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More of the story: Sela Ward talks Mississippi

selaward2Many Americans first met Sela Ward through her breakout, Emmy-award winning performance as Teddy Reed on the television series “Sisters,” that ran from 1991 to 1996.

Then, there was that “little” role as Harrison Ford’s wife in “The Fugitive.”

Today, many know her as Jo Danville, a DNA evidence investigator with a background in criminal psychology, who uses her wits to catch the bad guys.

But to some, Ward is just a Mississippi girl who grew up in a little neighborhood in Meridian with two lakes where she learned to swim, and a cave in which she participated in séances with neighborhood children.

“We really played outside until it was time for dinner,” said Ward, recalling her Mississippi childhood. “It was a lovely neighborhood. We spend most of the summer there. I go back for family reunions around Thanksgiving, and I usually get there one other time (during the year) for Hope Village.”

She’s coming back to her hometown April 20 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Meridian charity she founded in 2002 called Hope Village for Children. It’s a residential group home for abused and neglected children with an emergency shelter to serve those in danger of immediate removal, as well as permanent group homes and transition houses.

The 10th Anniversary Gala for Hope Village is set for April 20 in Meridian’s Mississippi State University Riley Center and will feature notable stars and other Mississippi celebrities. It is the first fundraising event Ward has held for the organization that will feature a dinner, live auction and entertainment.

Some of her “CSI: New York” co-stars will attend the event, including Gary Sinese (Forrest Gump), Hill Harper, A. J. Buckley, Robert Joy and other special Hollywood friends. Ward also mentioned Mississippi natives Lance Bass and Oxford resident Sam Haskell, former executive vice president and Worldwide Head of Television for the William Morris Agency.

Some of the auction prizes will include a Harley Davidson motorcycle, a guitar signed by the Eagles and a football singed by Nick Saban. Some will receive backstage passes to entertainers, such as Carrie Underwood and the Zack Brown Band, and attendees will have the opportunity to hear stories from children who have lived at Hope Village.

To attend the event, there are two sponsorship levels: platinum and gold. Platinum requires a minimum donation of $10,000 and includes eight tickets for dinner with Ward and her special guests, a pre-dinner “meet and greet” on the stage of the opera house, a professional photo with Ward, the viewing of auction items during the “meet and greet” and a commemorative hand-painted carousel horse.

The gold level requires a minimum donation of $5,000 and includes eight tickets for dinner with Ward and her special guests, a preview of the auction items during the sponsor cocktail hour and a special gift representing the event.

“We will be able to hold about 350 people,” Ward said. “Another thing I’m really trying to do by having this big gala is broaden our reach of support from other parts of the state. I want to let people know we are out there, and that we do service kids from all over our great state of Mississippi.”

Ward left Meridian in 1977 to study at the University of Alabama. While there, she was a cheerleader for the Crimson Tide football team, a homecoming queen, and she earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and advertising.

She later moved to New York to work for an advertising agency, but began modeling with Wilhelmina Models. Her first commercial was for Maybelline. Her first television show (1983-1984) was “Emerald Point N.A.S.,” a show that took place on a Naval base and dealt with the Mallory family.

Ward’s first movie was “The Man Who Loved Women” (1983) starring Burt Reynolds. Other notable film and television work includes the television movie “Almost Golden: The Jessica Savitch Story” (1995); the television series “Once and Again,” (1999-2002) playing Lily Manning; “The Day After Tomorrow,” (2004) in which she played Dr. Lucy Hall; “The Guardian,” (2006) as Kevin Costner’s wife; the television series “House M.D.,” (2005-2012) as Stacy Warner.

When’s she’s not acting and spending time with her family that includes husband Howard Sherman, an actor, and children Austin and Anabella Ward, she is actively involved in Hope Village, which serves more than 200 kids each year, and has served more than 2,000 in the past decade.

The majority have endured more than 15 or more placements before entering Hope Village, and the goal is to make that movement stop, providing a place where children can live and grow without living in fear.

“I had gone back home in 1998 around Christmastime,” said Ward, explaining why she decided to found this particular type of charity. “A friend had started an emergency shelter (the Peavey Emergency Shelter) for abused kids, and I went there to take Christmas gifts and see what it was all about.

“There were two brothers, Jimmy and Michael, who were 9 and 11 years old. I just fell in love with these two kids, and they were about to be separated because there was no one who could take them and keep them together.

“The parents’ rights had been terminated. Their two sisters had already been sent to different parts of the state. I couldn’t get over the idea that if all I had left in the world was my sister, and they were going to rip us apart and put us in different places – I couldn’t even sleep that night.”

Ward was able to secure funding to purchase the property in Meridian through the Entertainment Industry Foundation in Los Angeles.

“They were working on a cause marketing campaign that fit perfectly with my children’s cause,” she said.

“Hope Village for Children is located on nearly 30 acres of land in Meridian. It consists of five 4,000 square foot cottages, a cafeteria, a gymnasium and a fenced swimming pool.

