Historic DeKalb children’s home decides to sell despite criticism

Amid opposition from some former residents and neighbors, the board of the historic United Methodist Children's Home voted Tuesday to put its sprawling 77-acre campus near Decatur up for sale.

The vote, which was held in a closed session, was confirmed by John Cerniglia, vice president of income development at the nonprofit.

The South Columbia Drive organization, founded to help orphans of the Civil War, is now the temporary home to about 70 people, including young adults transitioning out of foster care and families who otherwise could be homeless. It hasn’t been a traditional orphanage since 2010.

Officials with the home say the sale is partly spurred by maintenance costs on the grounds and its buildings so badly in need of repair that they’ve become unusable. By renting housing and facilities across north Georgia instead of using the DeKalb location, the board estimates it can help 63 more people every year.

“We have families that we have to say no to,” CEO Rev. Hal Jones said in an exclusive interview Monday with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The need is stunning.”

Many details will have to be ironed out before the full new operations plan comes into view.

The nonprofit is funded through a mix of donations, endowment interest and payments from the various counties that house people there.

Critics of the sale don’t want to say goodbye to the historic grounds populated with wild forest along Katie Kerr Drive and cottages, playgrounds, an ornate stone chapel and a number of other structures.

They also fear what could be built in its place. There’s been talk of a subdivision of some 600 homes, which opponents say could disrupt wildlife and choke traffic on South Columbia and Katie Kerr drives.

The city of Decatur and the city school district have also previously expressed interest in the property.

The uncertainty is unnerving for those who hold the property dear.

“To the alumni it is home,” said former resident and employee Debora Burger. “It was solace to those people who were not able to have their families at certain points in their life.”

When she learned of Tuesday’s vote, Burger was inconsolable.

It’s easy to see the charms of the place.

On Monday, young men who’d been in foster care played video games in one of the cottages, enjoying the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday. Kids who’d otherwise be homeless hid on the side of one of the family duplexes with water guns drawn, as opponents prowled yards away.

If you ask the leaders of the home, none of this would go away with the sale. In fact, it would multiply, said Cerniglia, vice president of income development.

The home isn’t being used to capacity now. It’s licensed to have 39 young people transitioning out of foster care but has only 23 there because of the condition of the cottages.

In one vacant cottage, whose walls are covered in paneling, a plaque at the door commemorates the last renovation project, in the mid-1970s.

Cerniglia said consultants have told the board to expect perhaps $35 million for the land, money that would be added to the endowment and help them lease locations across north Georgia; renovations to the existing grounds were estimated at $25 million.

The board also considered selling 70 acres and building new structures on the remaining seven, which would be complicated because the various buildings now span more than 30 acres.

“I just want to make sure that whatever decision is made that the support doesn’t go away,” current resident Arlene Gordon, who lives at the site with her 12-year-old son, told the AJC ahead of the vote. “It is definitely a blessing.”

Cerniglia said United Methodist guarantees it’s not going to leave current residents stranded.

The home must now find a buyer in a possibly crowded field and relocate current residents.

Board members are also sure to hear from people like Burger who feel United Methodist has a “responsibility” to honor a site that holds rich history for former residents, the county and the state of Georgia.

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