Tucked behind a few trees and other greenery on North Boulevard is a large H-shaped brick home that has served children and families for over 100 years. Now the Hephzibah Children's Association is saying goodbye to foster care specialist and one of the home's biggest advocates for 34 years, Davida Williams.
The group home on North Boulevard is the second building Mary Wessels, founder of Hephzibah, used to foster its first children -- two boys placed in her care by a friend, along with more than a dozen others. That was in 1927.
Over the decades the home has lived up to the name Hephzibah, both Wessels' mother's name and a Hebrew word meaning "comforting mother" or "come to me," by teaching and nurturing thousands of children.
While Hephzibah has no religious affiliation, said Williams, the services the staff provide are nothing short of saintliness.
"When I started," said Williams, "There were only 25 of us. We have a staff of almost 160 now." These days Hephzibah offers a wide range of care for families and children -- the group home on North Boulevard, adoption and foster care, preschool services, after-school care in local schools.
Williams, after working with Executive Director Mary Anne Brown on Hephzibah's day care and foster care initiatives in the late 1970s and early '80s, saw Brown's vision for a group home.
In 1986 it finally happened.
"We pulled out the downstairs and we made that beautiful basement into their home," said Williams, motioning to the ground below.
The group home has capacity for 26 children, most often youth who have suffered the most extreme forms of abuse. Sixteen children live downstairs in the Diagnostic Treatment Center (DTC) and 10 children live on the 2nd floor for the long term residency.
Making a safe home for live-in kids
Renovating the basement by transforming outdated storage rooms became the new project for Brown and Williams.
"For some of these kids this is the safest place they have ever, ever lived," said Williams standing near the doorway of a room with a long wooden conference table and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.
In this room Williams remembered a small child who had come to live at Hephzibah. The child needed to be convinced every night that every door was locked. Her fear came from a threat she had received from friends of an abusive father.
"[Brown] has taught me that we're always thinking, evaluating. Our minds work like: How can I make that better? How can we make that child's life easier?"
Williams began teaching foster parents a nine-session course on how to foster children. Teaching, however, does not begin and end with parents. There is a computer room in the group home and the organization conducts a reading program every August and has partnered with Dominican University over the last 12 years in running the Hephzibah Academy at Dominican.
"We need to change the cycle of abuse and neglect, but not just that. We have to open [the children's] world and lives to what's around them," said Williams looking up at a map of the world painted on the computer room walls.
Having greater education and an expanded world view was even necessary for Williams.
In the late 1980s when the world was concerned with how to understand AIDS, Williams received a call about 11 babies in a quarantined room in a state shelter who tested HIV positive. After visiting the shelter, she called the person responsible for isolating the babies.
"I said, 'well educate me. I have two dozen foster homes here who will take these babies. Who aren't afraid of a baby.'"
By partnering with the person managing the care of the infants, Williams was able to place the babies with families within weeks and has maintained a friendship with the organization ever since.
Retirement is a hard reality to face for Williams. But the days she will spend enjoying solace in Michigan will amount to work just as dedicated to Hephzibah as her 30-plus years of service— she's writing a book about the experience.
Her voice cracking slightly, a few tears forming in her eyes, Williams said, "Everything I live, I think about these children."
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