Each cottage contains eight bedrooms and six bathrooms, two large living rooms, a dining room and a kitchen. The property also includes a three-bedroom, two-bath residence which serves as an education/art center. Approximately twenty-two acres at this site provide space for playground equipment and other outside activities.

The property was an abandoned children’s home owned by the Masons. It took her about a year or so to secure the money to purchase the property and refurbish it. Now, she’s on the board for life.

“I go every time I get home,” she said. “I’m always working with Tina Aycock, our executive director, on fundraising and strategic planning. We’re trying to collect data at the moment having to do with the success of our kids, and really try to come up with enough data to function as a case study for helping with the foster care system. We feel like we have some great ideas about how it could be reformed.”

Ward said one of her biggest goals is to change the stigma of group homes as cold institutional places and rethink the way they operate.

“So many of these children, who are not young toddlers – who are junior high school kids and older – many of them are not “adoptable.” They keep being bounced from foster home to foster home, which is just criminal.

“I want to help alleviate the negative stigma toward group homes and emergency shelters,” she said. “We are not warehousing children. We have created a nurturing, loving, safe environment for children to thrive. Think of it as a fabulous boarding school.”

Ward said she’d like to see the state of Mississippi become a model for change throughout the rest of the country.

“We are trying to do some really extraordinary things here,” she said, “and my dream would be for Mississippi to really join forces with all the other high quality group homes in the state  to become a model of best practices for the rest of the country. Mississippi could be a cutting-edge case study in revamping the foster care system.”

Ward said Hope Village – which is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – provides services to kids from all over the state, not just Meridian.

“There are not enough adoptive parents, nor are there enough qualified foster parents to take these junior high and high school children,” she said. “So what happens to these kids? They are bounced from one foster family to another.

“Some have been in as many as 15 different placements in a year. They are not able to have continuity in terms of their education. They are not able to have continuity socially, establishing friends and connections. They have no stability. So where are you going to put these children? That’s why Hope Village exists.”

Ward said 50 percent of funding for Hope Village comes from the federal and state government.

“The other 50 percent comes from private donations in state, and we have some angels who are from other parts of the country that help sometimes,” she said.

“It’s very costly to have round the clock staff and to provide all the needs for these kids,” she said. “We can hold about 46 kids at a time. We have an emergency shelter that can hold about 12 at a time.”

Ward said they have proudly added two transition homes for children who have turned 18 and aged out of the system.

“We help them ‘transition’ into adulthood and be on their own,” she said. “We support them during this time that is historically very frightening to these kids, as they have no car, no job and no home when they are released from the state’s care and turned out onto the street.  We don’t let that happen.”

Statistics indicate that 50 percent of children in the foster care system will never finish high school, and 66 percent will be homeless, go to jail or die within one year of leaving at 18, according to Tina Aycock, executive director of Hope Village, a place that hopes to combat those statistics.

“Two houses were built on the campus so that graduates would have a place to live while they work and/or go to college,” Aycock said. “They have the opportunity to save money, buy a car, make adult decisions and plan for their future, while Hope Village is still there for support and guidance. This is a vital part of learning how to be adult, but it is, unfortunately, missing from the ordinary foster care system.”

According to adoptuskids.org, there are 3,700 children in foster care in Mississippi. The North American Council on Adoptable Children reports that for children waiting to be adopted in Mississippi, the average length of stay in care is more than three years.

The average age of the state’s adopted children is about 6.3 years, and research shows that for youth over the age of 9, the likelihood of being adopted drops significantly. In 2010, 96 youth in Mississippi aged out of foster care without a permanent, legal family, the NACAC reports.

Aycock said the majority of their children are teenagers who have been placed, on average, in at least 15 different places before arriving at Hope Village. “Teenagers in the foster care system often “age-out” without the skills they need to become independent adults,” she said.

“This leaves them at high risk of becoming homeless, incarcerated or worse.”

Hope Village emphasizes education, and as a result, Aycock said more than 95 percent of their children complete their high school education.

“One of our top priorities is that the children who leave Hope Village will have the knowledge and support they need to become healthy, self-sufficient members of our community,” she said. “They deserve no less.”

Aycock said they want Hope Village to be a national vehicle for change.

“Sela has been appalled by the stories she’s heard from children about their experiences in the foster care system,” Aycock said. “She believes if we can prove what we are doing at Hope Village works then the same model can be made available to foster children elsewhere. I will add, however, that one of the reasons we are able to provide so many resources to our children is because of the community where we live.  That will be difficult to replicate.”

“In the state of Mississippi, including Hope Village, there are really incredible group homes that are loving and safe and of great quality,” said Ward. “That’s the biggest message I’m trying to get across.

“Mississippi really does have the most loving, caring people in terms of giving. In the community in Meridian alone, the support we have has been extraordinary.”

To learn more about Hope Village for Children or the upcoming gala, visit http://www.hopevillagems.org/

Got a comment? E-mail me at endyanna@earthlink.com or Tweet me at @lareecarucker.

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