Understanding being ‘away from home’

Apr. 19, 2013 @ 04:43 PM

His first nine months as administrator of the Masonic Home for Children at Oxford taught Kevin Otis what it’s like to be without a family.

When he came to Oxford last July to accept the job at the Masonic Home, Otis left his family behind in Decatur, Ill., so his son — a high school senior — could complete his final year where he grew up.

Although the separation is temporary, Otis said, “It was the best horrible experience I’ve ever had. I know now what it’s like to leave your family.”

The experience increased his empathy for the residents at the Masonic Home, as if he needed it after 27 years of helping young people in a residential setting.

Otis grew up in Illinois. He earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology at Illinois State University and a master of business administration at Millikin University.

“My first job out of college was at Webster-Cantrell Hall,” he said, an institution similar to the Masonic Home. Over the next 27 years, he went from his entry-level job through several other positions and into administration.

Otis’ wife, also named Kevin, will be joining him in Oxford after the end of the school year. She holds a master of social work degree and is chief clinical officer at Webster-Cantrell.

In addition to their son, the couple has a daughter, 24, who has a master’s degree in education and teaches in Missouri.

Most of the young people at the Masonic Home are separated from their families only temporarily. Very few are without anybody, Otis said.

“The path a lot of kids take is kinship care, an aunt or uncle or a grandparent,” he said.

But sometimes these caregivers are unable to manage the task. That’s when the child comes to the Masonic Home.

“We allow the guardian to retain authority over the children,” Otis said, meaning that the child can return to the family when circumstances make that possible.

The average stay is probably a little longer than two years, Otis said. The child who enters in elementary school and stays through high school is the exception.

“We are one big family,” he said. “There is strong participation in the community, and the community participates with us.”

As an example, he cited the Vance-Granville Community College culinary program, which is based at the Masonic Home to take advantage of the modern kitchen facilities. The two-year culinary arts degree program prepares students for professional positions in restaurants, hotels, catering operations, health-care facilities, schools and other institutions.

In February, the board of directors of the Masonic Home for Children made a donation to the Granville Education Foundation on behalf of the home, another example of the school’s commitment to the community.

And the community responds. This past March, for example, volunteers from Masonic lodges and community organizations turned out to give the campus a sprucing up.

The Masonic Home offers some unique opportunities for its residents. The School of Graphic Arts, for instance, serves the dual role of offering vocational development for residents and providing income for the home. Students are able to receive experience operating all the machinery involved in printing as well as creating designs and formats.

Otis hopes to develop closer working relationships with agencies such as the Department of Social Services and Cardinal Innovations.

“We are a unique niche in the welfare system,” he said. “We don’t charge, although we ask the family if they can help out. We provide residential care for low to moderate at-risk kids.”

Working with other human services organizations is important in responding to all of the needs of the school’s residents.

Although no one is happy about the circumstances that bring a young person to the Masonic Home, Otis said, “it’s a good choice for a lot of folks.”

The current population of the Masonic Home is 63.

“It’s increased 35 percent in the last nine months,” he said. “We have a capacity for 96. Our biggest barrier is finding house parents.”

One of the seven cottages for children is empty right now for that reason. The Masonic Home has opportunities for house parents at different stages of life, including young couples with their own children, mid-life couples and retired couples.

For 140 years, the Masonic Home for Children has provided a home-like setting for children who need a stable and supportive living environment until they are reunited with their families or achieve independence.

The Masonic Home is licensed by the State of North Carolina as a residential foster care home and is accredited by the Council on Accreditation.

Otis said he is looking forward to the Masonic Home’s third annual homecoming festival in October. If it’s like the previous homecomings, it will feature music, tours and — especially — a reunion of former residents.

By that time, Otis will be reunited with his own family.

Contact the writer at dirvine@hendersondispatch.com.