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Safe at Home

By Roger Greene
Coastal Observer

In many ways it's reminiscent of an idyllic summer retreat. Eleven and a half acres in rural Georgetown County, nestled among oak, maple, gum and cypress trees, all backing up to Black Mingo Creek.

Children fish and swim in the refreshing water. They ride bikes and stroll around the shaded lot, and perform basic chores to keep things tidy. They play catch, shoot hoops, and there is a seemingly easy banter between them.

But for the boys at Tara Hall, nothing has been easy.

"There are no quick fixes for the children that are here," said Jim Dumm, executive director of Tara Hall Home for Boys, which marked its 40th anniversary on Monday. "Most of them are so damaged that it takes a good six months to a year before they begin to trust anyone."

Demographically, residents of Tara Hall all have their differences. The common theme is that all the boys have faced harsh, cold realities no child should have to deal with. They have been abused, abandoned, neglected and lied to.

Nothing that happens while they stay at Tara Hall can alter the past, nor can anything be guaranteed in the future. Often the role is to just make the intolerable somewhat more tolerable.

“All we can provide is an opportunity,” Dumm said. “It’s a chance for kids to be kids. We’ve had kids from Myrtle Beach who have had a toe in the ocean, so it might be something as simple as taking them swimming. But we’re realistic enough to know the limitations. Certainly not every story will have a happy ending.”

Tara Hall’s mantra is discipline, education and family. The boys rise at 6:45 a.m. and begin their chores. They are assigned a level from one to four, and the higher the level, the more privileges they’re allowed.

Classrooms are small, with no more than six students in each, which provides ample time for individual attention. Many of the boys are significantly behind in their school work, so the staff tries to meet them where they are in the effort to bring them up to the appropriate grade level.

In order to work more closely with families, Tara Hall tries to limit itself to accepting boys from a 100-mile radius. Home visits, group sessions and counseling are part of the plan, as reunification is now the trend for social services.

“It used to be there was a more adversarial relationship with the family,” Dumm said. “The view was the family had created the problem and they needed to step aside and let [social services] solve it. But it has been proven that being able to work with the family increases the chances for success.

“Not every family has the capability or the desire to get involved. Those that do will most likely see better results. No matter what has happened, the boys love their mom, and they love their dad.”

Dumm has been with Tara Hall almost since its inception. Married, with two grown children, he had family responsibilities of his own. But he never forgot he was a role model for countless other children.

“Mr. Dumm raised me,” said Michael Heffron, who came to Tara Hall at age 5 and stayed, on and off, until he graduated from Coastal Carolina University. “He was a father figure. Tara Hall has been his life’s work. It’s his legacy. Not many other people can say something like that.”

Father Owen O’Sullivan founded Tara Hall on Sept. 27, 1970. Like Dumm, his mission was to find a way to help abused and neglected children. Shortly after opening though, he encountered financial constraints that threatened to shut Tara Hall’s doors. With 24 kids to help, O’Sullivan had roughly $300 at his disposal.

Calls were being made to shift the boys to different environments, when O’Sullivan found champions for his cause in Jean and Tom Yawkey. Mrs. Yawkey provided funds that allowed Tara Hall to continue, and in 1972, her husband provided the land where Tara Hall now stands.

Private donations have always been the backbone for Tara Hall, as less than 1 percent of its budget is derived from public funds. As a result, the lingering effects of the recession have made more of an impact than it would on a typical nonprofit.

“At first, we didn’t see much effect,” Dumm said. “But as time went on we felt the sting. Nobody has escaped this recession. It’s made a difference to everyone. What were once large donations have been reduced, in some cases they have been cut out all together. We’ve seen the same thing with smaller donations.

“Because we are privately funded, we’ve never been able to see farther ahead than six months to a year. Like most Americans, we go month to month.”

To combat the current economic climate, Tara Hall’s board has turned to consultants to incorporate new ideas into fundraising efforts. The prevailing attitude is that it will be a successful venture.

“We’ll take the advice and counsel the consultants offer and run with the ball,” Dumm said. “You don’t survive 40 years without some struggles. We have a lot of faith in our cause and our ability to move forward.”

Board member E. Stone Miller Jr., whose father was also a major contributor to Tara Hall, said, “My dad grew up during the Great Depression and he saw the need to help kids who were in trouble. It’s been my pleasure to continue what he started. I believe very strongly in the work that is done by Tara Hall. I take a great deal of satisfaction and pride from being involved.”

Tara Hall’s 40 years have not been incident free, the most serious being the 2001 conviction of child care worker Charles Leroy Dean for multiple sex crimes, including some assaults that took place at Tara Hall.

“That was a shocker,” Dumm said. “But, it’s like I told the judge who heard the first hearing, no matter how many background checks you do, you can’t look into a man’s heart. It threw us for a loop.”

In the aftermath of Dean’s conviction, Dumm and his staff increased their vigilance and security, taking steps such as installing security cameras in hallways, stairways and common areas. Tara Hall residents also work with therapists from the Waccamaw Center for Mental Health.

Though the strictest confidentiality protocols are followed, incidents of criminal behavior must be reported.

“The security of the boys is our top priority,” Dumm said. “We want to be vigilant and aware. This is a safe, comfortable place for children.”

Dumm himself was forced to take a leave of absence in 2000, after a parent complained that her child was spanked. Corporal punishment was viewed as a last resort at the time. It was rarely used, with strict protocols being adhered. Tara Hall has since abandoned the practice.

“It was one of the worst times in my life,” Dumm said. “I knew in my heart that I didn’t abuse that child. I knew what the truth was and that helped us get through everything.”

Tara Hall is licensed to house 24 boys, but there are currently 13 residents, ranging in age from 10-14.

A typical stay is one to three years.

Residents are housed in the two-story Yawkey House, which is divided into four wings. Each wing houses one child care worker and up to six boys. Each wing has a common living area and bathroom, and residents are required to keep their bedrooms clean and neat.

If not outside, downtime can be spent in the recreation room that looks out at Black Mingo Creek and features a Nintendo gaming system, television, and foosball and pool tables. There is also an electric train set, which is designed after Tara Hall but also features work done by the boys. Walking around the complex, it’s easy to discern that many of the boys are painfully shy. But they’re all curious about visitors.

Focusing that curiosity has benefits that extend beyond the normal realm, as illustrated by the boys who comprise the Mingo Creek Strummers dulcimer club.

Organized by a Tara Hall board member, Ron Stephen, and Tara Hall’s assistant director, Patsy Morris, the club plays for various groups around the area.

“The boys involved put their energy and efforts into it,” Morris said. “We had some that were quite bashful when they started, but every child has a solo at the events we play. We’ve seen the gains in both self-confidence and self-esteem.”

“Our boys played at a ladies tea the other day,” Dumm said. “The ladies were sitting around drinking tea, and there the boys were playing their instruments. When you can make a difference in the life of one child, that is what keeps you going.”

Over the years, almost 600 boys have made their way down the winding, gravel road that leads to the complex. Some of their pictures are displayed in the administration building; everything from black-and-white snapshots from the early 1970s to the more modern color photos.

For many in the photos, youth has been replaced by middle age. Some have succeeded, some have stumbled, and for those in younger generations, outcomes are still being determined.

All have at one time called Tara Hall home; the only one many have ever had.

“We are all connected,” said Heffron, now employed as a law enforcement officer in Georgia. “Regardless of when we were there, we are all brothers.”

Tara Hall is always looking for monetary donations along with clothing, single bed linens, towels and toys. Send donations to: 510 Tara Hall Rd., P.O. Box 955, Georgetown, SC 29442. Call 546-3000 for information.

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