The United Methodist Children’s Home announced Aug. 7, 2017, it will move its offices to a modest office complex in Tucker and relocate the families and individuals in residence to apartments. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

United Methodist Children’s Home announces move from Decatur site

After 144 years on sprawling grounds just outside Decatur, the United Methodist Children’s Home is moving to a modest, single-story office complex in Tucker at 1967 Lakeside Parkway, Building 400, former site of the Cordon Bleu culinary school.

The 50,000 square foot structure will include office space for the home’s 60-person administrative staff and several hundred who volunteer every month. About 15,000 square feet will be carved out for the flea market, a UMCH fundraising staple since the 1940s. Perhaps the institution’s most profound symbol, a century-and-a-half old farm bell weighing 400 pounds and once owned by Coca Cola’s Asa Candler, will reside in the new building’s lobby.

The home was founded as a non profit in Norcross in 1871 to establish a home and farm for children orphaned by the Civil War. It moved to the current site in 1873, originally 226 acres and costing $6,000.

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The designation “orphan” was removed from the title in 1934 as more children needed short-term care, not because they were without parents, but because one or both were dealing with issues ranging from financial to physical or psychological. Beginning in 1973 the home began shifting more towards children getting that care with foster families.

In January the home announced intentions to sell its 77 acres and 31 buildings, and in April agreed to a $40 million contract with the city of Decatur. The deal should close later this month. Twenty-two acres in the eastern or rear portion, including the lake and a winding forested area, will mostly remain unchanged.

The front 55 acres include playing fields and a gym long coveted by both the city and the school system. In January, Decatur will begin preparing a master plan for the site, including a series of community input sessions, with completion scheduled for next summer

The move to new facilities was announced Monday by John Cerniglia, the home’s vice president of development.

The 80 or so residents now on site will move into what Cerniglia describes as “middle-class, market rate” apartments in Tucker and Clarkston, a five- to 10-minute drive from the new headquarters. These include young adults, ages 18-21, in the independent living program and families in danger of losing a child to foster care.

The move into apartments may begin as early as next week. The administrative move probably won’t occur until the early fall.

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The sale and now-clarified move has been rumored since at least 2010 when the home ended congregate care, generally definied as a facility run by a rotating staff and housing six or more children. Indeed during the 1950s and 1960s the home had as many as 150 congreage care children on campus. For the many counting themselves as UMCH almuni, the last few months have been acutely painful.

“This is not just a place where we grew up,” said Debora Burger, who first came to the UMCH as a resident in 1963 and later worked there for 13 years. “You start out here with that trauma of being separated from the parent, due to neglect, abuse, poverty or whatever else got us here. You come in scared, traumatized, damaged. But everybody else was too. Without saying a word, everybody else knew your pain.”

The sales contract between Decatur and the UMCH does stipulate that the city protect the grave of founder Jesse Boring, who died in 1890. His tombstone fronts the existing administrative building which also gets preserved and renamed to honor Bev Cochran, the UMCH’s executive director for 43 years until 2012.

The Moore Chapel, a Gothic Revival structure built in 1906, will be protected though a separate non-profit that the UMCH is creating. The chapel will remain as a place of worship while also available for family functions, particularly for alumni.

The UMCH is not buying its new facility, instead signing a 7½-year lease. Cerniglia has said the children’s home spent $1.3 million annually on insurance, utilities and maintenance to run the 77 acres. Had they remained, he estimates spending $25 million for full capital improvements including modern renovations (seven buildings date from 1903-1919) and thorough ADA compliance. Leasing, he points out, gives the Children’s Home “flexibility” and the funds to focus on children.

“It’s a very smart move,” said Bill Adams, who’s run the Atlanta-based Adams Realtors for 38 years. “A lot of non-profits have come to realize that real estate gets in the way of the mission. The attitude is like, ‘I can save the world but I don’t want to worry about cutting the grass and changing light bulbs.’ ”

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Funds from the campus sale will help open more satellite offices primarily dedicated to foster care.

“Foster family-based care has been prevalent my entire 28 years in child welfare,” said Bobby Cagle, director of Georgia’s Department of Family and Children Services. “Our research shows that with family-like foster care children adjust quicker and return to their [biological] families quicker.”

Since 2011 the UMCH has run a satellite in Gainesville, now with an eight-person staff overseeing 60 children in foster care. In September 2016, it opened a Newnan satellite with two staffers and 10 foster children, and then started an Augusta office in June, currently with one staffer.

The UMCH cares for about 240 people daily — this includes children in foster care, young adults in independent living and those in family housing — a number Cerniglia believes will jump to 300 daily by next year. By 2020 the goal is to serve 700 people daily, which could never be achieved, he said, if the home continued running a large campus.

“It’s very important that we’re bringing that old farm bell with us,” Cerniglia said Monday. “For generations it rang as a call for children to come to dinner. It will continue as a beacon, but not to come but for us to go forth to all the communities in North Georgia where children and families are in need.”

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