For 100 years, the Presbyterian Children’s Home of the Highlands has been caring for children in need of love, sanctuary and guidance. It first operated as a girls’ industrial school in the former resort hotel at Foster Falls, where boys were soon welcomed. Later, it moved to the current campus off of Grayson Road in Wytheville.
Four-year-old Jimmy Nichols came to live at the home in 1961, but soon moved to the new campus in Wytheville. With a jailed father and a mother who left the family, Nichols is grateful for his time at the facility.
“I was taught responsibility and respect,” he said. “And I am forever grateful for that home to be there.”
When he arrived on the sprawling campus, there were just two cottages. Now, there are several cottages, a chapel, dining hall, administrative offices, a gym, pool, ballfields and more.
“There was no grass; it was all dirt when they opened the campus,” said Nichols, who would go on to spend 14 years at the children’s home, leaving when he was 18. He was the youngest of 10 children; six of his siblings lived on campus with him.
“We pretty much stayed there,” he said. “My sister left for foster care for two years, but came back for her senior year. She sure was glad to get back. I can still hear her words when she was coming up the hill to the home there, she said, ‘I’m home.’ She certainly appreciated as much as I did the privilege and opportunity to be there at the home. I’m grateful for the many people who invested in us.”
Nichols, a missionary evangelist who speaks at the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail facility in Abingdon, said a typical day during the school year included cleaning the room he shared with two other boys, walking to the dining hall for breakfast, completing a chore at the kitchen or dining hall, going back to his room, getting ready for school and having a morning devotion before getting on the school bus. After school, there was free time, supper, more free time and bedtime.
“The younger kids went to bed at 8:30 p.m. The older kids got to stay up to 9 p.m.,” he said.
In the summer, Nichols helped mow the grass every morning until noon. With an 89-acre campus, there was mowing to be done every day.
“We worked until lunchtime in the summers, then we’d play some sort of ball,” he said. “I developed a love for sports and played sports at George Wythe High School.”
He remembers working the garden at the foot of the hill and enjoying fresh cherries, pears and apples.
“I remember climbing a cherry tree,” he said. “It seemed like the best cherries were at the tip top of it.”
There were also picnics with local church groups and trips to local minor league baseball games, Claytor Lake, Hungry Mother State Park and Lakeside Amusement Park in Salem.
“That’s the only home I really remember; I am certainly grateful for that home being there,” Nichols said. “I can only imagine what would have happened if I hadn’t been there.”
Today, children, ages 5-21 live at Presbyterian Children’s Home of the Highlands. Most children come from the 19 counties west of Roanoke. Their days are not that much different from Nichols’ days on campus.
Executive Director Billy Rice said in a Wythe County press release that residents get up, do chores and go to school.
“They have free time and study time,” he said. “They are involved in counseling to deal with issues that they brought with them. We try to show them what a normal day would be like. Some come from homes where they would go home and worry about who’s going to hit you or worry about who’s going to be on drugs. Academics are an afterthought in homes like that. We work with them here and make sure they have academic opportunities.”
Rice said seeing children grow into trusting individuals is the best part of his job. Officials at the home hope that the care the children receive there will lead them to break the cycle of abuse and neglect that brought them there.
“One of the truest joys of what we do is to watch a child go from unable to trust anyone or feel that they should be loved and watch them blossom into a person that can do that,” Rice said. “To react to a different kind of life, a life where you don’t have to live the way you were treated. It’s the ultimate reward to have a family come back and to see them raising their family and not us.”
In the release, Presbyterian Children’s Home of the Highlands Administrative Director Wynette Yontz said she is excited to celebrate 100 years of helping children from across the region.
“I’m excited,” Yontz said. “I’ve been here 43 of those 100 years. When I first came we had 30
children pretty much all the time. When you see a child come back and say I don’t know what would have happened to me if it wasn’t for the children’s home. When people ask me our success rate, I say 100 percent because they get to learn there is a different way of life. There are so many that don’t realize what their experiencing is not normal.”
Presbyterian Children’s Home of the Highlands provides room and board, medical care, medication management, therapy, vocational training, recreation opportunities, spiritual and religious opportunities and a well-trained staff to provide a caring and nurturing environment for the residents. Programs include residential services, independent living, life skills, religious development and community relations.
Development Director Dale Yontz said unconditional love and a family atmosphere are two of the concepts that help influence the children’s lives in a positive matter.
“The children’s home is something that provides to children of all walks of life,” he said in the release. “We’re able to impact children through showing them unconditional love. We’re able to influence children from different backgrounds and expose children to a true family atmosphere.”
Presbyterian Children’s Home of the Highlands is celebrating its centennial with events Thursday and Saturday. First, there will be an ice cream social Thursday from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. On Saturday, the campus will open at 10 a.m. and will begin a day celebration with the dedication of the Sarah Ellen Harless Garden of Hope at noon, followed by a day of activities that include free food, campus tours, a corn hole tournament, museum displays, inflatables and more. Both events will be at the PCCH campus at 425 Grayson Road, Wytheville.
Presbyterian Children’s Home of the Highlands History:
• The Girls’ Industrial School opened Sept. 3, 1919, in a large, brick building originally built as a summer resort hotel for mining officials at Foster Falls.
• In the early 1930s, boys were included in the program so that families would not have to be separated. The named changed from the Girls’ Industrial School to the Children’s Home of Abingdon Presbytery. The boys and girls attended public schools in Wythe County and worshipped at the Galena Presbyterian Church at Max Meadows.
• In September 1939, fire destroyed one floor of the main building. The building was eventually restored and the home continued at Foster Falls until 1962, when it moved after the board purchased the 89-acre Green Meadows Farm on the southwestern edge of Wytheville.
To reach reporter Millie Rothrock, call 276-228-6611, ext. 35, or email email@example.com