Natchez — As executive director of the venerable Natchez Children’s Home, Nancy Hungerford wears many hats. She takes care of business, administration, development and public relations but is also available for kitchen duty, facilities maintenance and special events. She says she’ll do anything, wherever there’s a need.
She’s been associated with Mississippi’s oldest residential childcare institution for 22 years. “I’ve made a strong investment here with my life’s focus and time,” she says. “I love what I do and it’s important that it be done.”
Natchez Children’s Home has an interesting history and was founded before Mississippi even became a state. In 1816, a group of Natchez women recognized a need for education among the less privileged children of the district. They formed the Female Charitable Society and started raising funds to establish a charity school, the forerunner of the Natchez Children’s Home. Descendants of some of the founders frequently serve on the present day board of directors.
“That name was not unusual for that time and the home has always been driven by women with vision and passion,” Hungerford said. “It’s only been in the time I’ve been here that men have served on the board of directors.”
The home is managed by a strong board of directors who are members of Natchez area churches. Natchez Children’s Home is incorporated and is among the oldest continuously operating homes in the United States. Financial support is derived entirely from individual gifts, bequests, corporate funding and inclusion in church budgets.
“We are committed to the private sector taking care of children in a residential setting and take no federal grant monies. Therefore, we do not have the strings attached with federal funds. For 188 years the home has not taken federal money,” Hungerford said. “My job is to raise money and make every dollar do the work of three dollars.”
The home is extremely thankful for the financial support and services they receive, and the director depends on banks, CPAs and others in the business community to help keep things running smoothly. The staff and board strive to be good stewards and use good business practices.
“The ministry won’t be successful if it’s not run as a business,” she said. “We can’t lead only with our hearts. We must bring in our heads too.”
Hungerford, who serves on the advisory board of the Mississippi Center for Nonprofits, notes that nonprofit organizations make an economic impact of $4 billion to the state’s economy annually. She feels the positive modeling the home does for kids is a valuable contribution given back to the community.
Although Indian wars and yellow fever epidemics no longer exist, there is still a need for a home for neglected, displaced and abused children. Licensed to care for 16 children — from birth to age 18 — at a given time, the home’s role is as a residential pass through, not an orphanage. The length of stay varies with six to 18 months considered ideal. The staff works with state social service agencies and courts for family reunification, adoption or foster home placement as permanent solutions for children. Most are referred by the state Department of Human Services and come from the southwestern part of the state although Hungerford said they will take children from all 82 counties. Children can also be privately placed in the home.
Drug addiction is the single biggest reason for children being in the home, Hungerford says. These are followed by alcoholism, poverty, mental and physical abuse and divorce.
“When I think I’ve seen it all, a child will show up who’s experienced something else,” she said. “I can count on one hand the true orphans I’ve seen, but I’ve seen many social orphans.”
With warmth and good humor, she says she may someday write her memoirs and disappear into the witness protection program. “Sometimes I have to laugh because it does no good to jump into the hole from whence these children have come,” she said. “A sense of humor keeps things in perspective.”
Ten children are currently living at the Natchez Children’s Home, but that number fluctuates. Grade school through junior high is the target age group. Two house parent couples usually live with the children, but the home presently has only one and is trying to find another couple. They can take siblings, which Hungerford says is helpful for children. The largest group she’s ever had from one family was seven brothers and sisters.
The home’s staff of eight includes a licensed social worker and two master’s level teachers. This year, the staff began home schooling the children instead of sending them to public schools.
“These children come from such dysfunctional backgrounds, we can meet their needs better here and help them get caught up,” Hungerford said. “We can manage better here and have converted the second floor into school space.”
Located at 806 North Union Street, the home is on the same six acres it has occupied since before the Civil War. Its present 12,000-square-foot building was constructed in 1950. The jovial director refers to it as “a strip mall for kids.”
The home is nondenominational and resident children attend area churches with the house parents. The children are also very much involved with church youth activities as well as community sports and other activities.
“My desire is not to be able to pick them out from other children that you see,” Hungerford said.
Originally from Clemson, S.C., she is a graduate of Furman University and came to Mississippi when her husband at that time attended seminary in Jackson. Hungerford taught high school English. The couple later worked in residential childcare in Florida and South Carolina before returning to Mississippi to work at the Palmer Home in Columbus.
Hungerford, 53, serves on the boards of the National Association of Christian Children and Family Agencies and the Mississippi Association of Childcare Agencies. She is a founding member of New Covenant Presbyterian Church, on the board of the Natchez Garden Club, a member of the Natchez Chamber of Commerce and is president elect of the Natchez Rotary Club.
Asked how she does all that, she answers good naturedly, “My dad always told me if I stayed busy, I’d stay out of trouble. Sometimes I think I should be medicated and put out to pasture.”
But on a more serious note, she adds, “I am blessed with energy and good health. My own children are supportive, and I get a great deal of pleasure and enjoyment from them.”
Those children, all grown, are Jonathan, Caroline and Betsy Jordan.
Working in a profession that is demanding and often dismaying, Hungerford was asked what keeps her going. “It’s very necessary work. I’ve done it for so long that I’ve seen the good of the seeds we’ve tried to plant,” she said. “Every child has an equal opportunity here to get the safety, structure, Christian modeling and healthy family they haven’t had at home.”
She says the reward is seeing some of those children who return as adults to tell her what the Natchez Children’s Home meant to them.
“Another very affirming thing about this work is that we are constantly gratified by the sources of support we have and it comes from everywhere,” she added. “Often we are embraced because it’s a private, Christian home.”
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.