Home Away from Home

Barium Springs always there for the children

By Mike Savicki


At age 82, Mr. Joe Ben Gibbs of Troutman remembers the 8 years he spent at Barium Springs as the “best growing up years of his life.” He is a proud man who freely shares memories of a childhood living in a cottage with a roommate, sleeping on a “sleeping porch,” growing vegetables on Barium’s farm and respecting those whose job it was to bring him up correctly. He talks of “fetching water for the older boys when I was the youngest boy working on the truck farm,” and how, only once, he got caught for talking after “light out.”


He arrived with his younger sister, Dorothy, in 1934 after his father died and the Depression made it difficult for his mother to adequately provide for them. “The Depression ended for me when I got to Barium Springs. I had a bed to sleep in, cooked meals to eat, and care if I got sick. I had everything I needed and worked hard to do my part.” He was a football player who recalls being a part of Barium’s undefeated, championship team in 1941. To this day, he still keeps in touch with several of his teammates.


Mr. Gibbs graduated high school with the class of 1942 and spent a year searching North Carolina for a job before subsequently joining the U.S. Marine Corps. Training and service pulled him across the country, but for nearly three years his heart remained at Barium. The day he returned to North Carolina after leaving the Marines, he attended a football game at Barium where he met his old headmaster once again. The meeting proved beneficial, as the headmaster offered Mr. Gibbs a job on the maintenance crew, a job he happily accepted. “I spent 10 more years at Barium doing everything from driving trucks to leading paint crews. At one point, I led a paint crew of 17 Barium boys. We worked long and hard and I think I helped those boys grow up to be men.” It was only when Mr. Gibbs met his future wife that he left Barium for good.


Mr. Gibbs is one of the thousands of alumni who have had their lives enriched by Barium Springs. Since 1891, Barium Springs has been a privately funded, Presbyterian agency that offers children a place to call home. Named for the nine springs that once flowed around its campus and provided healthful minerals (including Barium) to residents and visitors alike, the Barium Springs Home for Children has filled a number of roles since it first opened its doors.


A Rich and Storied History

In 1891, at the hotel once used to host visitors to the springs, the Synodical Orphanage was founded on a forty acre site purchased from Davidson College. Later that year, shortly after the home and hospital for many of North Carolina’s orphans became operational, the hotel was destroyed by fire. The community immediately rallied to build the orphans a new home and, during the next decade, a group of cottages, an infirmary and Rumple Hall were constructed on adjacent lands.


For nearly 60 years, the “Presbyterian Orphans Home” (as it was called then) operated a farm, orchard, dairy, laundry, print shop, shoe repair shop and baby cottage and had successful athletic programs in football, basketball, wrestling and track. Many children who came to the home arrived as infants and stayed until graduation from high school or college. For much of this time, the home was led by Mr. J.B. Johnson, whose charismatic style taught the children to “stand tall” and “carry their chins up, their shoulders back and look you straight in the face.”


To this day, alumni like Mr. Gibbs still recall their years with Mr. Johnson. “He taught me so much about being a man. He taught us the value of hard work and he taught us respect. I came back to Barium Springs because of J.B. Johnson and wanted to work for him. To this day, the memories still impact my life.”


As both peacetime and advances in medical technology arrived in the 1950’s, the number of true orphans began to decline and the home changed its services. The children who mainly came to Barium Springs had one or both parents living and found themselves in situations of abuse or neglect. They required treatment and therapy in addition to family-style care. Barium Springs had developed a reputation to meet these needs. High quality, full day childcare for working parents was added in 1969, and Barium Springs Home for Children evolved to provide a group home model of care. While building on its tradition of service, Barium Springs had taken on a new role in the community.


John Koppelmeyer, President of Barium Springs, summarizes, “A lot has changed since 1891 when Barium Springs Home for Children first began; however, we still remain dedicated to serving North Carolina’s children and families.  While the orphanage model of care has transformed into a more family-oriented model, we continue to provide the same love, compassion and healing that children will always need as they grow.”


Barium Springs Today

Barium Springs has now evolved into an accredited and nationally recognized facility that strives to meet the needs of North Carolina’s students with behavioral and/or emotional needs. By 2000, Barium Springs had added residential care, an on-campus alternative school program and individual, family and group therapy both on-campus and in the community. Situated on the same campus as the original orphanage, Barium Springs now offers an array of educational services for youth ages 5 – 18 in the following programs: public school attendance, on-campus alternative school, community-based full day and after school day treatment programs, and transition planning and consultation for public schools.


They maintain six residential homes (four on campus and one in both Mt. Airy and Statesville) to provide a family-style environment for youth ages 6-21 who need assistance working through difficult times. The Wagner Family and Child Development Center serves children between the ages of 6 weeks and 5 years old and provides quality care in small classrooms divided into learning and activity stations. Additionally, the Center provides consultation and training to childcare centers, providers and agencies throughout North Carolina. The Barium Springs campus minister conducts groups for youth, families, staff and alumni and plans events to encourage campus unity, spiritual development and pastoral counseling. Barium Springs also recruits and trains foster parents who take children into their private homes to provide treatment and support in a warm environment.


A unique partnership between Barium Springs and the Iredell-Statesville Schools allowed for the creation of Springs Academy, a public school that began classes in August 2005 with a 70 student capacity. Springs Academy functions as a multi-dimensional alternative school and helps students address various social, behavioral and academic issues to allow them to transition back into their mainstream public school. The program is the first educational program to submit to the Teaching-Family Association for certification and has already become a national model program.


Shortly after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, Barium Springs contacted the Red Cross in Statesville and learned that there were several relocated families in need of temporary housing. Barium Springs opened their doors to these evacuees and provided temporary living and services to four families in homes and apartments on campus. This is another way Barium Springs strives to provide specialized service to individuals and families in need.


John Koppelmeyer believes that Barium Springs will continue to fulfill a need in the community. “As the needs of children and families continue to change, Barium Springs Home for Children will be there to meet those needs.  By adding services such as treatment, foster care and crisis stabilization, and by expanding the services already offered, Barium Springs Home for Children strives to heal the entire family in ways that are very specific to their individual needs.  Instead of trying to fit families into the services we offer, we are able to consult our array of services to provide customized care for each individual situation.”


As it has done since 1891, Barium Springs will continue to heal the wounds of the past to enable children, youth and families to move toward a successful future. Mr. Gibbs believes their work remains important and honorable. If he had the choice, he would do it all again and, as he added, “there’s no place like it that helps make lives worth living.”


This article was originally published in Lake Norman Magazine in February 2006.