By Jane Duckwall
Two organizations helping western North Carolina children in crisis for more than a century — one struggling to maintain an aging campus, the other looking for room to grow — have joined forces. In January, the merger between The Crossnore School, founded in 1913 as a boarding school for disadvantaged children in Avery County, and The Children’s Home, started as a Winston-Salem orphanage in 1909, became official. Crossnore CEO Brett Loftis, 41, was tapped to lead the partnership.
“There are so many children who need a place to go. We can’t provide all that here in the mountains,” he says. “Crossnore has been full for several years, with a waiting list. The number of kids in foster care continues to go up, and we have a record high — almost 11,000 — in the state. We don’t really see that changing anytime soon.”
Young adults such as Appalachian State University sophomore Alex Taylor still return to the 85-acre campus in Crossnore, a town of fewer than 200 people. Alex arrived as a 15-year-old runaway and stayed when he legally emancipated himself from his parents two years later. Now, during breaks from classes, there is still space for him and other college students who need it in a converted apartment building that now holds offices and recreational space.
Over the years, Crossnore and The Children’s Home expanded their therapeutic and residential services to include outpatient therapy and day-treatment programs. Children come from all over the state, but primarily western North Carolina. Prominent Crossnore School alumni include U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx and Jack Wiseman, who went on to turn Avery County into a top Christmas tree producer.
Crossnore recently completed a $21 million capital campaign to increase its endowment and fund capital improvements. Donations included $1 million from former Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis and his wife, Donna. Crossnore ended 2015 with a $25.8 million endowment.
“To last another 100 years, we really tried to think what business plan would get us there,” Loftis says. “A lot of it was about building an endowment that would keep us less dependent on government sources and really taking our own future into our hands.”
As Crossnore’s financial situation improved, The Children’s Home struggled as a mission of the United Methodist Church. Its aging buildings needed expensive upgrades, andit couldn’t subsist on the government funding it received for residential and outpatient programs. Expenses exceeded revenue by $5.3 million between 2011-15, according to a report by the Methodists’ Western North Carolina Conference.
“We could not continue to rely on Medicaid as the only funding stream,” says Jenny Taylor, 55, interim CEO of The Children’s Home before the merger and current chief human resources officer. Crossnore had “a very similar, child-centered, family-centered philosophy. That was what appealed to us and still appeals to us.”
The new organization is working to increase the number of children it serves and continue its efforts to keep sibling groups together. In August, three new cottages were completed on the Avery County campus, increasing the number of children who can live there from 83 to 110. Each of the campus’s 14 cottages provides a home environment with resident parents and a rescued dog that serves as a pet and companion. The campus also has shops and a horse stable where children can receive equine therapy.
With the number of children in foster care at a record high, the 212-acre Children’s Home campus in Winston-Salem will help address a growing need. “In years past, they served 200 to 300 kids on campus,” Loftis says. “But most of the buildings there are about 70 years old … and they are not in shape to have children yet. So we’re doing quite a bit of fundraising to get buildings up and in great condition to serve kids.”
About 25 children live in cottages on the Winston-Salem campus, which also has a working farm with animals used in therapy programs. Loftis says that number will double by the end of the summer — with another 100 to 150 added over the next few years. Outpatient programs also served about 275 last year.
The expansions on both campuses will mean that Crossnore School & Children’s Home can help more kids like Alex, who graduated from Crossnore’s on-campus charter school as valedictorian with a full college scholarship. He is now president of Appalachian’s pre-law fraternity chapter and plans to become a child advocacy attorney.
“If it wasn’t for Crossnore, there wouldn’t be an Alex Taylor anymore,” he says. ”I would not be here talking to you today.”