By Robin Gallaher Branch | Photography courtesy of Lara Atchison
Apelah — the Choctaw word for help — is the appropriate description for a foster care organization that is making a difference for children whose needs are great.
Nathan Tipton loves being a facilitator for change in young lives, and he has many opportunities to do so as development and communications coordinator for Apelah, a specialized foster care agency in Hernando and Ridgeland, Mississippi.
The word specialized is key, for it shows how Apelah differs from other foster care organizations by serving specific, high-risk children.
“Apelah receives the hardest cases from the state, those children with specialized needs who are emotionally or medically fragile,” Tipton said.
Tipton added that apelah means help in Choctaw, the language of the Indians who settled northwest Mississippi. Tipton’s life and Apelah entwine in ways oriented toward community service.
Tipton came to Apelah 18 months ago with grant writing and non-profit work experience. Recently, a particularly apropos grant came unexpectedly from Wisconsin.
“It was for $500 for backpacks,” Tipton said. “Many of our children come to us with nothing. A backpack—and new at that!—helps a child adapt in a new school.”
Similarly, the Hernando Walmart recently gave $250 toward after-school activities. Tipton immediately pinpointed two children involved in basketball and karate who would benefit from that timely donation.
Currently, Apelah has placed 33 children in Hernando and 61 children in Ridgeland in foster care homes. Referrals come from the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services. Resources come “through multiple funding streams including the State of Mississippi,” Tipton said.
Jesse Dement, Executive Director of Hernando Main Street Chamber of Commerce, praised the agency’s work saying, “We’re so thankful to have Apelah.” When word gets out that Apelah suddenly needs a crib or other supplies, the community steps forward, she added.
Tipton explained that communities need foster care services because “a lot of people are under pressure these days.”
Tipton came to his job in a roundabout way. He had spent six-plus years writing grants with the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center in Memphis. His own position was grant-funded; when its funding was running out, he applied for a job at Meritan, Apelah’s parent company.
Remembering that interview about two years ago, Tipton said with a smile, “Meritan said, ‘You can write grants? We love you!’”
Meritan, a social service agency serving vulnerable populations of all ages, started its foster care program in Tennessee in 1991 and expanded it to Mississippi in 1992. First called Stepping Stones, it was renamed Apelah in 2007.
Tipton, 52, was born in Baton Rouge and raised in New Orleans where his family still lives. He brings an interesting background to Apelah: a doctorate in English from the University of Memphis. His dissertation was on five Southern authors, focusing on Tennessee Williams in particular.
Tipton’s new position fits well with his personality. “I have been given so much and have been really lucky in my life. I want to give back,” he said.
Because of his extensive volunteering, Tipton was nominated for Volunteer of the Year in Memphis for 2017 and was a finalist. Currently, he does a lot of work at the Hernando Animal Shelter and has seven dogs and five cats of his own, all rescue animals.
He also volunteers as an ambassador for Hernando Main Street Chamber of Commerce. He is on the board of directors and is the volunteer coordinator of the Best Memphis Burger Fest. “All the proceeds from the burger fest go to various Mid-South animal shelters and rescue groups,” he said.
Telling Apelah stories is a fun part and big reward of his job. A favorite is the one about Dominique who came to Apelah at age three, suffering from severe brain damage because of shaken baby syndrome. “He was in hospice and dying,” Tipton said.
But Dominique’s persistent Apelah foster parent taught him to walk and talk. Dominique not only lived but now thrives and was adopted.
“He has a vocabulary bigger than other children of his age!” Tipton exclaimed. “This shows what foster parents can do!”
Research indicates that problems like those Dominique faced “are fixable if addressed properly,” Tipton added.
Tipton says his biggest challenge “is getting the word out about the work and the good Apelah does. If you give children a safe haven, then that benefits the entire community.”
Apelah’s website features an advice column called “Ask Annie.” It answers questions from foster children by Annie, a Hernando seventh grader whose real name is Abby Owensby. Annie, as she preferred to be called for this story, is a former foster child who was adopted.
“You have to believe that bad things happen for a good reason. Maybe a child being put in foster care leads to an amazing ending. I know it did for me,” Annie wrote, adding, “I’m here to help!”
Tipton smiled and nodded. “That’s the point. After all, Apelah means help.”
For information, visit www.apelah.org.Read More in DeSoto Magazine online.