From the window of her second-floor office, Karon Grier can see all of the residential cottages on the CCHO campus and often finds herself watching the young residents as they move throughout their day. It’s a view she shares with many of her coworkers in nearby offices, but when Karon looks out her window, she sees things a little differently.
Karon first stepped foot on CCHO’s Wooster campus in November of 1981 when her parents, Tim and Pat McKelley, were hired as house parents in Cottage 2. One problem: Construction on the newest cottage had fallen behind schedule. “We sold our house, my dad quit his job, we were coming over and the house wasn’t ready,” Karon recalls. “We moved into Cottage 1 and literally lived in one room because there were kids in (the cottage) already. So we finished up a lot of that detail (in Cottage 2) – we painted, primed, all that, to get us in there and get that cottage going.”
In those days, house parents lived in the cottages with the CCHO residents for whom they cared, which meant 13-year-old Karon and her older brother and younger sister suddenly had nine new siblings in their family.
“The kids had chores, daily room checks, and we were right in the rotation with them,” Karon says. “My mom would tell us, ‘Well, at least there’s 12 of you to rotate the chores now. If we didn’t live here, there’d only be three of you.’”
Karon admits this new setup came with a unique set of challenges. “I was still a bratty teenager and I had my normal teenage resentment,” she says, recalling how she didn’t want to talk to any of her siblings (biological or otherwise) at school. “But…we were still like a family. I realized that these are like siblings. We might fight and I get annoyed with them in the house, but when push comes to shove, we’re going to stick together.”
Today, when Karon sees CCHO kids through her office window, she can’t help but think back to muddy football games and snowy sled rides with her cottage family. Those memories give her a unique perspective on campus life. “When I see (a resident) having a tough time, I immediately start praying for that little guy or little girl who needs something,” she says with tears forming in her eyes. “And when I interact with them, I don’t want them to feel any different than any other kid, just because they’re here. ‘You may not know me, but we still love you.’”
Her transition from house-parent kid to employee began inconspicuously enough, first to provide daycare as needed for teaching parents and, later, as an evening receptionist with light business office duties for Bobbie Porter, the wife of longtime CCHO Executive Director Gary Porter. Things have changed quite a bit since those days. “All of our messages were handwritten,” she recalls. “I thought we hit the big time when we got email.”
As a vital member of the finance department, Karon has been instrumental in helping to modernize the billing and business procedures, including her work in launching CCHO’s new electronic health records system in 2018. In all, Karon has served CCHO in various roles for 25 years, a milestone that was celebrated at our recent staff Christmas party.
“I never thought that I would work here, honestly,” she admits. “But it’s not just a business. My mom, my dad and my brother all worked here. My daughter Brittany worked here for a short time too. Three generations. So it’s definitely more than just an agency. When it’s that close to your heart, it goes without saying that you believe in the mission.”
Karon says her mom is amazed by the reach of CCHO, Encompass Christian Counseling and Encourage Foster Care, and she believes her dad, who passed away in May of 2011, would be proud of what the agency has become.
“Just thinking about all the faces of all the different people that have been here, from the teaching parents to the therapists, admin people,” she says with tears again. “It’s their story too, even though they may not be here now. We’re a big jigsaw puzzle of a lot of pieces that have been a part of us. It’s humbling, just being a small part of this ministry.”