By LANDON WOODROOF
Debbie Chamberlain was 11 in 1968 when she arrived, older than her years, at the Brentwood campus of the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes. She and her five siblings had been abandoned by their mother when Debbie was six. Next, they went to live with a father and stepmother in Florida who Debbie says beat them all on a daily basis. After several long years, they were abandoned again and sent to foster care.
Through the intervention of concerned grandparents in Nashville and some area churches, the siblings eventually made their way to the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes’ Brentwood location on Franklin Road.
“It was a lifesaver, absolutely,” Chamberlain said.
Altogether, five of the Chamberlain kids grew up there. They escaped their difficult childhood and became successful adults with professional careers. Debbie has been in real estate for 25 years and currently serves on the board of directors for the Williamson County Board of REALTORS. Her kids and all her nephews and nieces are college graduates. And she credits the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes and the “love, respect [and] responsibility” they taught her for her success.
“Without them I never would have been able to do the things I’ve done,” she said.
It is just one story in the history of an organization that’s been around for 125 years and has had the same Brentwood location since 1911. In a way, though, it is the story, the one that employees of the Children’s Homes hope to replicate with each one of the kids that come into their care. Furthermore, it is a story that workers at the Children’s Homes worry is lost on many of the people that drive past the Brentwood campus every day, maybe noticing the brick buildings that seem to have been there forever, but not really knowing what goes on inside.
From city to farm
Envisioned by Mrs. Georgia Eastman, a member of First Baptist Church in Nashville, what was then known as the Tennessee Baptist Orphans’ Home went from idea to reality with remarkable speed back in 1891, according to the book “Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes: Three Centuries of Care.” Eastman enlisted a bevy of churchgoing men and women to draw up by-laws, apply for a charter and find a suitable location for the orphanage in a span of just six months.
The doors of the Orphans’ Home opened on Nov. 16, 1891, at 4200 Delaware Ave. in West Nashville in what used to be the Hotel Delaware at what now is an industrial site just west of I-40. In its first year, the home housed 28 kids, took in $3,433, and spent all but $28. Pretty soon, the organization was accepting coal, garden seeds and even a cow in lieu of cash donations.
Eventually, things stabilized and the Orphans’ Home Board of Managers began to contemplate a change in scenery. The Hotel Delaware, located next to a train station atop a measly half-acre of land, seemed a less than ideal spot for disadvantaged youths. Surely, it was thought, the children should be given the opportunity to learn to work as well as go to school; and what better place to learn to work than a farm?
After considering several locations, including a 250-acre farm in Belle Meade, the board decided on a $12,000, 75-acre farm between Nashville and Franklin that belonged to Major C.T. Cheek.
“In Brentwood before Brentwood was Brentwood,” is how Campus Ministry Assistant Sara Goehring described the move.
By the early summer of 1912, the farm site boasted three new dormitories, as well as cows, mules, a barn and other farming necessities. Labor was divided just about how one would expect it would be in the 1910s. The boys farmed and milked the cows, while the girls cooked and washed the clothes. A flu outbreak swept the farm in 1918, sickening 98 people, but somehow they all survived.
Additional land was purchased over time, until the Orphans’ home spread to 464 acres in 1927. The boom in acreage coincided with a boom in farm production. A report from around that time mentions 30 milk cows and 30 hogs on site, and notes the production of 1,010 gallons of sorghum from the farm’s sugar cane patch and sorghum mill.
The Orphans’ Home added its own fire department in the late 1920s, its own hospital in 1931, and began to construct its own school in 1940. The organization changed its name to the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes in 1953, partially in recognition of the fact that not all of its kids were orphans anymore. Like the kids there today, many of them had been voluntarily turned over to the Children’s Homes’ care by parents or guardians.
A big downsizing occurred at the Brentwood campus in 1969 when the Children’s Homes sold 372 acres of its property to fund the construction of ten cottages to replace its aging dormitories. It was believed that a living space that more closely resembled a house would better instill a sense of normal family life to the children.
Breaking the cycle
It was one of those new cottages that Debbie Chamberlain moved into with her brothers and sisters in the early 1970s. The cottages’ intended purpose worked on her. She and her siblings were able to live together as a family unit once again.
“It was literally the home we grew up in,” Chamberlain said.
Even in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, as living situations for the kids were being rethought, the Brentwood campus still retained the hardworking edge of a previous era.
“I would walk across campus to make breakfast for 120 kids at 10 years old,” she said. “I had a work ethic like you wouldn’t believe.”
Stories like those, and what came before, contributed to Chamberlain’s drive and tenacity, even if she admits jokingly that they sometimes made her less than sympathetic to her own kids’ plights.
“You can imagine my poor children growing up with me; when they say life’s not fair, I say, oh, I’ve got stories,” Chamberlain said.
The lessons Chamberlain learned at the Brentwood campus helped instill in her the confidence and poise to take opportunities that came her way and achieve what she wanted to achieve.
Unfortunately, not all the kids at the Children’s Homes do the same.
“We’ve found ourselves caring for kids and grandchildren of former residents because it’s hard to break the pattern of that sort of lifestyle,” Greg McCoy, President/Treasurer of the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes, said.
Chamberlain knows exactly what he’s talking about, referring to a “cycle of violence and neglect” that many kids at the Children’s Homes are trapped in.
She is currently helping to put together a program at the Children’s Homes to teach kids the social and practical skills necessary to make it in the real world.
“That is what everybody who works out there is trying to do,” Chamberlain said. “To teach these children that their past doesn’t define them.”
Ultimately, though, Chamberlain believes that what these kids really need is deeper than any social skill. It is more profound then learning how to write a resume. It was the most important lesson she learned at the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes.
“It was the faith that was taught to us,” she said. “A lot of people don’t want to talk about that but it is a religious organization and faith is very, very important. It gives you the strength and the ability to see past challenges. It gives you hope.”
The campus near sunset. // MARK COOK PHOTO
Campus said by some to “hide in plain sight.” Click HERE for story.