When Carrie Steele found an abandoned baby at the Union Railroad Station in Atlanta, all she knew was that the child needed her. She soon discovered this baby was one of many orphaned by desperate parents. Busy working as a maid for the station, Miss Steele knew the only way she could provide for these "cast aside" children was to keep them nearby. So an empty boxcar became a nursery, as she kept one eye on her family and the other on her job. At night, the children got a taste of home in a hot meal and a warm bed at Carrie's house. But Miss Steele's family quickly outgrew both the boxcar and her two bedrooms. As one of the first black landowners in Atlanta, she had the courage and means to do more. Carrie sold her home, and with help from the community, purchased a building, secured a charter and opened the Carrie Steele Orphan Home in October of 1888. More than 20,000 children and 127 years later, the Carrie Steele-Pitts Home stands strong in their mission to "maintain a family environment that fosters the physical, educational, social-emotional, and spiritual development of each child" in its care. Dr. Evelyn Lavizzo, executive director of the Carrie Steele-Pitts Home considers their mission "a wonderful opportunity to give youth what they need to heal, grow and pursue their dreams." Dr. Lavizzo, who has worked with the children since 1988 but was named executive director in 2009, describes the facility as a healing place. A heart for children in the heart of Atlanta, CSPH provides each child the individual, psychological and social services he or she needs to thrive. But these kids are more than just part of the foster care system; they are a family. When an event or circumstance requires that children be removed from their parents, the CSPH provides a home when family foster care isn't available. This is especially true in the case of youths, ages 16 to 21. Dr. Lavizzo explained, "Sometimes older kids are more difficult to place into family foster homes. If you have them in a group environment you can pool resources to make sure they're getting all the skills and advantages they need." The CSPH paves the way for an older child's success. From piano and swim lessons to tutorial services for high school completion, staff members work tirelessly to create an atmosphere of "home" for kids in transition. They've even set a new standard for children moving into their post-secondary years. "We now offer programming for 18-21 year olds — youths that are aging out of foster care," said Dr. Lavizzo. "These are very difficult times and they need guidance and resources." But the CSPH doesn't stop there. Caring for every child, whether in the residential program, after-school learning center or the children's interaction with local churches and community groups, the Carrie Steele-Pitts Home, just like its founder, puts the needs of its kids first. "Both of my parents passed away by the time I was 18," Dr. Lavizzo commented. "I know how important it is to have some solid ground — a strong group of mentors and caring people that can provide the guidance that young people need." And CSPH receives just that from actress Victoria Rowell. Rowell, one of the stars of UP's Dec. 13 premiere of "A Baby for Christmas," the third installment of the popular "Marry Me for Christmas" franchise, was raised in the foster care system. When her character, Stephanie Chandler, and the rest of the Chandler family can't seem to find their holiday spirit, one visit to the Carrie Steele-Pitts Home changes their outlook and their lives. Dr. Lavizzo described CSPH's close relationship with Ms. Rowell… "We take to heart her autobiography and just spending time with her to make sure when we do the programs, we get it right." In addition to Ms. Rowell's mentorship, Ollivette Allison, the executive director prior to Dr. Lavizzo, grew up at CSPH under the care of Mrs. Clara Maxwell Pitts. Mrs. Pitts took over the running of the home after the death of Carrie Steele Logan. This continuity of leadership ensures the program stays true to its mission. "It's a mix of making sure young people are able to heal," explained Dr. Lavizzo, "and that they have a secure, stable environment where they're protected, loved and very much cared about. And they have people like Victoria Rowell nurturing their hopes and dreams for the future." When Carrie Steele looked into the eyes of that first orphaned child, she knew it needed love and care to survive and thrive. Her gift of love, hope and a future is the continuing legacy of the Carrie Steele-Pitts Home. It's the best gift a child can receive—at Christmas time and all the time! To find out more about the Carrie Steele-Pitts Home and how you can help, visit http://csph.org/join-us/.
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