To laugh often and much.
“To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Building a future of opportunities and success for at-risk children is both a noble and daunting task. It requires an abundance of skill, patience, energy, creativity and love. The Wacoan is proud to spotlight the leader of an organization in the heart of our community fully devoted to this work. Bobby R. Gilliam is our 2008 Wacoan of the Year.
Located on 130 acres in northwest Waco, the Methodist Children’s Home has a simply stated mission: “offer hope to children, youth and families through a nurturing, Christian community.” For nearly 120 years, the nonprofit organization has cared for children who are orphaned, neglected or traumatized. The Methodist Children’s Home aims to provide stability and support as a foundation for a successful future by offering residential programs, foster care and community services.
Leading the Home in these efforts is Bobby Gilliam. Raised in Central Texas, Gilliam received a bachelor of arts degree in sociology from Baylor University in 1976 and a master of science in social work from the University of Texas at Arlington in 1978. He has spent the majority of his 30-plus years of experience in child care serving in various roles at the Methodist Children’s Home, including administrator of the Family Services and Counseling Center, director of foster care and adoption services and psychiatric social worker. He spent nine years as vice president for child care before accepting a position as director of operations at Mooseheart Child City and School in Illinois. In 2003, after three years in that leadership role, he returned to the Home as president and CEO.
“Five years ago, Mr. Gilliam led us through a strategic plan, and the ultimate goal out of that was to double the number of children in our care,” said Bryan Mize, director of public relations for Methodist Children’s Home. “At that time, we were serving about 500 children through all of our programs, residential and foster care. This past April, we reached that goal of serving 1,000 children and young people. That was a significant milestone for us.”
Also in April, when Texas was thrust into the national spotlight as a result of the state’s removal of 462 children from a polygamist compound in Eldorado, the Home made headlines for providing emergency shelter for dozens of the children. Gilliam and the Methodist Children’s Home staff reacted to the unplanned request with grace and hospitality, meeting the needs of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) sect children while representing Waco positively to the nation.
“The key to all we do is relationships,” Mize said. “In many cases, when young people come to us, they lack the ability to have meaningful relationships with adults. Everything that we do is about trying to get young people connected to something and to someone that can help them feel that they belong here, feel self worth and feel they have things to offer others. The first thing we do is try to build relationships with every child and identify their unique gifts and abilities and meet their individual needs.
“You won’t find anyone who has a greater ability to connect with at-risk young people than Mr. Gilliam,” he continued. “It’s uncanny how he can meet somebody and instantly connect with them. He loves kids and he’s worked with them so long. It’s a God-given gift that he has to be able to make a difference through what he has to offer these young people who are searching for someone who cares.”
Former resident Marissa Markey was living at the Home when Gilliam began his tenure as president.
“Mr. Gilliam is a wonderful, caring man who has done a great job at MCH,” she said. “I remember meeting him my senior year, and he took the time to get to know me personally. Still to this day, when I go back to visit MCH, if I see him he remembers my name and takes a moment to hear about what is going on in my life today. It takes a remarkable man to care that much to learn about the children who are living at MCH.”
In addition to his role in the local community, Gilliam has made an impact on child care education on a national level. He has been involved with the Coalition for Residential Education (CORE) for five years. In 2005, he won the Catherine Hershey Administrator of the Year award, the highest award in the residential education field.
“Bobby is a pillar of the residential education community,” said Heidi Goldsmith, executive director of CORE. “His imposing and impressive presence and comments at meetings add validity to the importance of maintaining high-quality residential education for children who need the comprehensive support of a community in their lives. It is Bobby who, along with his life-long friend Johnny Wright, pursued the development of national standards for this field based on the needs of children — and not those of bureaucrats.”
Dr. Clifton Howard is the district superintendent for the Waco area of the United Methodist Church and a member of the MCH board of directors. He has known Gilliam for the five years he has served as the Home’s president. “Whenever you have transition, it’s always interesting to see how it will turn out. But Bobby’s brought a new sense of vision and excitement to the ministry there at the Methodist Children’s Home,” Howard said. “He’s doing a fantastic job. The Home has a very good staff, and they are all committed to their work with the children. They do incredible work.”
Founded in 1890, Methodist Children’s Home is affiliated with the seven United Methodist conferences in Texas and New Mexico. In Waco, its primary residential program houses 180 young people from ages 12 to 18 with a Boys Ranch near Axtell where 50 youth reside. The Waco campus and Boys Ranch are at maximum capacity due to licensing and staff-to-student ratio regulations.
“All of our residents come from those two states; half of our residents come from either Dallas or Houston,” Mize said. “There’s a waiting list. We receive more than 2,500 phone calls a year from families seeking placement for their children. Due to attrition, the number of young people who move on during the normal course of the program, we take on about 100 to 120 new residents a year. Obviously, there’s incredible need out there that we’re not able to meet.”
