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The Bible story of Jonah and the great fish draws children’s attention during Penny Campbell’s devotion time. The mother of three and grandmother of nine said she and her husband have cared for 250 children as houseparents over the years.
Daily photos by John Godbey
The Bible story of Jonah and the great fish draws children’s attention during Penny Campbell’s devotion time. The mother of three and grandmother of nine said she and her husband have cared for 250 children as houseparents over the years.

Shelter ‘Mawmaw’
Surrogate mother at Children’s Home says Decatur job is God’s call, her joy

By Melanie B. Smith
· msmith@decaturdaily.com
340-2468

Toddler Jocelyn (not her real name) looked through a living room window at the woman she calls “Mawmaw” and grinned.

Penny Campbell asked the little girl if she wanted to come out on the porch. She shook her head yes, ponytails bobbing. Outside she climbed into Campbell’s lap and talked to a visitor about her pink dolly and her breakfast.

Campbell, 55, and the child who is not her daughter or granddaughter or any kin at all seemed perfectly at ease with each other.

Jocelyn isn’t the only child Campbell and her husband, Nathan, look after. Right now they care for eight children ranging from 2 to 13, from different families and situations.

In seven years, about 250 children have come into their lives.

The Campbells are shelter care house parents at the Decatur campus of the Alabama Baptist Children’s Home. They have previously worked at similar homes.

“Mawmaw” Penny Campbell said God has called them to do what they do.

“We love it. God puts the joy in your heart. He knows we are high energy,” she said.

Mother’s Day for Campbell will mean enjoying greetings from her birth children and their children. The Campbells have daughters ages 27, 34 and 35 and nine grandchildren, all of whom live hundreds of miles away.

But before the day is over, she might have to let a child she has bathed, soothed, sung to and loved go away, perhaps forever. Being the house parent for a shelter care cottage means saying “hello” one day and “goodbye” only a few days later. Rules allow children to stay up to 30 days.

“We may have three leaving and three coming in before the others are out the door,” she said.

Children may go on to foster care or back to their families; some end up in permanent cottages at the home, said workers.

Temporary mom

Being a temporary mom means treating the children as her own and being a family, even if it is a surrogate one, she said.

It means watching body language when children arrive, to know whether to hug or not. It means setting rules, but not too many, and making sure, above all, the children know they are safe and secure, said Penny Campbell.

She and her husband don’t know much about the children or what disrupted their families. It’s usually better that way, she said.

Penny Campbell brushes a child’s hair one day this week. She is “Mawmaw” or “Mrs. Penny” to eight youngsters at Martin Cottage.
Penny Campbell brushes a child’s hair one day this week. She is “Mawmaw” or “Mrs. Penny” to eight youngsters at Martin Cottage.
Her job isn’t all that different from what any parent faces, she said. Just as in any big household, there are piles of laundry to wash, squabbles to settle, soaked sheets to change, meals to cook, dishes to wash and shopping to do.

On Monday, children were out of school, so she had a McDonald’s visit planned. The children played outside, little girls taking battery-powered cars for a spin and one boy showing how he could ride a scooter, taking falls in good grace. Nathan Campbell calmly watched over the brood while talking with a teen.

Some days are a struggle, for sure. Penny Campbell said that recently she and all of the children except one came down with strep throat.

“You’re not feeling good and you go ahead and wash those clothes. God gives you the strength and energy. That’s what a mom does,” she said.

When a child misses his or her home and family, sometimes she joins in a crying session, she said. With her own parents living in Lillian in South Alabama and no family nearby, Penny Campbell said she understands.

“It’s OK to feel sad, to get mad. It’s how you handle that,” she said.

Penny Campbell said sometimes she and her husband have to teach children how to brush their teeth or not to eat with their hands. Some need to learn to listen and follow directions because they’ve never had limits, she said.

“We don’t like to have a lot of battles with kids. They can make a battle out of anything,” she said.

Their bedrooms, which have sturdy beds and dressers and simple coordinating décor, sometimes awe new children, she said. Some have never had a real place to sleep.

Little ad, big message

Penny Campbell said she and her husband both grew up in church. His father was a pastor. She married Nathan after meeting him at a revival. She said God had given her a desire to be a minister’s wife, but Nathan joined the military.

She said after her husband retired as an Army sergeant major, he felt a call to sell their possessions and do missions. Someone showed him an ad in The Alabama Baptist about the need for a middle-aged couple to work with children. Penny Campbell said her husband thought of the ad as huge, but it was actually small, and God did the enlarging.

They went in 2000 to the Florida Baptist Children’s Home, feeling at home from the moment they walked in, she said. Then they moved to North Carolina to a faith-based home. She said they spent 31/2 years there and loved it, but a doctrinal difference prompted a desire to leave.

She said they had no place to go but while in a meeting about the situation, they got a call from the former director of the Decatur campus, Bobby Smith. They had visited Smith and the Decatur campus but never filled out an application, she said. The phone call came out of the blue.

“He said, ‘Where are you?’ God had given us our release,” Penny Campbell said.

Support

The Campbells have an apartment in the cottage and have a house in Decatur where they spend off days, she said. The Children’s Home provides a great support system for them and for residents, she said.

Decatur campus director Michael Smith, who took the position in January after Bobby Smith retired, said the Campbells are a blessing because they wanted to do shelter care. The job is especially hard because workers have to let children go, he said.

“It takes a unique couple to serve there,” he said.

Smith said it’s not easy to find qualified people who want to commit to children’s home ministry long-term.

He said the demand and pace can be hectic, but the Decatur home is fortunate to have little turnover.

On Mother’s Day ...

Mother’s Day at Martin Cottage on the Decatur campus of the Alabama Baptist Children’s Home won’t mean housemother Penny Campbell getting all the attention from the children there.

She said she wants the children to think of their own mothers, so she encouraged them to make cards, paper flowers and picture frames for their moms. Some will get to visit home, she said.

As much as she cares for the children under her care, Campbell said she doesn’t want to be their mom.

“I don’t want to take that away from the mothers,” Campbell said.

One of Campbell’s own daughter’s, Roxzandra Gill of Covington, La., said the No. 1 thing she learned from her mom was to seek to be a woman of virtue.

“You put God first and through him you can do anything,” she said.

Gill said her parents serve God through having a heart for children, and that makes it easier to share them.

“If I can be like my mother, I’ll be doing a great job,” said Gill, 27, mother of four.

On Mother’s Day, Gill said she will call her mom to make sure Campbell knows that.

Melanie Smith

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