Transforming Strangers into Family
Winter is coming! December may not yet be here, but the signs are clear: leaves are changing colors, kids are practicing their songs, and housedad, Ken Parton, has already begun decorating for Christmas. Preparations are in full swing to welcome “home” all of our past and present Show-Me family for the holidays.
This year has special significance for the Parton family. It will be the first time their “bigger family” will gather at their new residence, the newly-completed House #7. They know that not all of the 32 kids who have joined the Parton family over their eight years at Show-Me will make it. Those that do will be welcomed to find their personalized stocking hung, their hand-made ornaments proudly displayed on the tree, presents ready to be traded at the gift exchange, and the traditional family games set out just waiting for the laughter to begin.
Houseparents, Ken and Emilee Parton, may not be their biological parents, but they are family. This may not be the house they grew up in, but it is home because the love of their family is here. God has used that unconditional love to heal and bond this group of strangers into a family.
A Prayer for a “Bigger Family”
The Partons’ life took a very different path from the one they envisioned twenty-five years ago when they married. After attending Nebraska Christian College, they worked their way up the management chain to both have lucrative careers: Ken becoming a district supervisor of a national restaurant chain, and Emilee starting her own business.
They actively served in their church: Ken working with the youth, Emilee organizing bigger events, and both leading the worship team. Their business backgrounds laid the foundation for the church to open a food and clothing pantry. To outsiders, they were living the American picture of success.
Under the rosy façade, things were far from perfect. They knew that God had a greater mission planned for them, but what? For years, the couple had struggled to grow their family. In 2003, they lost their son, Brock, at birth. A year later they suffered a miscarriage. In 2008, the birth of their daughter, Sophia, seemed to be the beginning of the answer they longed for. Two years later, their prayer would be for a second child. Over time, it changed to adopting a child. Eventually, it simply became “Lord, please give us a bigger family.”
The Partons prayed for guidance and began to look at different options for their life. “We knew we weren’t where we were supposed to be anymore,” Emilee recounts. “We hadn’t quite figured out what or where we were supposed to be.” A few months later that answer would come when Chad Puckett, the Director of Show-Me, spoke at their church and stated that the ministry was in search of new houseparents. As Emilee explained, “in my prayer for direction, I realized that God was going to answer with Show-Me… not quite what I imagined, but we definitely have a bigger family now!”
Trading a Job for a Mission
Stepping out in faith in 2012, the Partons moved to the main Show-Me campus in La Monte, Missouri. From the get-go, they quickly learned that serving as a houseparent is not a job, it is a life. There is very little downtime as kids’ needs do not distinguish personal time and business time. A typical week is similar to most parents: cooking, cleaning, appointments, school, games, church, etc. Just at Show-Me, each family is trying to coordinate up to ten people, all going in different directions. Add to that coordinating volunteer groups, teaching at the school, refereeing basketball games, coaching, leading worship at chapel, and organizing major events for Show-Me. Added together, you might get an idea of what the Parton’s life is like.
As chaotic as schedules can be, the bigger challenge is building a relationship of trust with each child. Without it, the child will never be willing to accept the resources and help they need.
A New Definition of Family
Most of their kids have come from situations that have led them to believe that they only have themselves to rely on. They have been let down too many times in the past by the family that was supposed to take care of them. “I always struggled with letting people love me and accepting that love from others,” recounted Grace, a child who once lived with the Partons. “I had felt so rejected for so long, I truly believed I wasn’t able to be loved. I was never going to have my picture perfect family.”
Although each child is immediately welcomed, it will take time before they consider themselves part of the Parton family. The Parton’s first step is to meet each new child where they are at, not force them to be part of the family until they choose to be. From the moment they first arrive, Ken explains, “We are Ken and Emilee. We are not trying to replace your parents, we know that we never can. But, our home is your home. Here, all your needs are going to be taken care of.”
It will take weeks and months for the protective walls to slowly be lowered as the child sees the proof in actions. Their fear is that because they are not part of the biological family they will only be accepted and loved up to a certain point. “Our fear stops us from healing,” Journey, an adult who once lived with the Partons explains. “In the back of your mind you are always wondering when will this love stop.”
They wonder: “Do you love me because it is your job or because you really want me?” Knowing this, the Partons are very intentional about treating all their kids the same. It is the little things that make the biggest difference in building trust and making each child feel valued as an individual. This is made especially evident during the holidays.
Building Bonds Around a Tree
Many of the kids at Show-Me do not go to their biological homes for holiday breaks because the situation is still not healthy for them. The kids in the Parton home would travel with Ken, Emilee, and Sophia to Tennessee for Christmas with Ken’s parents. Grandma and Grandpa Parton welcomed them with open arms and spoiled all the children equally.
From the presents under the tree to the stockings customized for each child, Ken and Emilee make every effort to let no favortism show. Together, they play charades, open chocolate advent calendars, and worship as a family on Christmas Eve.
“It made me really feel like I was a part of the family,” remembers Destin. “Growing up in foster care, I lived with people, but it was not family. I was their kid as long as it was convenient. When it became too much of a burden or cost, then off to another home I go.”
The Promise of Christmas
Today, many of those same kids, who piled in the minivan to drive to Tennessee, now live across the country as adults. They may each have different last names, but they are family. “I never would have imagined that my family would turn out being just a group of random people that happened to be needing a family just like me,” stated Grace. “It’s super cool to think about the fact that we all wanted the same thing: a family, and so we just became each other’s family.”
That Parton family only continues to grow, now welcoming grandchildren to its fold. This Christmas, they will travel across the country to come “home” and be with their family in Missouri at the newly finished House #7. The older children will make sure that the family traditions are carried on for the next generation. Grandma will bring the special treats and Emilee makes sure all the favorite foods are prepared. For the Parton children, it is a reminder of Ken and Emilee’s promise to them that they never need to feel alone because you will always have a home and family ready to welcome you.