Tony Moreland (second from left) and his wife Dori (standing next to him) with clan. They're not an orphanage, say the Morelands, but a real family. A real big family.
Tony and Dori Moreland are happy and proud that their nonprofit, Savannah's Canopy, was chosen as beneficiary of the Dade County Sheriff's Department's fundraiser this year. Savannah's Canopy supports foster and adoptive children and the families who foster and adopt them, and God knows that's something that can eat up money.
"A lot of people want to be foster parents but can't afford to be foster parents," says Tony Moreland.
"You get a per diem but still, it takes a lot to raise a child," says Dori. "If you have three kids in diapers, that's a lot of diapers."
So the Morelands will have no trouble finding a use for any cash the sheriff's benefit raises. and they'll be glad to get it. But what they're really hoping for from the benefit, and the attention it focuses on Savannah's Canopy, is not cash but: people.
People willing to help hands-on with an urgent need, that is. People to take care of children in need or at least to take care of the families who take care of the children. "There are programs for everything," says Tony Moreland. "Programs don't fix anything. What we need is somebody to physically go and do it."
Going and doing is how he and Dori started not only Savannah's Canopy but the big, sprawling family of children ages 4 to 14 they are raising in the big, sprawling group home off Highway 136 they bought out of bankruptcy. It is impossible to understand the mission without the family, so let's start our story of Savannah's Canopy with what The Morelands went and did.
It all began some years ago when the Morelands, who had married young and almost finished raising their first two children, met their next one. Tony, an ex-cop, ran a probation supervision service, and one day he found himself across the desk from a young mother on probation with nowhere to leave her baby while she returned to
work. Dori happened to be on the spot and said, "I'll take her."
So the baby went home with the Morelands, much against the judgment of Tony, whose work had made him cynical about getting personally involved. It could only end in heartbreak, he told Dori. But helping Dori bathe the infant, Tony was himself suddenly floored by the plight of a little human being at such a helpless stage of life with nowhere on earth to go, and overcome with the need to shelter her.
(Photo: Dori with her oldest son, Jeff, 29, and youngest son, Brandon, 4)
So the baby stayed. She recently turned 14. The Morelands call her by her middle name but her first name, Savannah, they eventually gave to the nonprofit, A savanna is an ecosystem in which a canopy of trees protects those within while allowing in rain and sunshine to nurture them. Somewhere, in short, a helpless little human with nowhere to go can thrive and grow strong.
Or should we say helpless little humans, plural, because more came along directly. Dori is a registered nurse who knows a great deal about babies; as seen above, both Morelands find it hard to resist an infant after the first dandle--"You touch them and that's it," says Tony--and one way or the other the local DFACS (Department of Family and Children Services) office got them on speed dial. The Morelands fostered any number of babies through the years and ended up adopting six legally.
DFACS has children of all ages up to 18 who need foster or permanent homes, and Tony always stresses that the people doing what he call's God's work are those who foster teenagers, many of whom come with considerable damage.
But he and Dori themselves ended up specializing in babies. The oldest child they adopted was 17 or 18 months old. The youngest was a boy so premature--22 weeks, a pound, three ounces--that the Morelands got him technically before he was supposed to be born.
The preemie has always had physical challenges owing to his extreme underdevelopment at birth; the Morelands were called upon to foster him in the first place because of Dori's nursing qualifications. But she says the hardest child to raise has been the one adopted as a toddler. He's terrified of the dark and at first the Morelands worried he had nerve damage and didn't feel pain, because he never cried. Turned out he had given up crying early on as an exercise in futility, a doctor told them, since nobody ever came.
As for the preemie, his mother wanted him, but the breast milk she was trying to nurture him with made him sick instead. It tested positive for methamphetamine. That's when he was taken into care.
Photo: One of the fun parts of living in an ex-institution is riding scooters up and down the long corridors. The Morelands don't think their kids realize everybody can't do that.)
"All our kids have stories like that," said Dori.
The Morelands tell the kids their stories as soon as they're of an age to understand. "Everybody knows how they got here," said Tony. "Truth isn't confusing to a child. Lying is."
The couple try to be sensitive in their truth-telling, though, not just to the feelings of their children but to those of the children's birth parents. The policy they have developed is to let the parents participate in the kids' lives as much as they want to or can. "Maybe they can't be a parent to their child," said Dori. "But they can eat with their child, bring a birthday present to their child, a Christmas parent."
