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Faith & Finances

Abounding love and a keen business sense
guide Michael Blackwell's work for the Lord

By Jerry Blackwelder

The corporation headed by Dr. Michael Blackwell is Thomasville’s oldest continuously operating business, but its products can’t be found on any store shelves.

Since 1983, Blackwell has watched diligently over Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina, the state’s largest child service institution. From Franklin to Carteret County and 12 sites in between, some 350 employees perform their tasks within an annual budget of $18 million.

“It’s the Lord’s business, but it’s still a business,” says Blackwell, 59. “And our product is changing lives.”

This year the institution is expecting to change a record 2,000 lives as children from across the state leave behind troubled homes and come to live at Baptist Children’s Homes’ residential facilities.

According to Blackwell, trust is the key to managing the myriad of programs, locations, employees and even fund-raising to keep the nonprofit corporation in business.

“In business the man or woman at the top has to engender trust among employees in order to accomplish anything,” says Blackwell, a Gastonia native and former Baptist pastor. “They will go to the wall for you if they know that you’ll stand up for them, that you put their highest good first, that you validate them and make them feel like they are worthwhile.”

To help solidify such a sense of belonging, Blackwell organized a Family Gathering last year, bringing together in Thomasville the hundreds of employees from across the state. It had never been done in the institution’s history, and was an “emotional highlight” of Blackwell’s 18 years of service, he says.

To help oversee the cumbersome business operations, Blackwell has assembled a five-member management team, he says, that “I would put up against any business of any size. They’re pure gold.”

Jennie Counts is a member of that team as executive vice president for administration. She serves along with the organization’s CFO and executive vice presidents for development, programs and services, and special ministries.

Counts calls Blackwell an “authentic visionary,” citing his ability to “look into an individual and see not just the present, but also the potential for the future.”

Those sentiments are shared by former furniture executive Paul Broyhill of Lenoir, whose family has long been associated with the Baptist Children’s Homes. Blackwell responded well, Broyhill says, to the challenge of moving BCH into a new era where fewer children are orphaned and more come from problem homes.

“He has the perfect combination of talents to fill a tough job,” Broyhill says. “He’s brought professionalism to the management of the institution, and the charisma necessary to raise the funds to make it grow.”

The charisma showed itself at an early age. At 14, Blackwell landed his first job as an announcer at a Gastonia radio station, riding his bicycle to work every day after school to host “Mickey’s Record Shop.”

Possessing not only the gift of gab but also to write, Blackwell set his sights after high school on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in journalism. A couple of newspapers took notice of his talents while in school, and he became a Chapel Hill reporter for the Charlotte Observer and the now-defunct Raleigh Times.

He also worked for radio station WCHL in Chapel Hill, where he first developed what’s become a lifelong friendship with former noted Charlotte radio and TV personality Ty Boyd, who now heads the Excellence in Speaking Institute.

“Mickey was an outstanding young man who was eager to learn,” Boyd says, adding that little has changed in that regard. “Everything he has ever touched he has made better. He has the heart of a clergyman, but the quick mind and acumen of a business leader.”

Of his current work at the Baptist Children’s Homes, Boyd says, “There’s a saying that no man stands taller than when he stoops to help a child, and Mickey is the perfect example.”

Blackwell found himself at a crossroad after graduating from UNC, with the beginnings of an impressive resume in journalism already under his belt and many friends encouraging him to pursue national reporting assignments with CBS or the Washington Post. But one aspect of his life that predated even the love for the media was his faith in God. He grew up in a Baptist church, and felt a yearning that God might have plans for him other than a career in journalism.

Blackwell studied at the Southeastern Baptist Seminary in Wake Forest, earning his master of divinity, master of theology and doctor of ministry degrees. He served pastorates in Raleigh and Carthage, and was leading a Richmond, Va., Baptist church when the call came in 1983 to return to his home state and assume the leadership role of president of Baptist Children’s Homes.

Since then his presence in the business community has been felt well outside the confines of the Baptist Children’s Home campuses. He serves on the boards of the Wachovia Bank in Thomasville and the Leadership North Carolina program, chairs the board of directors of the Institute of Political Leadership, and is an executive committee member of Leadership North Carolina.

His work at Baptist Children’s Homes led to his election to head state and national child care associations and accounted for his ranking as one of the 30 most influential North Carolina Baptists of the 20th Century by the Biblical Recorder.

Under Blackwell’s leadership, Baptist Children’s Homes initiated the first teen mother/baby program in the Southeast, added infant care to its programs, opened Lenoir County Family Services, established a facility in Franklin for behaviorally troubled girls and relocated a therapeutic boys camp in Cameron. The list, as the saying goes, indeed goes on and on.

Blackwell “has a way with people,” says Evelyn Alexander of Raleigh, the first female chair of the BCH board. “He’s never satisfied with the status quo, and always pushing us to do more.”

