Sunnybrook houseparents serve an essential role in our ministry, building a Christian foundation with our residents and shepherding them into a productive life.
Human connection has the power to change lives. Its consistent presence helps lay the foundation for key beliefs and a shared future. Its absence can leave us unmoored, both from fellow humans and our creator.
When teenage foster kids walk through the door at Sunnybrook, they have already experienced a lifetime of trauma and family disconnect. In many cases, this leaves them slow to open up, establish healthy relationships, and find a path of positivity.
It takes a special kind of person to chip away at their outer defenses and establish a genuine connection. For many at Sunnybrook, that special person has been Sandra Jones.
Beloved for her sweet, welcoming, and humble spirit, she uses her gift of human connection to make a meaningful impact on the youth at Sunnybrook.
"There was one particular young lady who was very difficult with others, but God had given me favor with her. I can't explain it–she just changed overnight,” Jones recalled, thinking back on her last five years at the Ridgeland, Mississippi campus. “Where she didn't listen to other people, she would talk to me. If she wanted something done or just prayer, she would ask me about it.
“She would say, 'Ms. Jones, will you pray for me? Or with me?' And she's been gone for years but we still have a relationship where she calls me, ‘Grandmama.’”
Even today, the human connection endures through regular calls and prayers. “I thank God that He's given me an opportunity to input into children's lives where they feel that I was that one they could open up to.”
Like any parental bond, the relationship between residents and houseparents can have its ups and downs but is founded on mutual respect.
Residents must understand that rules are a byproduct of love and a healthy structure. Houseparents must understand that poor choices are necessary for growing up and do not define an individual.
Any tension within a safe relationship offers a learning opportunity.
Houseparents are the front lines of Sunnybrook's ministry, providing love, support, and acceptance to foster youth ages 16 through 20. They model and teach healthy habits, strong work ethic, creative problem-solving and life skills. Responsibilities include cooking and cleaning, homework oversight, wakeup and bedtime routines, and transportation to jobs, social events and errands.
In turn, houseparents receive a salary, on-campus housing, meals and benefits, including four weeks of paid time off, one four-day respite weekend per month, and the reward of changing young lives.
As Jones describes it, the ultimate joy of a houseparent is simply witnessing young adults prosper at Sunnybrook.
“For a child to come into the program who couldn’t communicate, wouldn’t communicate, didn’t know the first thing about even boiling an egg or driving…when they leave, they mature. They are doing things most people didn’t think they could do. They are doing well, not only working but keeping a job.
“It means a lot to see these kids go on and do well in their lives.”
There are currently multiple house parent positions open at Sunnybrook. Case Manager Amber Bennett noted the importance of the houseparent role and the bonds formed with residents.
"I think the reward, at the end of the day, is just knowing that you have a huge possibility to make a difference in these kids’ lives. A lot of them have not grown up with positive role models and influences in their lives,” she said. “You have the chance to be that person and truly make a difference."
For Jones, her job is more than a paycheck–it's a calling.
After 38 years of working in the childcare field, she knows God brought her to serve those stuck in the foster system. While it is a fulfilling mission, she admits it is not for the faint of heart.
"As a houseparent, there are challenges that you have in the home. But I tell people that if your heart is in it, you're willing to work through it,” Jones explained. “I must say there are some things where you think, ‘What did I get myself into?’
“It’s challenging but rewarding at the same time. If you have a heart for the kids and you're here to make a change, to give them God's Word, you will last and they will last.”
Larry Owens is a Sunnybrook alumnus, having graduated from the program about a year ago.
“When I first came to Sunnybrook, I was a little on the hot-headed side of things. I really didn’t care,” Owens admitted with a sheepish grin. “But as I started to learn about discipline, I really had a moment to look at the way I was approaching things.
“I had a realization of where my life would be if I did keep doing the things I did and how I acted towards people.”
The power of human connection was critical for Owens, particularly from his houseparents and other on-campus mentors.
“The houseparents were fun. It was amazing, especially the last two houseparents that I had. They were the motherly and fatherly type of houseparents, they were really on you to ensure your success,” he said. “The role of the houseparent is very important. We all look up to the houseparents, especially me. They have to be rare. They can’t just be regular people.”
As a result of his time at Sunnybrook, Owens has found the stability, guidance and ambition he sought in coming here. He has a steady job and recently completed his GED, opening up a brighter future.
“If I didn’t have Sunnybrook, I wouldn’t be as independent and mature as I am now. I would still be at square one, basically,” he said. “I wouldn’t have any of the blessings that I enjoy if I hadn’t come to Sunnybrook.”
The positive lifelong impact of a Sunnybrook houseparent cannot be fully measured, which only increases its importance. Across Mississippi, there are currently thousands of teens and young adults who would benefit from the mentorship that houseparents can provide.
“We do have a significant need for houseparents," Sunnybrook Executive Director Myrle Grate said. "Houseparents are the front line of those who work with our young people. They choose to live a life with these children, to model and to teach them what it is to be a productive, fully mature, spiritually mature adult in this world.
“They give completely of themselves to children who often don't have anybody who has given for them.”
When asked about her future at Sunnybrook, Ms. Jones said, “I pray that I continue this until God calls me home because I love what I do. It's just the idea of having a family outside of a family.”
Do you have a heart for young adults in need of God’s guidance? Are you an empty nester seeking an opportunity to make a difference in the community?