David and Lee Blimes are visiting the house they bought here after moving from Ohio in 1998. In the living room, a grandchild's doll is draped over the rim of a playpen, and toys and games are strewn across the floor, because the house is rented to their daughter Valarie and her family.
The house was available because the Blimeses now live at the Masonic Home for Children in Oxford, N.C., where they are resident "parents.''
Dressed in shorts and a bright orange shirt, David Blimes, 60, still has the air of the IT corporate executive he was until just over a year ago. He tells a visitor how he'd managed IT programmers, first for the Ohio state government, then at Eckerd Corp. headquarters in Largo, and after Eckerd was sold, the much smaller PMSI, which provides workers' compensation services.
"I'd been in tech management since 1979," he says, "and I wasn't having fun in the workplace anymore."
He was aware job prospects at his age were not good. And he wanted to make a difference in someone's life before he retired. Then he remembered the children's home.
The nonprofit organization cares for disadvantaged and neglected kids, from infants to 18 years. For one reason or another, these youngsters cannot live with their birth parents or legal guardians.
The attractive campus for the facility has seven residential "cottages" around a brick oval, an administration building, nondenominational chapel, recreation center and a visitor's center.
What is now the home's School of Graphic Arts print and design center housed the Oxford Orphan Asylum in the late 1800s.
The Blimeses had visited his older brother and sister-in-law several times when they were working at the home. The second time they went it was to see if this work was something they might like to do.
"I was very intrigued," he says, though it would be a large reduction in income. His wife wasn't quite that enthusiastic.
"I'd taught fourth grade for a couple of years, before I even met David," Lee Blimes says, "and preschool for three more." Married in August 1968, they had five children in eight years, and she became a full-time mom.
With their kids grown, Lee, now 58, had been spending her time writing fiction and playing with their eight grandchildren. Nonetheless, she filled out the application to become a "mom" for pay. Their open-ended contract includes 10 days off for every 20 days on the job.
Once they had taken required classes in child development and CPR, they moved to their two-bedroom apartment in one of the home's cottages.
Establishing the rules
Oxford, halfway between Raleigh and the Virginia border, "is such a bustling town," she jokes, that "Walmart closes at 9 o'clock."
"And," her husband adds, "Rush hour is when the high school lets out."
Their new "family" consists of six girls in the age group they most enjoy and requested to parent: 14 to 17 years. This includes a pair of 17-year-old twins.
With the usual teenage moments of drama, jealousy and general angst, Lee Blimes is glad each girl has a room of her own. "When the doors are closed," she says, "it looks like a college dorm."
The Blimeses live at the end of the hall. A family room that opens onto a kitchen.
As "Mom" and "Dad," the Blimeses add rules they used raising their own children to those laid down by the home's administration: The girls are required to take care of their rooms, do their homework, and are allowed to go out three nights during the week.
"If a boy wants to date one of our 'daughters,' " Lee Blimes says, "we tell him to keep his hands off her and have her home at a certain time."
The home has a program in which older kids can earn a small amount of money at on-campus jobs, such as working in the print shop. By 16, they are encouraged to find employment in town.
One girl helps Lee with the dusting, and two have babysitting jobs in town for the summer. However, for Lee and David, it's a 24/7 job — they cannot leave their charges alone in the cottage.
According to David, discipline is based on "natural and logical consequence," such as misbehave at the pool and you lose pool privileges for a time.
If behavior is really bad, the administration invokes a "shape up or be shipped out'' ultimatum.
It's a better place
Despite some rough moments, the Blimeses admit they ". . . also have laughter and lots of fun." He keeps up with the latest music, they play cards and games together, and in January, they took the girls to Disney World.
When David admits to still being a big teenager, Lee laughs and says, "I had to chase two girls and my husband out of our apartment — they were having a squirt-gun fight that he started."
They also agree these kids arrive with a lot of baggage.
Their home life is bad, Lee says, "or they wouldn't be with us. It takes awhile when they first come in, but unless they're placements from the Department of Social Services, most of them understand they're much better off with us than anywhere else."
Funded largely by donations, the Masonic Home for Children has added an independent living program available for those 18 to 21 who are still in school.
"If anyone is still a student on their 18th birthday," Lee says, "they have to sign themselves out (of the minors program) and then right back in."
One thing she and David stress to the girls is the value of education, that no matter how late they start, this is how to get a better life.
"We would like to keep it up long enough to see success," Lee says, "to see our 14- and 15-year-olds through high school, the independent living program, maybe earn a two-year scholarship to junior college that the home offers."
Caring for the children is not always predictable. Recently they had to do a double shift before a scheduled break, because their relief couple did not show up. "But," Lee says, "we like it. We both feel we're giving something back and it's a good feeling."
Adele Woodyard is a freelance writer living in Tarpon Springs.