put it in your pocket, but you’ll carry it in your heart forever.’
“Which, the pay is good, when you realize that you’re going in and all your insurance, you have a vehicle, your home, your electricity, your heat, you know, everything is furnished. It’s not so good if you have a home of your own and you have to leave it. So, you know, there’s pros and cons to this; it takes that special person to come in there, that really wants to, that has the heart for that.
“But we have a good board. The board always works with the house parents; we see that they get all that they need. And Cullman, being the community that it is, has always helped tremendously meeting those needs.
“And if I was a little younger, I’d probably just go do it myself! I mean, you’ve got to have a love for children. You’ve got to have a love for children; it can’t just be a job. This is something that’s got to be in your heart to do. And that’s why, sometimes, we have a hard time finding house parents. And it is hard. It’s hard.”
Any child, no questions asked
Wright noted that the Pilot Light Home is an inclusive program. Where foster parents have the option to accept or not accept the placement of a particular child, the Pilots have a history of taking any children sent to them by DHR.
Said Wright “It’s something that we definitely need in Cullman. For instance, if I’m looking as a house parent for a child, and they offer me this child and I don’t want to take him or her, they’re left in the system. We take them, no matter what. You know, a house parent has a choice, but as a board we never turn these children down. They come to us, so we get the leftovers that most people don’t want. And those kids, you know, they’re just as important as the others.
“And that’s one thing that I think we have always given them: they have a nice clean home to live in, we make sure that the house parents are good parents. They’re brought up in the best way possible, where they would just be out on the mercy of the world. So it is a much, much needed place. And it is, like I say, we don’t pick and choose. We don’t pick and choose. We’re there to help all children and do everything we possibly can.
“This was my mother’s heart. You know, Mom was so instrumental in so many things here in Cullman, and this was one of the things. She’d seen it first-hand, and that’s what opened her heart up to find a place for these kids. When you see it and you know it’s happening to them–and we don’t really realize that today, that there’s children that’s a year old or months old that are being raped and abused. You know, it tears your heart up.
“So that was her thought, that we’ve got to do something for these children. And she did, and we have now, for 20-something years. It’s a blessing.”
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