Doing more, Alexander adds, meant taking the BCH budget from just under $7 million when Blackwell assumed the mantle as president in 1983 to a staggering $18 million this year.

That’s no small achievement, considering that Baptist Children’s Homes is a nonprofit corporation depending on contributions almost solely for its funding. During his tenure Blackwell has led two major statewide fund-raising campaigns, the most recent of which culminated last November. During that effort funds were raised to construct new buildings on every single BCH campus, and at the end of the campaign enough money had been raised to pay for all the buildings and leave the corporation free of any debt.

“I enjoy the friend-raising that leads to fund-raising, and I really enjoy that part of my job,” Blackwell says. “I have no qualms whatsoever about asking someone to give money to help a child.”

Helping children has been Baptist Children’s Homes’ main mission since 9-year-old Mary Presson of Hertford County became the first child admitted on Nov. 11, 1885, at what was then the Thomasville Baptist Orphanage.

In those days at least one parent had to be deceased for a child to be taken in. Now most of the children come from troubled homes where they may have been abused or where the stress of raising a child is simply too great for the parents or custodians. Referrals may come from county social services departments, parents, pastors, or other family members. In a growing number of cases, Blackwell says, the child may be in the care of a grandparent rather than in a traditional family setting.

Regardless of the makeup, the family remains involved in the child’s life once he or she enters Baptist Children’s Homes.

“Whenever we can, we require that the mother or father or custodian come here for family conferences,” Blackwell says, adding, “if possible, we want to try and reunite the family.” BCH even provides a cottage on its grounds for family weekend visits.

If reconciliation cannot be achieved, the child is allowed to stay until high school graduation, and even past that if he or she is attending a local community college.

Jason Davis, now a second lieutenant in the Air Force and stationed in Los Angeles, lived in 10 different foster homes before coming to Baptist Children’s Homes. There, he said, he found “the home I had never had before.”

Davis, who went on to graduate from The Citadel before entering the military, said the caring attitude made the difference.

“Everybody cared about me and the person that exemplified that the most was Dr. Blackwell,” he says. “He knows every kid and what’s going on in their lives, and you feel you can really talk to him about any problem.”

Davy Divine, also a former resident who just completed her masters degree in education from the University of Hawaii, agrees. “I remember Dr. Blackwell always smiling and looking happy to be there,” she says, recalling the president donning a T-shirt to march in a parade with the kids, playing ball with them, and being accessible to talk anytime. “I had never known anybody like that before.

“It’s nice to know a man like him exists in the world,” she adds.

Building self-esteem in a child and overcoming years of abuse is one of Blackwell’s main goals.

“I feel verbal abuse may be the most pernicious abuse of all,” he says. “You can get over a bruise, but it’s harder to overcome having someone screaming at you that you are dumb or stupid and will never amount to anything. A lot of kids come here from that environment.”

In addition to a caring, wholesome atmosphere, Blackwell feels strongly that the road to dignity and self-worth includes education. Thanks to the generosity of benefactors, he says that any BCH child can attend the college of their choice tuition-free. Baptist Children’s Homes, for example, paid the cost for Jason Davis to attend The Citadel and Davy Divine to go to the University of Hawaii.

Blackwell has even negotiated agreements with the public school systems in areas where BCH has campuses for on-campus schools. “It’s a great program because our kids get the attention they need, and in many cases they may not be ready to go into a public school setting,” he says.

In addition to his demanding work overseeing the Baptist Children’s Homes and active involvement with Smart Start, Leadership North Carolina and the Institute of Political Leadership, Blackwell is a much-sought-after public speaker across the state for churches, civic clubs and business groups. He is also publisher of Charity and Children, a monthly newspaper with a circulation of more than 50,000.

Last year he published his first book, “New Millennium Families,” after wanting to author a book for families for many years. His second book, detailing the history of Baptist Children’s Homes, entitled “A Place for Miracles,” is due to be released this month.

Despite all of his accomplishments at Baptist Children’s Homes, Blackwell says his mission is far from complete. He is excited about a new program focusing on adults with developmental disabilities now moving “at warp speed,” he says. One residential facility is already open in Winston-Salem, with two others due to be completed by the end of the year. His management team has been working long and hard on a strategic plan designed to take BCH through the next three years. He wants to build on the institution’s endowment fund and complete a third major capital campaign in 2003.

But most of all, he says, “I want Baptist Children’s Homes to be viewed as the premier child and family service agency in North Carolina to the point that when people think of excellence in child and family services they think immediately of Baptist Children’s Homes.”

Those who know Blackwell best have no doubt that he will succeed. They also know that despite his many successes, the man retains a warm, caring personality that comes across in all of his endeavors.

“If I can do something to help make a difference in somebody else’s life, I want to use the gifts that God has given me to do just that,” he says. “Everybody needs a good word. If I can do even that it won’t be in vain.”

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