At the age of 13, Tim Waldrop's world turned upside down when his mother passed away, leaving him and his five younger brothers without a caretaker.
Shortly after entering the care of Child Protective Services, he and his brothers were referred to Sunnybrook, a residential housing program for children and young adults in the foster care system.
Waldrop still remembers the four-hour drive from their hometown in Corinth, Mississippi to the capital in Jackson. It was long enough to think about everything they were leaving behind and the uncertain road ahead.
When they got there, the boys met with Alonzo Welch, the Executive Director and Founder of Sunnybrook, to determine if they would be a good fit for the program. They moved into a Sunnybrook cottage a few hours later.
"My first impression of Mr. Welch was that he was firm most of the time, but he did it because he loved you,” Waldrop said. “He wanted you to be the best person you could be.”
Sunnybrook Provides a Second Chance at Functional Family
Welch left the traditional ministry in 1963 to establish Sunnybrook, which initially consisted of two cottages in downtown Jackson, Mississippi.
At that time, keeping siblings united was not a priority of the foster care system, but it was a founding principle for Sunnybrook, as Welch explained many times over the years.
“One of the things that was characteristic of placement in that particular time is the fact that they separated children of the same family,” he would say. “I wanted to start a home that kept family groups together.”
As a young teen, sharing the Sunnybrook experience with his brothers was vitally important to Waldrop. He recalled: “It didn’t take me long to realize Sunnybrook was all about family and Christianity. It was based on family, closeness, bonding, and work ethic.”
Welch was the positive male role model that Waldrop had never had, and he became a second father to him.
That included putting Waldrop through college for no cost. He was given the opportunity to attend college because Mr. Welch valued higher education and made a promise to all kids at Sunnybrook: “If they are college material, we guarantee them a college education.”
After Waldrop graduated from Natchez Trace Youth Academy, he went on to Belhaven University, where he earned his bachelor's degree in business.
Answering the Call to Return and Serve
With a bachelor’s degree in hand, Waldrop was asked to return and manage the farm program at Sunnybrook, which he gladly accepted. At any given time, he mentored two dozen kids in caring for the 30-40 head of cattle.
He credits the farm program with teaching him discipline and the value of hard work, lessons he then passed on to the next generation.
"I was able to understand and influence the kids more than most people because I came through the system," Waldrop said. Under his supervision, Sunnybrook youth got to show in more cattle competitions across the country, showing them a new world and empowering them to take pride in their work.
He also worked as a Sunnybrook houseparent, a role that put him on the front line of Sunnybrook’s ministry. It also introduced him to his wife, a fellow Sunnybrook employee. After their second child was born, they stepped down as houseparents to focus on their growing family.
When the farm program ended at Sunnybrook, Waldrop assumed the role of Physical Plant Operator for Sunnybrook. He now oversees building security, maintenance, waste disposal, and site inspections on campus.
"I've been here full-time since 1982," Waldrop explained, "and it's never felt like a job to me."
Instead, it has offered an incredible opportunity for growth and salvation - two things in short supply for average kids in foster care.
Sunnybrook’s Legacy of Changing Lives for the Better
For more than 60 years, Sunnybrook has served as a guiding light for young children who were in Mississippi’s foster care system. In recent years, Sunnybrook shifted from young children to focus on older youth, creating a Transitional Living Program for people about to age out of the system.
“Aging out of the system” is a euphemism for the end of state-sponsored services for foster kids. These are the numbers facing foster care youth in the real world:
only 5% have a driver’s license or permit;
only 14% have employment experience;
only 22% have any financial literacy training at all;
As a result, less than two-thirds have employment within six months of graduation, perpetuating the generational cycle of dependency.
Sunnybrook’s Transitional Living Program is designed for kids slightly older than Waldrop when he arrived, to help them fill in the gaps. In the first 2.5 years since its inception at Sunnybrook, the program has delivered on its promise, including:
50% with a driver’s license or permit (this figure includes current residents who are too young to pursue one);
77% with employment experience;
66% with more than 40 hours of faith-based financial literacy training.
“We want all these kids to be productive members of society,” Transitional Living Program Director Amy Turner said. “That means being able to go out, have a job, pay rent or a mortgage–all the things that you would want your own kid to do.”
“There’s so much that goes into providing help and hope for these kids.”
In many ways, Waldrop’s experience is the best-case scenario.
Instead of the broken boy who rode from Corinth to Jackson, Waldrop is a man of faith, who understands the importance of hard work, and lovingly cares for his family.
Contrasting their childhoods with his own, he notes: "My kids are part of a normal family. Sunnybrook changed a generation of people's lives just by changing me. Sunnybrook's done that for hundreds and hundreds of kids.”
That was the dream of Mr. Welch that lives on today.
Sunnybrook: Finding Diamonds in the Rough
Throughout 2023, Sunnybrook will celebrate its 60th anniversary by:
Honoring our Legacy
Embracing our Present
Securing Our Future
This diamond anniversary year is an opportunity to celebrate real stories of impact, like Tim’s. We ask for your prayers, volunteer efforts, and donations in support of our community’s most vulnerable members. Please get involved today.