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Kentucky by Heart: Providing hope since 1871 and meeting the needs of the young and vulnerable

By Steve Flairty
Special to NKyTribune
It was 1871, six years after the American Civil War; the terrible conflict left an overwhelming number of wives who lost husbands and children who lost fathers. That’s when the good folks at the Methodist Episcopal Church South, in Louisville, came together to form the Widows and Orphans Home. Now known as The Kentucky United Methodist Homes for Children & Youth (KyUMH), the organization has a residential campus in Owensboro and a new location in Nicholasville after moving recently from Versailles, home since 1931.

Their effective, storied past continues successfully today, a tribute to generations of staff and supporters of a noble purpose. The mission statement of KyUMH is straightforward: “We serve Christ by providing for the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of children and families.” It appears that the promise is being faithfully carried forward.

The original consideration to include help for widows was phased out as women began to take on employment in the years after the war. Plenty of work was left to be done, however, in meeting the needs of the young and vulnerable.

“Our residential campus is for youths 12-to-18-years-old who’ve suffered some kind of abuse or neglect, or have some other issue they are working through,” said Casey Neely, KyUMH Development Coordinator, whose office is at Nicholasville.

There are four components of service to youth in all the organization’s outreach: (1) emotional, (2) spiritual, (3) physical, and (4) educational.

At the Nicholasville campus, there are two full-time teachers and a part-time principal. It is run like, and with the help, of a public school system. “We partner with Jessamine County Schools,” said Casey, “and there is no religious part of it during school.”

There is, however, a chaplain on campus and she conducts religious services on Wednesday night and Sunday morning.

“None of the youths are required to go, noted Casey, “but most of them do.” The program at Owensboro, The Mary Kendall Home, is similar, though the facilities are older. It became a part of KyUMH in 1984, long after it was founded by the Women’s Christian Association, led by Mary Kendall, in 1904.

The number of youths served residentially at both branches is about 15 each, with the number at Nicholasville set to increase to about 22 with the completion of an additional wing.

Nikki (photos courtesy KyUMH)

“About 20 years ago, there might have been 40 youths on campus, and it used to be the youth would stay three or four years,” explained Casey. “Now it’s typically about one year because the state of Kentucky has changed things away from group settings to moving them on to foster families.”

According to Casey, their students often arrive “one grade level behind because of the family dysfunction they’ve had to deal with.” It is helpful, then, that the school offers a lot of one-to-one instruction because of the relatively small number of students.

“There are a lot of volunteers, and the principal and teachers try to engage the student in ‘owning’ the school,” continued Casey. To that point, students helped with the naming of the school: Ashgrove Academy.

The work of KyUMH is so much more than the good things demonstrated in the residential setting at the two towns. It reaches out to over 900 people living in their Kentucky communities per year. In the Next Step program, for example, substance abuse issues are dealt with by providing interventions to the family and coordinating community supports with them; and, according to Casey, it has treated 300 teenagers and families in the last few years. The Restore Hope program also reaches out, and with the expressed purpose of “keeping families together.”

Forward Focus recognizes the fact that “rehabilitation results in greater success than detention for young people” in regard to the court system of justice. Consequently, the outreach “sets up home monitoring for youth at risk of being placed in detention.”

In responding to today’s mental health crisis, Connections “offers resources and training on recognizing the signs and symptoms of someone who needs mental health intervention.” A furtherance of Corrections is Mending Point, an in-office counseling program to bring “wholeness to lives impaired by mental health disorders.”


Safe Haven is an independent living program for those who have aged out of the foster care program, with locations in both Lexington and Owensboro.

“It started in Lexington, and it has apartment buildings for young people and staff that mentor them,” said Casey. “We help them go to college or start a career or gain a vocational skill, and we (also) help with life skills.”

The comprehensive nature of KyUMH also includes an adoption program working “to provide support during waiting periods, at placement and through the first few years of life with their new child.”

As Casey gave me a tour around the Nicholasville campus, I became more and more impressed with what he had to say about KyUMH. He showed me where donations such as school supplies were stored, and I saw some handmaid quilts. One quilt is given to all youth who come there. It’s a tradition carried out over generations. “We explain how much love and care went into making that quilt. It’s God’s love that surrounds them,” he said.

He showed me the nice gymnasium with a rubberized-type floor, a safety feature. I got to see the housing quarters, not ostentatious but sparkling clean and functional. The school section didn’t show large, but plenty big for a relatively small number of students. The main office building was an amazing site, a makeover of an old home.

Casey told me about the former location, at Versailles; it was a great place for KyUMH for 87 years, but the cost for updating facilities would be higher to stay than to move to Nicholasville. He excitedly told me about a smooth transition that took place when Frontier Nursing University, which teaches midwifery and family nursing, eagerly bought the Versailles property…”a God thing,” he noted.

I felt good learning about such a special place on that day a few weeks back, and I’d recommend others take the tour, too.

“A lot of our youth come here with only a trash bag full of clothes with them,” said Casey.

Many who came over these many decades lacked hope, too.

“But God wanted something better for them,” Casey said.

Others believe, too, that through God’s compassionate servants, he’s been providing such care since 1871.

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)      

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