Foster care is offered throughout Texas, and MCH coordinates community-based programs via outreach offices in Dallas, Houston, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, El Paso, Lubbock, Tyler and Albuquerque. Recently, two after-school recreation education programs were added in Waco and in Crockett.
“It’s an opportunity for us to go outside the boundaries of our residential campus and impact a neighborhood in our backyard,” Mize said.
About 70 percent of the MCH campus residents attend the on-site charter school that is affiliated with the University of Texas at Austin’s charter school program. The other 30 percent attend Waco public schools. At the Boys Ranch, students either attend school at the ranch or Axtell High School.
“We had over 40 seniors graduate in May, and that’s one of the largest graduating classes in recent memory,” Mize said. “Being able to see numbers like that, your senior classes growing, gives us a sense of accomplishment.”
The Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) testing program is part of the curriculum, and the charter school has received an “academically acceptable” rating from the Texas Education Agency for four years in a row.
“That’s a great accomplishment when you consider that most of the young people who come here have struggled with school,” Mize said. “That speaks highly of the teachers and administrators in our school to be able to help them succeed academically.
The Home has cultivated a strength-based philosophy where staff members help residents identify and develop strengths and talents.
“Everything we do at MCH is geared toward finding the individual strengths of the children and young people — whether it’s a musical talent or an athletic skill or a particular area of academics that they excel in — and then finding opportunities for them to develop those strengths and talents,” Mize said. “For instance, we may have residents who want to play football. We don’t offer a football team, so if they can handle the public school environment, they go to Waco High or University and play sports or Drill Team — whatever it is — it’s putting them in opportunities to achieve success.”
This year, the campus charter school launched a competitive athletics program. Flag football, cross country and girls’ volleyball were offered in the fall with basketball, track and other sports planned for the spring.
“That gives students an opportunity to invest in something that students who attend other schools invest in,” Mize said. “They’re part of an athletic program; they’re part of a team. It gives them an opportunity to build self esteem and self confidence and use the athletic skills that they have. It gives them an opportunity to travel. A lot of the young people who come in our care have never experienced traveling. Through our charter school, students participate in UIL (University Interscholastic League). We have a strong music program through our school, and we had a couple of students win highest honors at state competition for vocal ensemble.
“We’re trying to find opportunities to create what some people would call as normal a childhood experience as you could have being at a home where there are 180 ‘siblings,’” he continued. “The average stay here is 18 months. In the past, residents would come and stay on a more long-term basis, but one of our goals is family reunification. We want the young people to get back into the family situation as quickly as possible as long as it’s a healthy, positive situation.”
The Home’s transition staff works closely with high school students as they prepare for college or full-time employment. A college program continues to provide support throughout a MCH graduate’s educational journey.
Marissa Markey moved to the Home in 2001, during the summer before her junior year of high school. “I graduated from A.J. Moore Academy in 2003, while still living at MCH,” she said. “I remained in the college program for four years while I got two associate degrees from MCC. I am back in the college program while I attend Baylor University.” At Baylor, Markey is pursuing a bachelor of science in education with a concentration on middle school math.
“MCH has made a significant impact in my life,” she said. “They have helped me become an independent, self-sufficient adult as well as helping me continue my education. They have provided — and still provide — the love and support that you need to make it in today’s society. My family is not active in my life, so it has been a blessing to have such a wonderful group of people stand by you and help you through the good times and the bad. What is even more amazing about MCH is the fact that any student who has ever gone there, no matter where they are in their life today, they are willing to help them in any way possible.
That willingness to help extends beyond its traditional boundaries when needs arise. When 46 FLDS children between the ages of 3 and 10 required temporary shelter, the Methodist Children’s Home staff worked to turn a campus building into comfortable makeshift accommodations. During their stay from April 25 through June 2, the children were isolated from Home residents, but plans were underway for integration into campus life and a homeschool-style education method had the state retained custody.
“It was an emotional experience for those staff members and adults who worked with the boys and girls on a daily basis,” Mize said. “Building relationships was very difficult, but they were able to start connecting with some of the boys and girls and feeling like they were making some positive headway in terms of just being able to help the children feel comfortable around them.
“When the children were picked up, it was tough for some of our staff members to see them leave,” he continued. “In fact, some of the mothers asked some of our staff members if they could take pictures of our staff and those who worked with the kids. That was very significant because it showed that they had positive feelings toward those who were taking care of their sons and daughters. That made them feel good, knowing not only that the families were taking a visual reminder with them but, more importantly, knowing that they were able to build that level of trust and respect.”
The addition of nearly 50 children considerably younger than the Home’s typical resident meant staff members from all departments were pitching in to help in various ways. One practical need was housekeeping: changing and laundering bedsheets.
