An excerpt from Remembering Carobell Smiles and Tears, by Elizabeth Bell Midgett
In the early 1960’s Virginia Franks and I met at a School of Missions, sponsored by the Women’s Society of Christian Service of the Methodist Church. We taught study courses at each other’s churches and visited in each other’s homes; we were sisters in Christ and she became “Aunt Ginny” to my kids. Years later, when we founded a home for profoundly handicapped children, we decided to name it after our mothers: Caro — for Carolina Franks and Bell — for Patricia Bell. Virginia was already “Aunt Ginny” to my children; now “I” needed a Carobell family name. Because our little family was expanding, we felt big families should have a “Big Mama” — and that was me!
In 1966 Virginia was the Executive Secretary of the Navy Relief Society at Camp Lejeune. While she was in Jacksonville, I was living on Harbor Island in Wrightsville Beach with my four children. Around the corner lived Virginia’s mother, Caroline. I watched over Mama Franks during the week until Virginia returned home on the weekends. Then in 1967 I was offered a position as Supervisor of the Kindergartens aboard the base, and we all moved to Jacksonville. I bought a house in Sherwood Forest, and Virginia and her mother rented a home off of the old Gum Branch Road. On Thanksgiving morning that year Mama Franks died of heart failure. My four kids voted to have Aunt Ginny come live with us if she brought her cat, her piano, and her color TV. That’s how we all ended up on Marion Court!
Virginia (in her work) was aware that babies were born at the Naval Hospital with multiple problems. Their parents were unable to care for them, and placements for total care were few and far between. At the same time, my Kindergarten teachers informed me of the several children who seemed to be having developmental difficulties in Kindergarten. There was one special little girl, whose parents had been advised to have her repeat Kindergarten. They were told she was behind, and since she was the youngest of four children, she would “catch up eventually.” After observations and teacher reports, we advised the parents to have the child tested. How traumatic it was for them to learn their little girl was “retarded.” They were the first of many parents who had to begin the journey to seek “special education” for their child.
In 1969 the NC legislature passed a law stating that all North Carolina children were eligible for a free public Kindergarten education. My job as Supervisor of the Camp Lejeune Kindergartens was to end on June 30, 1969. In deciding my future goals, I kept thinking about special Kindergarten children and the special babies born at Lejeune. Virginia and I talked about it, and we decided to visit some of the state and private facilities that cared for severely developmentally delayed children. We started in the Western part of the state. We saw rooms filled with row after row of crib babies with hydrocephalus, cerebral palsy, and other problems. We saw a private home with rooms crowded with children and only one or two persons to care for 15 children. In Winston-Salem, I remember visiting [a home] where beds for older children were pushed so close together, you could not walk between them to attend a child. I remember walking in the dining room and suddenly being surrounded by children with Down Syndrome touching and pulling at me saying “Mama, Mama.” Out last visit was to another center, one of the four oldest state institutions for the mentally retarded. Because it was a training school, children under six years of age were not admitted. The things I remember most were the awful smell of urine and feces, stark white rooms with metal cribs, children and adults dressed in dingy white T-shirts and diapers, and even a naked woman with flailing arms and legs tied in a chair. These sights and smells will never be forgotten. We had a loving home and $500 — we certainly could offer something better! We formed a Board of Directors who dreamed with us the Carobell dream. We met with our attorney and people from the NC Department of Mental Health. We talked with my four children and they were ready to share our home with some very special babies.
Wendy’s Story: How Carobell Began
And so it was on July 1, 1969 Carobell opened its doors. Our first baby was Wendy; she quickly became the Queen. Our first little boy was Woody, and of course he was the King. By October we had six babies living with us. We had hired two devoted Aides who, along with the rest of the family helped care for them. I’ll always remember that first Christmas — we dressed our children in bright Christmasy clothes and welcomed their families who came to share the day with us. Our helpers had the day off, so each of us — Aunt Ginny, Big Mama, Ron, Steve, Fred and Pattie — had one of the six Carobell children to care for that day.
By the spring of 1970 we needed a full time Administrator/Social Worker; Aunt Ginny left her position at Navy Relief and came to Carobell. By 1973 one of our little boys celebrated his sixth birthday. No state institution for him! He was part of our Carobell family, and we were not ready to give him up. We opened the Children’s Home on Huerth Street. A year later this second home (and our office) was relocated to the property on the corner of Warn Street and Lejeune Boulevard.
We were fortunate that Charles Martin, M.D., became “Doc” to our children. He taught us everything we needed to know. In the early days there were no nurses or teachers, there was just “us” loving and encouraging our special ones, trying to treat them just as we would any member of our family. Sometimes when one of our kids would have a long seizure in the middle of the night, we would call “Doc” and he would come. We had many a philosophical discussion about our Carobell dream in the wee hours of the morning.
We struggled financially, but we would not give up our dream. In order to raise funds to support Carobell, we put baby food jars in stores around Jacksonville, asking for donations. We had Candy Striper volunteers who would come and fold dozens of diapers, and help us address our mailings. Through the years the right people with the right stuff have come to us at the right time. There are many people with many different skills who now work at Carobell to help our children learn and grow. They come today to a well-established residential and school program. In 1969, it was different — it was just one family who wanted to show some special children that they could be loved in a place called HOME.