Dori had a serious illness a year and a half ago--meningoencephalitis--which laid her low for months and left her with short-term memory problems. That's when the Morelands stopped fostering new babies and began concentrating on raising their own six. "We always wondered when to quit," said Tony. "I guess God answered that question."
But the family doesn't seem to be getting any smaller. The teenage babysitter who helped the Morelands through the early years has now grown into a young woman with a husband and a passion for fostering of her own. She and her family are part of the extended clan, and there are 11 or so people sleeping at the big house off 136 most nights, says Tony
Furthermore, the Morelands host the monthly meeting of the Dade County Foster Parents Association. Not only must foster parents in Georgia be approved by DFACS, explained Dori, but anybody wishing to babysit for foster parents must also pass muster. So mostly it's easier for all involved just to bring the kids along, and nobody else's place is big enough to hold the resulting crowd. "We have a houseful every month," said Dori.
That brings us back around to the purpose and functions of Savannah's Canopy. Despite the size of their house (above)--8500 square feet, 11 bathrooms, built to sleep 25 as a group home--the Morelands insist they are not running an orphanage.
"We wanted to be mamas and daddies, not to have so many children we were just trying to keep everybody fed and clothed," said Tony. "They need a real family."
So a real family--a real big family, maybe, but still, just a family--is what the Morelands have established with the six children they adopted. As for their nonprofit, Savannah's Canopy: "Our goal is to help foster and adoptive children, foster and adoptive parents, and where possible to help the birth parents as well," says Tony.
The first challenge is always finding willing adults to take care of foster children in safe homes, says Tony. "We are desperately recruiting foster parents," he said. There can be enough foster parents to go around one day, but homes fill up as soon as they are approved and the crisis starts again the next day. Or it's too hard and foster parents drop out. Or it works out fabulously, the foster parents adopt the child and stop fostering--once again, same problem: Kids with nowhere to go
The Morelands admit it's hard to be a foster parent, psychologically, physically, financially. "There's no logical reason to be a foster parent," says Tony. "If you don't have the calling, you're not going to make it."
Photo: Dori in the kitchen window that communicates with the front room. She says once you've cooked in an institutional kitchen, you never want to go back.
But if you do have the calling, Savannah's Canopy is dedicated to helping you.
Another of its purposes is to "foster the fosterers." "If you have four foster children and take one to the doctor, who's going to watch the other three?" says Tony. Driving kids around, cooking, home repair, those are things foster parents need help with--and, by the way, excellent volunteer opportunities for people who don't want to be foster parents but do want to help.
"If every church in Dade County had one foster family," said Tony, "and every other member of the church supported that family, this problem would be gone tomorrow."
Tony and Dori are not typical foster parents--"We're much older," says Tony--and they try to provide mentoring, or at least a sympathetic ear, to younger ones. They are also often able to help in some cases where what's needed is a little more. If a family wants to foster but doesn't have the required private bedroom for a foster child, the Morelands have been known to coordinate getting one built on. Two children of the same sex can share a bedroom but must have separate beds. If a family only has one, the Morelands will try to find them another.
All of this runs into money, of course. Tony says that money is also often a big factor in another of Savannah's Canopy's goals, working with the birth parents to keep kids in their own families and out of foster care.
"Every child that's in foster care is not there because their mama beat them or their daddy raped them," he said. "Sometimes it's financial. Sometimes it's just that their physical needs aren't met."
He cited one case of a family living in a trailer with holes in the floor big enough for a child to fall through. He and Dori worked with that family to provide their children a safe place to live.
You can help, too. The sheriff's benefit, "Music Between the Mountains," is 10 a.m.-6 p.m. on Saturday, May 6, at Dade County High School, and there will be ample contribution opportunities there. Or you can send checks directly to Savannah's Canopy, 52 West Creek Drive, Trenton, GA 30752.
But remember it is not cash that Savannah's Canopy, DFACS and about 20 children in Dade County at any given time need most. What they need is people to step up, to take charge, to go and do it. To be a foster parent or help a foster parent. To drive a car or babysit or work on a house.
Or, for that matter, to adopt a child. Tony Moreland points out that people wait for years, search for surrogate mothers, pay any amount of money to adopt a healthy newborn, when, as he puts it: "They called us six times and said, would you please come get this baby?"
For information on foster parenting, you may call Heather Scott Wallin at the local DFACS office at (706) 657-2123. For information about Savannah's Canopy, and how else you can help, you can reach Tony Moreland at tonymoreland@savannah'scanopy.org.