“A secretary who was here at the time spoke up during a staff meeting and said through her time at the Home she knew she was working at a good place, but when she went over to that home unit and saw the president changing sheets, she realized she was serving in a great ministry,” Mize said. “That just spoke volumes to her to see that the president didn’t feel like he was bigger or better than anybody else. His goal was to meet a need at that time; that need was to provide clean sheets for the boys and girls.
“He’s a model for all of us. He sets a standard we all need to follow in the way that we work with children and young people,” Mize continued. “Mr. Gilliam says everyone is a child care worker at Methodist Children’s Home. It takes everybody working together to meet the individual needs of these children. We have Home parents, social workers, case workers, youth care workers who are in the trenches every day, and it’s all to help them grow and to feel good about themselves and to develop self confidence and self esteem and realize that they’re special, that they were created for a reason and they have something to offer others.
“We have more than 300 employees; that’s taking into account our outreach offices,” he said. “When you think about our influence spanning all across Texas and into New Mexico, we have a great opportunity to impact children and families throughout these two states, and we’ve done that for more than a century.”
And now, the interview with Wacoan of the Year Bobby Gilliam
Following is an in-depth Q&A where Gilliam shares what motivates him daily and explains how his philosophy of meeting the needs of at-risk youth flies in the face of conventional thinking.
WACOAN: Tell me about your background. I understand you grew up in the Robinson area.
Bobby Gilliam: I was born in California; my father was in the service during the Korean War. We did a brief stay there but for all intents and purposes, I’ve been in Central Texas for all but about four or five years of my life — and that was when I was running other programs in other states as part of my professional development. We raised our children here, who all graduated from China Spring and got their degrees and graduate degrees.
I went to McLennan Community College and then transferred to Baylor. There were a couple of significant things with that. At the time, the Home had a Guidance Center, which was a children’s psychiatric hospital. I started to work there as a child care worker, working different shifts and going to college. They had a stipend program to recruit and retain MSWs, master’s of social work, where you went to school and they paid you, I think, $300 a month back then — which was a huge difference in having some income — and you were an indentured servant. For every month you got paid, you owed two months to the organization. It was a time where the profession was growing, and we were lucky enough to get that.
My wife grew up in Robinson. She was a grade behind me, and we probably didn’t speak [in school]. Methodist Home has been such a significant part of our lives. She worked shift work and was going to Baylor, played on the basketball team and volleyball team back when it was NAIA. All the kids from the psych hospital came to our wedding, which was probably not your typical wedding. I got applause when I kissed the bride. We’ve always had significant people in our relationships at the Home that have been part of my life and developing memories, several have passed on now. My association with the Home just kind of grew out of starting to work with these kids, and they were kids who were not being successful anywhere and were in this psychiatric hospital. My passion was that these are the kids who needed help the most, and I pretty much made that my commitment.
WACOAN: Do you feel a personal calling to work with at-risk youth?
Gilliam: Absolutely. As I’ve gotten older, it’s more humbling. I tell the board it is an honor to get to work with these kids and their needs. I’ve learned a lot about it over the years. I used to tell people when they’d come in to work for us that we can teach them a lot about how to work with at-risk kids. There are people who are great with it, who have the nuances down and know that difference between dropping their voice tone and talking a little bit softer and calming kids down and who know when they need to take a step closer or a step further back. You get these great people who are pied pipers for kids. I said, ‘We may be able to teach you all that but it won’t be a drop in the bucket to what these kids will teach you if you will pay attention.’
I used to say – and it’s an overstatement, which I’m prone to — you may not be able to believe a word these kids say but listen carefully to every word they tell you because somewhere in there is a story. We make a big deal here out of kids telling their stories. They know if they come up to me that I’m going to ask them, ‘Tell me your story. What got you here. What’s happening? Why are you having trouble now?’ Those who are receptive to it learn a lot from these kids. These kids are resilient beyond belief. They’ve had things happen in their life that no kid should have happen, and they do remarkable things.
WACOAN: I imagine that your childhood was vastly different than the types of environments that most of these kids come from. Was that something you had to overcome at the beginning? Was it difficult not having a common experience?
Gilliam: It wasn’t because I applied what I talked about in terms of listening to the kids and paying attention to them.
WACOAN: Did you learn that in school?
Gilliam: What I tell people is I can teach you to be a good child care worker in one of the units, to work within our system and philosophy of care. But there is a group who have skills that I think are innate; they’re the ones who when a kid walks into the room, they can diffuse the situation. There can be an argument and a power struggle — some people say we’re letting these kids get away with murder. No, we’re not. We say, ‘What do we believe about kids? How do we think about kids? How do we look at kids? How do we talk to kids?’ That’s where the true answers are for what the kids do.
I interviewed for a job one time, and they asked me to tell about the stability of my adolescent years. ‘Well, I had a mom and a dad who loved me a whole lot. I had some great coaches at Robinson. We got pulled over by the police one time for egging people on Halloween.’ What they are looking for is — a lot of people gravitate to this field because of occurrences and instances in their life. But I remember these kids back from when I started. I can tell you their names, their stories. It’s just been incredible. I believe that my biggest gift from God was the innate ability to work with kids who other people couldn’t work with.
