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A home for Thanksgiving

Uspiritus hosts annual holiday dinner for Kentucky’s most vulnerable children and families

by Emily Enders Odom | Presbyterian News Service

Ms. Carly, a member of the USpiritus staff, in line with one of the girls. (Photo by Samantha Jewell)

Ms. Carly, a member of the USpiritus staff, in line with one of the girls. (Photo by Samantha Jewell)

LOUISVILLE – At Thanksgiving—when gatherings of all shapes, sizes, ages, and configurations traditionally come together to thank God for food and family, home and hearth—one 12-year old boy is thankful for something else entirely.

The young resident of Uspiritus—which as the largest child care agency in the Commonwealth of Kentucky serves over 1,350 youth annually—is grateful for his therapist.

“I’m thankful for my therapist that helps me through all the things I’ve been through,” he said in a video shown during the agency’s annual Thanksgiving Dinner, held this year on Tuesday, November 22.

Every Thanksgiving, some 350 guests—including the children served by Uspiritus, the staff members who work with them every day, volunteers, teachers, therapists, foster families, and Uspiritus board members, like Lee Baltzell—sit down together to enjoy the holiday meal.

“These are just kids like yours and mine. Only these kids have been dealt a really rotten hand,” said Baltzell, a member of the Uspiritus Board of Directors and chair of its Faith Heritage Committee. Baltzell, a former social worker and a ruling elder at Second Presbyterian Church, Louisville, is also a regular volunteer for Uspiritus. She wouldn’t dream of missing its annual Thanksgiving Dinner, where volunteers serve in the lines and help seat the children and guests so staff members can sit with the children and enjoy the meal.

Lee Baltzell, volunteer for USpiritus, member of Second Presbyterian Church. (Photo by Samantha Jewell)

Lee Baltzell, volunteer for USpiritus, member of Second Presbyterian Church. (Photo by Samantha Jewell)

“Through no fault of their own, these children ended up in this kind of situation,” she said. “They all have multiple problems, but what child wouldn’t when they’ve gone through sometimes 10-15 different foster homes? What child wouldn’t act out and say, ‘Are you going to love me this time or are you going to kick me out just like the last place?’”

While it is a critical part of the mission of Uspiritus to provide greater care for vulnerable children and families throughout Kentucky, even more than that, its mission is to provide them with a home.

“Clearly our mission is centered around healing these kids and their families,” said the Rev. Samantha Jewell, the agency’s full-time chaplain. “We do that by providing not just what is expected to meet requirements, but also by providing the life and love that all kids deserve to our children by special events such as our Thanksgiving Dinner every year. The meal itself is always a treat, but it is also a time for us to pause and give thanks for our year together.”

Celebrating Thanksgiving has been a part of the mission and “family feel” of Uspiritus—the result of a 2012 merger between the former Bellewood Presbyterian Home for Children and the United Church of Christ-related Brooklawn Child & Family Services—for the entire 160 years plus of their separate and collective existence.

Baltzell has served as a board member for 12 years, 9 of those on the Bellewood board prior to the agencies’ merger. She has “a heart for kids and their plight” going back to her social services roots and social work background. She was a social worker until 1976 with Louisville’s Metro Social Services Department (MSSD), as it was then known, first in the area of financial assistance and then assigned to work with children charged with felonies as they moved through the court system. Then, after giving birth to her second child, Baltzell completely changed careers and taught dance at the University of Louisville for 25 years.

“I said yes to serving on the board because it was just a perfect fit,” she said. “I’ve been on other boards before, but not so child-oriented, and this is where my heart is. I just knew that these kids need us so desperately—they need our support and our love. That began the story.”

Volunteers at USpiritus's Thanksgiving dinner serve in the lines and help seat the kids and guests so that the staff can sit with the kids and enjoy the meal. (Photo by Samantha Jewell)

Volunteers at USpiritus’s Thanksgiving dinner serve in the lines and help seat the kids and guests so that the staff can sit with the kids and enjoy the meal. (Photo by Samantha Jewell)

A highlight of the annual Thanksgiving dinner is a slide presentation and video showing the many things that the children have done over the past year.

“Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday because it’s about family, food, and being thankful,” said Abbreial “Abby” Drane, president and CEO of Uspiritus. “Our children have been separated from their biological families due to circumstances that they cannot control. This Thanksgiving meal may have been the first time they have celebrated this great day, and one they will remember forever. The family of Uspiritus comes together in a loving way to celebrate with the children and truly live out the meaning of being thankful.”

Thanksgiving guests also enjoy special music. Uspiritus staff member, Morgan Boeckel, often leads singing at the dinner. Last year, he and one of the children from his cottage sang “Sanctuary,” a very special song for all of the children in the agency’s residential program.

“I’m thankful to Uspiritus and the kids here for creating such an amazing atmosphere to work,” Boeckel said in the video. “The fact I get to come into work every day and truly leave feeling wonderful about the things I have done is something not many people can say in the work force.”

Baltzell said that she “can’t say enough good stuff” about Uspiritus, as it attempts to make a difference for Kentucky’s children and families. She is also proud to be a part of an organization that is unique among child care agencies as the only one that employs a full-time chaplain.

“Although we can’t require the children to attend worship because we receive state funds, it is important that we give them the opportunity to worship and that we are very ecumenical about it,” she said. “We’re always trying to liaison with the many different churches that are coming with youth groups, with Bible study, with all sorts of different things that you can do volunteer-wise in order to integrate faith into the children’s lives. That’s not just meaningful to me because I chair the Faith Heritage Committee, but it’s meaningful to everyone on the board.”

Baltzell also continues to be amazed not only by the consistent quality of the meal for such a large gathering of people, but also by the community’s commitment to this annual tradition.

“The kids come and they dress up,” she said. “There are lots of staff, supporters, and people who have an interest in the work that we do. It’s the kids’ Thanksgiving dinner, and it’s a darn good Thanksgiving meal!”

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