Sunrise Children’s Services: A 150-Year Legacy of Helping Kids

By John Gregory | 5/13/19 9:00 AM

It started as a single home in Louisville that took in children orphaned by the Civil War, and has grown into a statewide network of mental health and social service providers who help care for some of Kentucky’s most vulnerable youth.

In the beginning, it was called the Louisville Baptist Orphan’s Home. Today it is known as Sunrise Children’s Services, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Baptist Church and recently celebrated its 150th anniversary. It is one of the oldest and largest agencies providing a full continuum of care for children in crisis across the commonwealth.

KET’s Renee Shaw explored the organization’s history and work in a conversation with Dale Suttles, president of Sunrise Children’s Services.

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The Determination of Baptist Ladies
A group of women from Walnut Street Baptist Church in Louisville started the first orphanage in 1869. Suttles says they saw too many children left without families after the ravages of war, and the poverty that followed.

“Those women just simply said, ‘Enough’s enough. We have got to do something,’” said Suttles. “I think it’s the way we’re all made. At some point we say… we’ve got to get involved.”

From those humble roots in downtown Louisville, the organization later opened larger orphanages in Hardin and Rowan counties. Children living in Kentucky Baptist Homes Care found love and hope, growing up on farms and working in the outdoors.

By the 1980s and 1990s, the organization began offering counseling and therapy programs, emergency shelters, and foster care and adoption services.

In 2017, the organization served more than 2,300 children and adults with outpatient, community-based, or in-home support programs.

Care for Them Like They Are Our Own Children
A young woman named Jessie is a prime example of Sunrise’s ability to change lives. Jessie’s parents got divorced when she was six years old. Since her mother had multiple sclerosis, Jessie became the de facto caretaker for the family, doing the cooking and cleaning for her mom and four sisters.

But her mother was never satisfied with Jessie’s housework. She targeted Jessie with emotional and physical abuse.

“It hurts to be a little kid with all that stress on top of you,” Jessie recalls in a video produced by Sunrise.

Jessie was 13 when her mother died. She says it was a hard day, but she also realized that neither she nor her mother would have to live in pain any more.

Sunrise placed Jessie with a loving foster family who raised her and two of her sisters. Now 19, she has aged out of foster care, but continues to receive transitional support thanks to a Sunrise initiative called the Independent Living Program. It provides apartments, furniture, and food within walking distances of college campuses.

“It’s an awesome feeling to have a place to call your own,” says Jessie.

“That’s what we have to do for a population of children here in Kentucky,” Suttles says. “We have to do for them what we would do for our own child.”

Suttles hopes to expand the independent living concept to include a full partnership with a local university to give more Sunrise youth the chance to learn a trade skill or earn a degree while also helping them develop basic life skills like driving and cooking. A similar Sunrise program called VentureON helps young people transitioning out of foster care find safe housing, education, and a job.

“Venture On is just a systematic approach that helps find every child who’s aging out their path of life that could work for them,” says Suttles.

For her part, Jessie plans to study nursing so she can pay forward the help she received during her toughest times.

“My past is what has made me the good person I am today,” she says. “I know how it feels to feel hopeless and I don’t want [people] to feel hopeless. They need to know that someone cares for them.”

Building a System of Supports
Nearly 10,000 Kentucky children now live in some form of state-supported care. Suttles says the foster care and adoption reforms passed by the 2018 General Assembly made much needed improvements to those systems. But he says the opioid crisis continues to ravage Kentucky families across all socio-economic groups.

“We’ve got a lot of need, we have a lot of kids in out-of-home care, says Suttles, “so we have got to build the programs to take care of these kids, and let’s make them productive and give them hope.”

Suttles also praises the 2018 Family First Prevention Services Act, which is designed keep kids from entering the child welfare system in the first place. It provides federal funding for mental health supports, substance abuse treatment, in-home parenting training, and other preventive services to help at-risk families remain intact.

“The best place for a child to live is with their own family – when it’s feasible and not harmful,” says Suttles. “We want great moms, great dads, and we want taxpayers because we don’t have enough money to take care of all needs. So we have to create and develop a system to where we can really invest in kids.”

Changing the Path for Future Generations
The bulk of Sunrise’s funding comes from fees received the state, Medicaid, managed care organizations, and other entities for services it provides. Charitable donations and returns on investments make up the rest of the organization’s revenues.

Although affiliated with Kentucky Baptists, Suttles says Sunrise also works with other Christian denominations as well as Catholic churches to help provide services. With so many children needing foster care, Suttles says people of faith must be a part of the solution, just like they were back in 1869 when the Baptist ladies stepped up to help Civil War orphans.

“If we could get every church in Kentucky to take one child, and that church surrounded that child and family, we’d have it licked,” he says.

Suttles acknowledges that not everyone is cut out to be a foster parent, even with the training program and on-call therapists that Sunrise provides. But he says anyone can help support foster families with things as simple as providing them prepared meals, buying diapers, or enabling the parents to have a date night.

“We all have to get involved to provide hope,” Suttles says. “That’s really our purpose… You’re here to make the lives of people better.”

“We’ve got to be diligent and we’ve got to look long term, and provide that solution for this generation so that their kids are raised and experience something different,” he says.