WACOAN: Do you have a story from those early days of a child who reaffirmed to you that this is what you were meant to do?
Gilliam: We worked with little boys 8 or 9 years old who had run away. I got a call that said, ‘Bobby, there is so and so over in a bad part of town.’ I went over there to get them and saw bicycles over at this house. A lady came to the door; she had a baby and was not completely dressed. I said, ‘I’m with Methodist Children’s Home,’ and she said, ‘I don’t want them to have nails driven into their hands.’ I said, ‘I’m with Methodist Children’s Home.’ ‘But I don’t want them to not get food for three days.’ I said, ‘Ma’am, I’m going to call the police and they’ll come and arrest you for having these two kids, or you can give them to me and I promise we won’t nail nails in their hands.’
Well, the boys came around the corner and they had a piece of summer sausage they were handing back and forth. One of them still comes to see me — he’s 40-something years old now. He looked at me then and the blood just drained out of his face, and I said, ‘Boys, put your bikes in the van.’ We were driving back and they’d take a bite of summer sausage and give me a bite; we were sharing the sausage. I said, ‘You boys know you’re not going anywhere for a long time.’ ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘Well, was it worth it?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘What did you do that was fun?’ They told me, and then I said, ‘I have one question. Who told her that we put nails in kids’ hands?’ ‘Billy* did! Billy did!’ one boy said.
What is even more confirming as I’ve gotten older are the kids who come back or stay in contact, who went through hard times but have been successful. Years ago when my youngest daughter played over at the First Baptist gym, I would jog through Baylor. I literally had on a hood, my headphones and was walking by when these two gentlemen said something to me. I stopped and one asked, ‘Do you know who I am?’ I said, ‘Yes’ and said his first and last name. He said, ‘How did you know it was me?’ I said, ‘How did you know it was me with my hood on and earphones?’ The fascination with those kids and how they survived and how those relationships were significant and meant something — you can’t start to compare it with my childhood.
I told a lady yesterday who is trying to adopt one of our girls who has been with us for about a year: ‘Every child needs an irrational advocate. Don’t confuse me with the facts; I want this kid and we’ll work with this and do that and get these services.’ I had that with my mom. Dad would get rough with me and Mom would dote on me. But you need that. Every kid needs somebody in their life who is passionate and very caring.
In the old days, I was really involved physically with the kids in terms of river rafting and mountain climbing and doing adventure therapy. The little girl who left us yesterday, she wouldn’t go to school [at first]. I said, ‘Yes, she will.’ They said, ‘No, she won’t.’ I said, ‘Tell you what. Bring her up here to meet with me and bring some of your staff.’ At the start of this, I’d met Melissa and would see her on campus and go talk to her and give her a hug. She’s the type who tightens up, not real affectionate.
She comes in, and I asked her to tell me her story: 21 placements — 21 foster homes, psychiatric hospitals, adoptions that hadn’t worked out — and she’s 13 years old. I told her, ‘I can’t have you not going to school. But nobody needs to go to school five days a week; I never have believed in that. You go three days a week. You pick the three days you want to go.’ The staff are going, ‘What?!’ I said, ‘I can’t have you not going to school, so meet me halfway and go three days. Let’s get Mrs. Gilliam and go out to eat and let her get to know you. Now, in these 20 other places, when you met with the president of that organization, what did they say to you?’ She said, ‘No president would meet with me.’ I said, ‘See, we do at Methodist Home.’
Yesterday, when her adopted mother was here waiting for her, they came in and said, ‘Bobby, Melissa is here, and she wanted to give you a hug.’ This was the girl who tightened up every time. When she had her irrational advocate, who was her CASA worker who got so hooked into her, [it made a difference].
What I learned early on is we know volumes of what doesn’t work with kids. You can fill up libraries and schools with what we know doesn’t work with kids. And what do we do? We pour more money in and do exactly more of what we don’t need. When I give a talk, I tell a story about an Indian tribe whose kids started being disrespectful during the Ice Age. I’ll give you a five-second version. The ice melted and the rivers came and the buffalo came — I take a long time to elaborate this — but the elders came together and brought in people who could teach them to build better igloos and do better ice fishing. They passed bond elections and had lower student-to-teacher ratios and had good-hearted, well-intended people teach things with zero tolerance. Get real. Zero tolerance? We’ve got the most kids incarcerated than at any time in the history of the state of Texas. We’ve got more people being adjudicated in the adult system. We’ve got private for-profits coming in and building jails for our kids. We’ve got alternative schools all over the place. It’s working, isn’t it? That get-tough attitude is working, isn’t it? You’re working with at-risk kids.
