Big Hearts for the Big House

By Brad McEwen

In all honesty it’s kind of hard to remember exactly what was going through my mind more than 20 years ago, when I was a senior at Westover or starting my college career at Darton. I was no doubt excited about the endless possibilities life had in store, and I know I was full of grand ideas, but I know for sure that my priorities were squarely focused on what was best for Brad.

I’m pretty sure my main concerns were along the lines of finding a date, figuring out what to do on Friday night, or trying to make sure I could have a good time and still pass all my classes.

I certainly wasn’t spending a whole lot time thinking about the plight of others and even less looking for ways to help or striving to be a selfless person.

That’s not to say that I was out of touch with the major ills of the world—poverty, hunger, violence—but aside from possessing that magically, self-righteous anger reserved mainly for the young, I wasn’t doing anything of note to improve the world around me. Unless of course hanging out with my buddies and discussing the meaning of life somehow made the world a better place.

I’ve thought a lot about those times lately and I think that’s the chief reason I was so impressed recently when I sat down with Lee County High School Senior Baylee Purvis and her good friend, Albany State freshman, Hope Joiner to discuss their involvement with the Lee County Chapter of the Big House Foundation—a non-profit that strives to meet the needs of children in foster care.

“The Big House Foundation is used to help children transition into foster care,” explained Baylee over a cup of coffee at Starbucks. “We try to provide them the basic things that they need because usually, when children are transitioned, it’s an emergency situation and they don’t get to take much with them. They usually have the clothes on their backs, and if they’re lucky they get to take a couple of things.

“So we try to provide them with clothing and toiletries and maybe something to comfort them like a (stuffed) animal or a coloring book—just to make that transition a little easier.”

Baylee, who is also dual-enrolled at ASU, and Hope, who graduated from Westover High School last year, currently serve as what are known as ambassadors for the Big House organization, which was founded by Blake and Micah Melnick in Opelika, Alabama in 2009.

According to information provided by Baylee and Hope, as well as Big House board member and Lee Family Connection Executive Director Patsy Shirley, the Lee County Chapter of Big House was started in 2013 by then LCHS senior Ashley Moates, who upon graduation passed the ambassador duties on to her close friend Candace Shirley, whose mom Patsy has continued to offer assistance to the ambassadors who have followed Ashley and Candace.

Patsy, herself a tireless supporter of nearly every organization aimed at improving life in and around Lee County, helped fill in some of the gaps and further explain what Big House is all about and a little about how Ashley started the Lee County chapter.

“Her older brother had done some volunteer work with them and she loved what they did and what they stood for,” Patsy explained. “So she decided to charter a local chapter here.

“She did some great projects her senior year—re-decorated the visitation room at Lee County DFCS (Department of Family and Children’s Services), held a clothing closet for foster families to shop in, did the annual swim suit and towel drive for children in foster care in Lee and Sumter counties.”

After Ashley passed the torch to Candace the organization continued to thrive, with Candace able to expand the reach of the chapter her close friend had started to include providing basic necessities to foster children in Lee, Sumter and Worth counties.

“We grew up together,” Candace said of Ashley. “So, when she went off to college she asked me if I’d be willing to take over for her. I’ve always loved working with kids. It’s something that’s been personally important to me.

“I wanted to do something to help them.”

Like current ambassadors Baylee and Hope, it was evident during our quick phone interview, that Candace too has a real passion for Big House and for helping others, something she credits to her mom, who has always inspired her to serve.

“It’s all thanks to my mom really,” Candace said. “From the start my mom has just shown how she serves others. That instilled in me the passion to help others. Who am I not to help someone?”

That same kind of drive and determination to improve the lives of others was apparently shared by Audrey Taylor and Eboni Jackson, who, as high school students, took the reins from Candace as the chapter’s first co-ambassadors, ultimately serving for two years.

Patsy said that Audrey and Eboni continued the swim suit and towel drive (which is actually an annual event that originated with the original Big House chapter in Opelika and continues to this day) and also set up a Big House room at the Lee County DFCS office, to house the basic necessities foster children might need when they transition to a new home.

After doing her part to continue strengthening the Lee County chapter of Big House, Eboni eventually chose Baylee as her successor, who in turn recruited her friend Hope, with whom she had developed a relationship during the pair’s work with Providence Baptist Church.

“Eboni passed down the ambassador position to me and I asked Hope to join me,” Baylee said. “Once (ambassadors) move on they pass it down to whoever they feel is suitable enough to take on the responsibility. It felt great because I have such a heart for children. Being able to impact the lives of kids in our community that a lot of times get overlooked is incredible.”

For her part, Hope said she was a little unsure about getting involved when Baylee first reached out, but because she trusted her friend she decided to dig a little deeper to find out what Big House was and how she could help.

“We’re interns at our church together, Providence,” Hope said. “We’re in ministry school together and Baylee just reached out to me and was like, ‘hey this is what this is.’ I had never heard about Big House, so I looked into it.

“I was a little apprehensive at first because I was like, ‘I’m not sure what this is and I’m not sure what it means to be an ambassador here.’ (Ultimately) I was like, ‘okay, I’ll do it, it sounds great.’

“Then I found the heart behind it and it was the heart that I fell in love with. It was like, ‘we’re here for the children in foster care,’ and I just think that’s so important, so I was like, ‘I’m all in. Let’s do it!’ And here we are.”

Where the two friends are is at a place where the Big House foundation seems to be poised to further expand its reach and impact in the lives of children in foster care. In addition to being able to maintain the donated inventory needed to provide those children with clothes, toys, toiletries and other essentials, Hope and Baylee said the Big House chapter also recently completed its first-ever fundraiser, with the help of 229Yoga.

