OPINION: Taking care of the least of these

Sarah Booth, who came to Christian City as a broken 12-year-old, now oversees some of the nonprofit's programs. (Courtesy of Christian City)
Sarah Booth, who came to Christian City as a broken 12-year-old, now oversees some of the nonprofit's programs. (Courtesy of Christian City)

Credit: Courtesy of Christian City

Credit: Courtesy of Christian City

In the months since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, my inbox has been inundated with bad news and predictions of more to come. The children who will be sexually abused. Those who will go hungry. And those who will become homeless.

As bad and as sad as that is, it is not new. The poor will always be among us.

Just last year, Georgia ranked 38th in the nation for child well-being with 10,487 child victims of physical, sexual and psychological abuse and neglect. There are nearly 12,000 youths in state custody in Georgia and a significant shortage of foster care homes to provide for them. On average, 1/3 of the more than 3,000 homeless youths in metro Atlanta will be solicited for sex trafficking within 48 hours of being on the streets.

If they are lucky, a small percentage will end up in a place like Christian City, a little-known Atlanta nonprofit that has been serving children that fall victim to poverty, neglect and/or homelessness since 1965.

Keith Horton is CEO of Christian City, an Atlanta nonprofit that serves children who have fallen victim to poverty, neglect and/or homelessness. (Courtesy of Christian City)
Keith Horton is CEO of Christian City, an Atlanta nonprofit that serves children who have fallen victim to poverty, neglect and/or homelessness. (Courtesy of Christian City)

Credit: Photo courtesy of Christian City

Credit: Photo courtesy of Christian City

I say small because according to Keith Horton, its CEO, about 150 kids ages 5 to 18 are served each year in its Children’s Village, Safe Place, and Crossroads Foster Care and Adoption programs.

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That might not seem like much, given the numbers I noted earlier, but the results are huge. Of the kids who end up there, who remain there until their 18th birthday, all graduate from high school and some even go on to college.

Sarah Booth is just one of them.

When she came to Christian City in the winter of 2000, she was a broken 12-year-old who had endured years of sexual abuse.

“I was poor white trash, who’d been told I’d never amount to anything,” Booth said.

The year before on her 12th birthday, Booth moved out and like a lot of homeless youths made herself at home on a friend’s couch.

To secure her place in their lives, she offered to have a threesome with the stepfather and her best friend. All they had to do was pursue temporary custody of her.

Instead, they convinced Booth to report the abuse she’d suffered previously and she did.

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Her father was arrested, and she and her two siblings were shuttled to an emergency shelter where they remained until the case against their father was closed.

Three months later, she said, her father pleaded guilty to statutory rape and child molestation for abusing her and her younger sister.

Booth and her siblings were then transferred to Christian City and enrolled at Landmark Christian School.

The first two years were particularly rough.

“I was so angry with myself and everyone else," she said. "I was hurt and wanted the world to hurt with me.”

She was a ninth grader when Steve and Kathy Ogden arrived with their 11-year-old son. Christian City’s new house parents had left rural Ohio and good-paying jobs believing God had called them to a higher purpose.

Booth hated them. She cursed them. She lied on them to try to get them fired. If she did enough bad things, she figured they’d eventually throw up their hands and leave.

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“Despite that, they loved me unconditionally,” Booth said. “I started to see them as normal people.”

The real shift came, she said, “when I met Jesus and started to understand what that could mean.”

By then, Booth was 15. She started to apply herself fully to her schoolwork, focusing on doing well, joining leadership groups at school. She worked on speaking proper English, to stop cussing.

Old habits die hard, so that last part took a while, but in 2006, driven by her own fears of aging out of foster care and becoming homeless, Booth graduated from high school then enrolled at Emory University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration.

An internship at a digital marketing agency turned into a full-time job with Booth working her way up to senior media manager. Along the way, she began mentoring students at Passion City Church in Buckhead.

From 2011 onward, Booth met weekly with a group of 20 girls, who were each going through their own private hell — eating disorders, cutting, sexual abuse. When it was suggested one of them seek counseling, the girl’s parents decided that wasn’t necessary. She had Booth.

Booth wasn’t a trained counselor but felt God nudging her. Months later in 2016, she earned a master’s degree in counseling from Liberty University.

When she learned Christian City, the place that had changed her life, was looking for a marketing person in 2014, Booth reached out but then was told Christian City was starting a new runaway and homeless youth program called Safe Place. Booth applied and got the job as Safe Place coordinator.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

Today, the 32-year-old is program executive of Safe Place, Christian City’s residential and Thrive Graduate Transition programs.

“Her story is a powerful tale of resilience and overcoming with God, but Sarah’s story isn’t the only one,” Horton said.

Many of the children who found refuge at the five-decades-old nonprofit have gone on to become, among other things, business owners, pastors, firefighters, and store managers. Many have raised their own families and are doing good things in their communities.

“With help from God and a lot of loving people, they have broken the cycle of generational poverty, addiction or other family crises that brought them to Christian City,” Horton said.

Without Christian City and more specifically the Ogdens in her life, Booth told me she would’ve become another “barefoot and pregnant statistic.”

Instead of labeling her a failure as so many others did, the Ogdens spoke life into her.

Twenty years later, Booth said that’s her goal as she meets another generation of children who feel worthless and unloved.

Thank God for that.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

EVENT PREVIEW

Second annual Community Champion Awards Gala

7 p.m. April 29, 2021. Georgia Aquarium, 225 Baker St. NW, Atlanta. Christiancity.org.

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