I was telling my brother-in-law, ‘You know that the Surgeon General has determined that smoking is bad for your health and yet you still smoke.’ It’s not about logic. If logic worked, you would just say, ‘Johnny, you need to be in class, and you need to quit calling the teacher a bitch, and you need to study because if you don’t, this is going to happen.’ And he’d say, ‘Oh, thank you! Thank you so much.’
The program [I worked with] in Amarillo, they called me and said, ‘Jimmy won’t get out of bed. He won’t go to class.’ I went down there and said, ‘Here’s what you’re doing wrong. Come with me.’ I took some staff and we walked down to his room and I said, ‘What we’ve found is that kids who wash their face, brush their teeth, comb their hair, put on clean clothes, sleep for eight hours between clean sheets do better.’ You and I do. When you get off schedule because you’re up late watching the presidential campaign, you get up a little tired. You put on a blue sock and a black sock. You spill your coffee on you. Well, I got through saying that and the kid said, ‘Up yours.’ He didn’t say that; that’s the nice version of what he said. And we left and the staff said, ‘But he said profanity to you.’ Where are we putting our emphasis?
They came to me with the same kid and said, ‘Bobby, he’s not going to make it.’ I said, ‘Why?’ They said, ‘He can’t make attachments; he’s doing this and that.’ I said, ‘Go get me his chart and tell me where he’s been.’ They started listing the places. I said, ‘Do you think in this history of 12 placements this kid has had that they used individual therapy, family therapy, group therapy, psychotropic medication, special education, withdrawal of privileges, behavior management system?’ They said, ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you think they had a seclusion room if they needed that and a psychiatrist who could come in if he needed that? ‘Yes.’ ‘It works, doesn’t it?’ ‘Sir?’ ‘It works, doesn’t it?’ ‘No.’ ‘No! So why do we keep doing what we know doesn’t work with kids?’
There’s got to be stability, structure but there’s got to be the ability for the adults to not get into the role of telling kids what to do but rather empowering kids. We use the phrase we expect our kids to be great. There’s been studies done on resilient kids and why some overcome great adversity while some don’t — you expect greatness from your children. When you do that, you take a smorgasbord of activities and a smorgasbord of adults, and the kids will gravitate either to an activity or they will gravitate toward a person.[Public relations Director] Bryan Mize has a photography club. Is he a child care worker? You bet. I tell people everybody here is a child care worker. No matter what you do, you’re only here because of these kids. We do pretty good as a society at getting the goodies to the kids who are athletically or academically successful. Everybody likes those kids. We’ve got some kids who are harder to like sometimes. They will gravitate to that particular activity — it doesn’t matter if it’s tiddlywinks or putting a quilt together or being on a basketball team or being in the FFA (Future Farmers of America) program. You see where they gravitate. You’ve got to give them areas that they can be successful in. They need to accomplish something and feel like they can accomplish something. It’s incumbent upon us as the adults to figure that out.
The boot camp has about an 80 percent recidivism rate or something like that. We know they don’t work, but people love it and the politicians love it. They can get great sound bites. Cover up those tattoos, take that earring out, say ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, sir’ and you know what? The kids do that as long as there’s two or three people my size standing around them. But we haven’t given them anything to be successful with. They’ve got to know that they’re always accepted.[At the Home], we talk about belonging, mastery, independence and generosity. Everybody has got to have a sense of belonging. That’s what happened with [cult leader David] Koresh; it can happen with football teams or gangs or Sunday school classes. We’re going to belong somewhere. You’ve got to have something for them to be successful at. It sounds easy, but it’s not. I tell people that we can’t keep putting kids in zero tolerance; we lose all sense of why [they act this way]. I’ve met with several of the people who grew up in the system, and when they come back, I love to interview them and learn what their growing up was like. Everybody had at least one significant person, an adult, who they could go to, and research shows they are not paid positions. It’s not your therapist, your administrator, your social worker — it’s somebody through a Sunday school class, a volunteer on a Little League team, a CASA worker. It boils down to developing relationships with the kids.
WACOAN: You’ve found what works here is the strength-based philosophy, where you focus on each child’s individual strengths and interests and use that to foster a sense of self esteem.
Gilliam: Exactly. That kind of flies against conventionality now. When I was in Chicago [at Mooseheart School], Denny Hastert, who was the Speaker of the House from Illinois, came out to our place and said, ‘It’s great for these kids to go out there to this dairy herd and milk those cows every morning and every afternoon.’ Lots of children’s homes would have kids [work on the property] because they were growing a lot of their vegetables and things like that. I sold the dairy herd — they thought I’d killed the sacred cow. We were losing a quarter of a million dollars for them to have it, and I said, ‘Let’s look at our mission statement. Show me where it says Holstein.’ Three news stations came out to cover me selling the prized dairy herd. The next year, we had more kids participating in FFA than we’d ever had before. We don’t listen well to kids. Creativity by the staff is one of the things that makes a difference, having that sense of knowing what to do with kids.
With Jimmy in Amarillo, instead of putting him in a seclusion room, I put tape on the floor. I said, ‘You take your time outs standing in the tape.’ The staff said, ‘Bobby, he’s not going to stay in there.’ ‘Oh yes, he will. Just watch him.’ I got there, got my coffee, did some work and they’ve got this kid out of class. He’s threatening them, and they’re trying to get it de-escalated. I said, ‘Come over here, Jimmy.’ I put my arm around his shoulder and I said, ‘I prayed to God I’d never have to do this, but you have forced my hand. You’re smarter than my staff; you’re smarter than me. I’m going to have to put you on purple zone restriction.’ He said, ‘What’s that, Mr. Gilliam?’ I said, ‘Don’t play games with me. You play games with these other people but you’re on purple zone now. I apologize. I hoped I’d never have to do this to a young person; that’s not why I’m in this business.’ ‘What is purple zone, Mr. Gilliam?’ ‘You’re not going to play games with me.’ He said, ‘F-you, I’m not going to class.’ I said, ‘I know because you’re on purple zone restriction.’ He said, ‘Then I am going to class.’ I said, ‘You know what happens if you’re on purple zone restriction and you go to class.’ ‘What?’ ‘Don’t play games with me. You know what happens.’ We played that out.
He went into the kitchen and I said, ‘You know you’ve got to be three feet away from the stove when you’re on purple zone restriction.’ The staff called me over and they asked, ‘What is purple zone restriction?’ I said, ‘It’s anything we want it to be. We’re not going to have a power struggle with this boy today. He’s going to eat when we eat instead of having to dine by himself because he’s acting out.’ I swear to God, when the evening shift came on, he said, ‘Well, you know I’m on purple zone restriction, but it’s not bad if you know what you’re doing.’
Working with some of these kids, sometimes it helps to be a little bit more off center than the kid is at times. You look for those nuances that make kids develop. These resilient kids see the world in a different way; that’s why they are resilient.
I am 100 percent convinced that this strength-based psycho-educational model of care is the way to go with these kids. We’ve got a charter school that we’ve been getting the highest ratings for the past four years. I tell the teachers, ‘Here’s all I want you to do this semester: Do not duplicate the public school system.’ If that worked, we’d just send our kids to the public school system. What we know is that for most of our kids most of the time, school is a real problem. It’s the No. 2 reason for referral [No. 1 is problems at home]. It has to do with conflict with authority figures. ‘Don’t do what everybody else has done with them. Do something that they can have some success in. I don’t care if they’re reading “Ulysses” or Louis L’Amour.’ We know that reading is a really critical element for kids. ‘After you’ve made sure that you’ve given that kid what he needs, prepare him to go back into the public school system and be successful there. That’s all I want.’ And of course they laugh because it is asking a lot. On one hand, we’re going to do things really different but on the other hand, if they’re going to be successful, they need to be prepared to go to TSTC or SMU or wherever they go to college.
WACOAN: What keeps you motivated every day in what could be a very stressful working environment?
Gilliam: There’s great stories from these kids. People will ask, ‘How are things at Methodist Home?’ I say, ‘When I left…’ that’s all I can reference because by then we may have Davidians here or the Latter Day Saints or somebody threatening to kill someone because of custody with the parents. It’s such a variety of stuff. A child will ask me, ‘Mr. Gilliam, what do you do?’ ‘I don’t know!’ My day fills up. There’s issues unrelated to child care like budgeting and finance and our endowment.
But the kids — anytime I get down, I need to go spend some time with the kids. They’ll tell me how the program sucks and how they’re not getting what they want and they didn’t get to do this and that. There’s a handful who will come by and see me. They think that’s neat and they’ll say, ‘I’m going to go talk to the president.’ I had 12 girls lined up once to come in one at a time to talk to me about anything from a dog to a cell phone. You listen and you talk.
It’s a sad business at times. The wife of one of our graduates had a 15-ounce baby. I’d never heard of that. They called me about 10:30 at night and said, ‘Bobby, they want him baptized by Travis.’ Travis [Franklin] was our chaplain at the time. The baby had made it miraculously. When we got to Dallas, it was 4:30 and we baptized the baby right after that. This was a kid who had bombed out of the college program. We helped him significantly with his finances and getting services and he said, ‘I can’t believe you all got up in the middle of the night and drove to Dallas.’ I said, ‘That’s what Daddies do. That’s what families do.’ Oh, I cried. I cried about that one several times. To be able to do that and be a part of that is absolutely miraculous.
There’s story after story after story. We can’t tell what will end up happening with them. There’s an art to finding and developing these kids. If they all fit a formula, it would be OK. But you don’t get bored, and the kids rejuvenate you. They are so brave. They tell these stories of losing their mother, finding her overdosed on the floor. They are lost with a capital L. They’ve had such terrible things happen to them. There’s story after story.