“We’ve been lucky that 229Yoga stepped up and were like, ‘hey, we heard about this; we love this,’” said Hope. “It’s been so important getting that little bit of funding we’ve been able to get this year. When we do get calls like, ‘hey, there’s a child in foster care who really wants to do Boy Scouts,’ and the uniform is $60 and they don’t have an extra $60 lying around, we’re able to just pull from our little bit of funding because that’s what it’s there for. It’s there for the kids.”

Although Hope and Baylee said there aren’t any other concrete plans yet, they are hoping to find additional fundraising activities this year so they can do even more. They are also focused on doing everything they can to make more people aware of what the organization is trying to do.

To that end, the girls have continued to rely on Patsy and on Ashley Moates’ mom Valerie to help them make connections in the community. They’ve also tried to spend as much time as they can visiting area churches and meeting with civic groups to tell the Big House story—which they say has borne fruit.

“Once people hear about Big House, a lot of times they want to help,” Hope said. “This year we’ve been able to focus on, ‘let’s get the word out.’ I think that’s so important.

“We have Miss Patsy and Miss Valerie who are incredible. They’ve reached out to all their friends.”

“I would love to say we’ve gone everywhere and talked to everyone about it, but if it weren’t for the people that were in our lives, honestly, the word wouldn’t be out as much as it is,” added Baylee. “A lot can be done with two people, but so much more can be done with three or four.

“We’ve definitely seen that happen with the people we’ve talked to. It’s had a domino effect. It’s completely spreading through the community and it’s really awesome to see.”

In fact, seeing the organization grow is one of the main missions of the two girls, who said they feel they owe it to the children who are served by Big House to make sure that the Lee County chapter is on strong footing when they choose the next ambassadors.

“It’s small, and of course our goal is to expand and see it grow into something bigger and better than what it is now and see more people get involved,” said Baylee. “We want to be able to do more events in the future and be able to impact the lives of these kids in different ways than have been done in the past.”

“Every day we wake up and we’re like, ‘hey, I just want it to be better than it was yesterday,’” added Hope. “That there’s constant growth and improvement is a big part of my being an ambassador. And I’m sure for Baylee too.

“We can’t do it all on our own and be able to pass the torch down to girls who can take it further than we are able to. My heart’s behind it. I want to be better than I was yesterday and that’s what I want for Big House too.”

The two girls said it’s also important to make sure that whatever they are able to accomplish honors the hard work and dedication of the ambassadors that came before them. The fact that they were chosen for specific reasons is not lost on them, which is why they are also being very careful and deliberate as they consider who they might chose when their time comes to an end.

“I’ve been looking,” said Baylee. “I have been very picky to make sure whoever it does get passed down to is going to put in the time and effort to make sure that what needs to be done gets done. And that they want to do this for the kids and not for the recognition.”

“Yeah, not for college applications,” added Hope. “I know that’s important, but the heart behind it needs to be that you want to do it for the kids.

“I think that’s important. Also, I think we want the people who follow us not to be content, not to want to just stay in the comfort zone that it has been in, who want to grow in every area of their life, who want to expand and make it better and bigger.”

“We definitely want people to have a hunger to push it past what’s been done before,” continued Baylee.

Based on what I learned about how committed Baylee and Hope are, not just to the Big House, but also to the ministry their involved with at Providence, I have no doubt they’ll be able to follow the lead of their predecessors and find a suitable ambassador or two.

Really, throughout my conversation I was beyond impressed by vision and passion of these women, who have devoted so much of their lives to serving others.

In addition to their work with Big House, Hope and Baylee also serve as youth ministers through their internship at Providence, where they are given a chance to mentor young people and hopefully instill in them the same kind of passion for others that they have.

“A lot of it, for me, has to do with my church,” said Baylee of her desire to have an impact on the world around her. “My family, they never pressured me to do things for others. They, of course, were like, ‘okay, you can give your stuff to Goodwill or the Salvation Army,’ small things like that, but they never pushed me to get involved with something, go out into the community and make a difference.

“Through Providence and through being a student at Providence and now doing the internship, just having that push like, ‘this is what you can do,’ and having people show me what is possible despite age, has been awesome.”

“We’re like mentors,” added Hope. “We’ve been able to pour into the lives of girls in middle school, which I love because that was a hard time for me. I think that’s a hard time for just about everybody because it’s such a weird, awkward phase. But we’ve been able to just help these girls through everyday situations.

“And I also think that relates back to these foster children that we’re helping because they want to be known and seen just like every other child. We also preach sermons and life and leadership classes are a big part of our internship.”

“It’s all about learning how to bring the Gospel to the community and just serving others, even in the smallest way possible,” finished Baylee.

When I left our meeting I felt confident that while Hope and Baylee are making sure to have an impact in just the smallest possible way, it’s actually more likely that will continue to have an impact on the world around them in a major way.

Like the Big House ambassadors that came before them—Ashley, Candace, Eboni and Audrey—I have no doubt that Hope and Baylee will continue to inspire others and will be able to achieve their goal of raising the profile of the Lee County Chapter of the Big House Foundation.

Just the simple fact that the organization has been nurtured and cared for by such impressive young women lends it a certain credibility that I feel certain would attract others looking to make a positive impact.

I’d have to think that people would be just as impressed by a group of young people more focused on the needs of others than the needs of themselves as I am.

As a father of two great kids, I for one, can’t help but wish that when Milla and Bear continue to grow that they’ll have that kind of heart for others and be less concerned with themselves and more interested in improving the world around them.

Anyone interested in learning more about the history and work of the Big House Foundation can visit https://ourbighouse.org/.

To learn more about the Lee County Chapter check them out on Facebook at BigHouse Foundation Lee County, Georgia Chapter.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen