Woman has a dream for foster kids

Monday, February 9, 2004
The interior of the old facility is a mess, with wires hanging from broken ceiling tiles, and other major problems. CCN / Ken O'Toole

BERRYVILLE ---- A local woman is dreaming an almost impossible dream, but she says her love of children and determination will overcome any obstacles she faces.

Virginia Litchford, 61 "and proud of it," plans to renovate the huge old former Berryville nursing home on Simpson Street into a place where foster children can find affection and a safe temporary place to live.

The facility, just off South Springfield Street near the city park, has its problems ---- some of them seem insurmountable at first glance.

It has been a decade since the nursing home moved to a new building near the hospital, and since then the building has fallen into disrepair.

"The place has been run down to the point that the whole thing needs major renovation," she said. It needs a new modern roof, the ceiling tiles are falling in, the electricity needs to be checked and possibly upgraded, plumbing work needs to be done and everything needs to be repainted.

In fact, most of the place is a mess.

"And it needs a whole lot of muscle power," she said.

Litchford says she is plowing ahead, and is in the middle of getting her parenting class certificate from the Department of Human Services in Harrison.

Also, she is a retired nurse.

But she is driven by more than the project at hand.

"When I was nine years old, my dad died, and I know what it's like to live and be without a parent," she said Wednesday.

"I also read a book when I was young about children that nobody wanted, and that stuck with me. I want to help children."

With six children of her own, and a background in taking in foster children, when she decided to retire as a nurse, she said, her children convinced her that she needed to keep going, to keep her heart working for children, or she wouldn't last long doing nothing.

"I want to be a foster granny, and that's what this project is all about," she said.

Litchford was given a free five-year lease from the owners of the building, B and K Investments, in exchange for work on the building. If the project works, then Litchford hopes to be able to pay lease terms at the end of five years.

Because the facility is near a state highway (Springfield is Highway 21 North) it cannot be rezoned from commercial to residential, so Litchford will be limited to keeping just a few children at a time.

After she gets all her certificates and, hopefully, volunteer "muscle power" and some funding, she plans to start as soon as she can taking in foster children, which she says she has learned "there is a great need in this area" for such a project.

Litchford has applied for some grant funding, but it is not very likely that she will receive much due to the state's financial crunch.

"I'm thinking about four to six children, or less, for right now, but the police and others have told me that even that many would be a great help for the community," she said.

The "foster granny" seems undaunted by the task at hand. The 11,559-square-foot building has been deserted for some time, and it shows. A few years back, it was briefly a bachelor-style apartment complex for low-income people that brought a significant amount of police problems to the area.

There are wires hanging from the ceiling, junk appliances all over, a neglected commercial kitchen, and work to be done in nearly every portion of the place.

Looking at the kitchen in its deplorable condition, she said, "I want to take this commercial stuff out and turn it into a "granny's old-fashioned kitchen, where children can feel comfortable. I want it to have an atmosphere of a visit with grandma until the children can go back to their parents," she said.

"I just need money, volunteers, and supplies," she said.

She wants to run the place herself, with no employees.

"Both the city and I don't want problem children here, and I'm too old for problem children anyway. A lot of children are good children, they've just been abused by parents. But they won't get any abuse here," she said. "I'm not a real religious person, but if the good Lord wants it to happen, it's going to happen."

She said she's got no health problems, has worked hard all her life, and plans to continue to do so.

She said some say she is "day-dreaming," but "these kids have no place to go. Some of them could even stay on after they turn 18, and maybe I can help them find a job or help them go to college."

Anyone interested in helping with the project can call Virginia Litchford at (870) 423-7420.

She is currently living in one heated room in the building, and taking her tasks one day at a time.

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