WACOAN: You make a point to be very accessible to them on a daily basis.
Gilliam: Yes. It’s interesting. Sometimes you go to their basketball games or volleyball games — I don’t do it all the time, but you try to develop a community. The kids we’re serving here in Waco, we’ve got three times that amount of kids in foster homes and after-school programs. We serve over 1,000 kids a day. My biggest responsibility is creating an environment and culture here that kids need to be in and can thrive in. We’ve had a lot who have left and then gotten in trouble because they’re not grown up at 18. We’ve got a program now where we work with them until they’re 25. In my family, my kids come back home. I do the Daddy check — inspecting their cars, check the tire tread and the oil. Our kids haven’t had that kind of stuff.
The first independent living program [involved] kids who went to Southern Methodist University. I went over to their house and I’d go through the iceboxes to see what they were eating. They’d have leftover pizza, and by the end of the month, they’d have ramen noodles. One boy came in and said, ‘Look at this silk shirt I got, Mr. Gilliam.’ I said, ‘That is beautiful. Where are your pants, underwear, socks, jeans?’ ‘Huh?’ It was stuff that you can’t make an assumption that our kids have the skills. That’s why we talk about the psycho-educational part.
At Boys Ranch, they use the family teaching model. That’s very behavioral. They’re going to come in and come up and say, ‘My name is Bobby Gilliam, and I’m glad to meet you.’ They’ll keep eye contact. The workers say it’s 10 points for the way you greeted; that’s good. That doesn’t change one thing with that kid, but what it does change is how adults perceive the kid. If you say ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, sir’ and make eye contact…
I have been blessed to be a part of this. I’ve seen incredible things in interaction with kids. During hard times, telling kids their mother passed away, the tragedies that happen to kids. People say kids today are different — not so much.
There are some differences. When we were in high school, there may be a girl who went to live with her ‘grandmother’ for approximately nine months and then came back to school and nobody talked about it. If you got a sexually transmitted disease, you’d get a couple of penicillin shots. Now with AIDS, it can be deadly. There’s single dose drugs that are addictive. In my era, people might smoke a little dope — that was the bad kids, the ones you knew were in trouble at school, but they weren’t working in a meth lab. The waters that kids have to navigate — Robert Brooks from Harvard said, ‘Our kids are awash in a sea of despair, searching for islands of competency.’ He’s saying the same thing that we’re saying in that we’ve got to find out what those islands of competency are.
WACOAN: You were thrust into the national spotlight this spring with the arrival of 46 children from the West Texas polygamist compound. What was your reaction to that event?
Gilliam: We’d been asked if we would take some kids, and we had a [separate] unit over here that we could make ready. Moe Dozier did some great work as a VP for the campus. We had a few of the people who had been here when the [Branch] Davidians were here, so they knew some of the things that would come down the road although this would end up being very different. The media came every day and asked for a statement. There was nothing to tell because the kids weren’t here. We knew they were coming but we didn’t know when. Before they arrived, I drove to San Angelo and just looked around to see if there were snipers and police all over the place, to see what they were experiencing.[Caring for the kids] was the right thing to do. We took care of 46 kids for 40 days and 40 nights — that’s what it came out to. People asked what we thought when we dealt with the fathers or if the State of Texas overstepped its bounds. I said, ‘We took care of 46 kids.’ I’m not smart enough to figure those things out, but I know what to do with kids. I know what the kids were going to go through, and I know what kind of program they needed to make them be successful here.
They started coming in and there’s buses and DPS (Texas Department of Public Safety) cars. DPS was wonderful with those kids, wanted to know when their birthdays were. Everybody’s heart went out to them. Moe Dozier and I were sitting there while they were getting off the bus, and he turned around and looked at me and said, ‘We’ve got to get more staff.’ Our average age is 14. We got 3 through 10 year olds.
These kids wake up the first morning — we had worked and worked for hours and hours to get [the building and beds] ready — and there’s like five kids in a bunk bed, sleeping together all on one part of the mattress. Your heart went out to them. Different groups and professionals called, asking if we needed therapists or help. I said, ‘If you can change pee sheets or clean up poop, we’ve got a spot for you. Until we see what’s happening here, we’re not going to go delving into the psyche of these children.’ We changed sheets. The pee sheet patrol got less frequent as it went on, which you expect; they calmed down.
When we started, in the 12th hour they were here, we diagnosed the chicken pox. So we’re off and running. They were susceptible to so many things because it was an unusual [environment].
The girls were aggressive in their response [to us] — what am I doing not having my arms covered up and various things. They’d say, ‘You’re drinking coffee? You’re not supposed to do that!’ They were on these rigid diets and would read what was on the package and ask, ‘Does this have refined sugar in it?’ I’d say yes, and they’d say they couldn’t eat that. But then they’d ask, ‘Mr. Gilliam, can I have another doughnut?’ ‘Sure.’ They were still just kids who were trying to follow the guidelines. Don Scott figured out that when he took them to the gym, they had to exorcise the spirits out of the gym and then they could tell the adults we made them [play]. And they had fun. Then they felt guilty about having fun. One day, we gave them strawberry drinks over at the gym. The two oldest girls took a drink and said, ‘No, it’s wicked’ and threw theirs away. Then we looked over to another little girl, and she had one in each hand and was drinking away. They were just kids.
It took two days for them to get picked up. Moe and I went to see the ones who didn’t get picked up the first day to assure them their moms were coming. One I would have brought home — biggest, prettiest brown eyes I’ve ever seen — he said, ‘Mr. Bobby, you know those sprinkles you put on our ice cream? I could get into that.’ He had just turned 4 while he was here. When the mothers came to pick them up, we gave them the options: ‘the media is over here if you want to talk to them; we’re just here to make the exchange.’ They brought gifts for our kids, for the Home, building blocks. We gave them some stuff from us at the Home.
What we did that I think made the difference — and it was Don Scott who did it — we let them have contact with their mothers almost immediately. It was supervised; the local CPS (Child Protective Services) was in there. They started having contact with their kids, and we didn’t try to stop them. We’re not here to punish them; we’re here to take care of 46 kids. It was unbelievable when the mothers were coming in — they were saying they wanted a picture of our staff with the kids. They were telling me how much it meant [to them to have us care for their kids]. We had attorneys from other parents calling us saying we want to transfer our children to Methodist Home. I think some places took an adversarial stance. We took the stance of let’s do what’s best for the kids, and then if we have to make the hard call — if the state has to take custody — we’ll talk about how that fits with the mission of the Home.
You look back now and it’s like the Davidian compound — I haven’t focused on whether what the government did was right or wrong — we were here and had the ability to take care of these kids. That’s our mission, so we’re going to take care of the kids. The FLDS kids were way different than the Davidian kids. I talked to Bruce Perry who was the neuropsychiatrist who worked with them. He said, ‘Bobby, these kids are not as traumatized as the Davidian kids.’ Nobody was shooting them. Everybody lost somebody in the fire with the Davidian kids. [To the FLDS kids], we were ‘wicked Gentiles.’ As we stayed with them, we found some major racial issues, stuff that they’d been taught. We said, ‘That’s not how we talk here. You can’t use that word.’
WACOAN: Tell me about your family, your wife and children.
Gilliam: I have three kids. And to share it because it’s part of who we are, we lost a little girl right at birth. We were young, and it was very painful because we couldn’t understand why when you’ve got thousands of kids who nobody wants. But we’ve got a son, Luke, who is a journalist [living in Dallas]. He wrote the book ‘Pat Green’s Dance Halls & Dreamers,’ and he edited the book by Nate Self called ‘Two Wars.’ Then I’ve got Rebekah who just graduated from Texas State in sociology. She’s my one who crammed four years of college into eight. Then my baby is Leah, and she’ll get her master’s degree in social work in December. She loves it. She’s got the passion and the advocacy; she’s going to be a good social worker. And that’s what her Mama does. That’s how Linda and I met. She has had a private practice with the elderly where she sees them in her home and has started working half-time for the hospice program at Hillcrest as a bereavement counselor.
Caroline is our granddaughter. Luke and his wife, Jennifer, have Caroline Belle. On the 23rd of December, she’ll be a year old. I was beginning to wonder if we were going to have a grandbaby or not. I have Parkinson’s and I’m on the clock, but we all are, and it’s being maintained. The first thing I thought of when the doctor told me was, ‘I’m not going to be able to hold my grandbabies.’ It’s hard to articulate how much I love Caroline. We didn’t carry her; I didn’t put the lotion on the belly for the stretch marks. I wonder, ‘How did I live 50-something years without her?’ She’s part of our life, and then you think how horrible it would be to have grandbabies and live far away where you couldn’t go see them whenever you want to. It could have happened to us because we had been living in Chicago.
It’s incredible to be in child care for as long as I’ve been and to have had the great kids that I have, who are all very [involved in child care] — Luke mentors a kid from one of the schools. We believe a lot in generosity, in terms of giving back and doing something for other people. I’m so proud of them. [Growing up], they always had the attitude that our mom and dad do something that matters. They’d be there when kids would come up to our house, and they’d ask, ‘Who is that?’ It would be a 25-year-old kid bringing me a Father’s Day card.
I’ve been blessed. Linda and I have been married about 33 years. She plays in the old women’s tennis league now. She loves it. She’s always been the best athlete in the family. It’s neat to have the adult relationship with your kids, where they talk about their dreams and their aspirations.
* Children’s names have been changed.