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Harmony founder sees Montvale as 'place for heroes'

Article Published: Jun. 23, 2011 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
Harmony founder sees Montvale as 'place for heroes'

Pam Wolf, founder and CEO of Harmony Adoptions, and her daughter, Anna Li, stand with Jenny and James, two of the horses used in equine therapy at the former Camp Montvale, which Wolf is working to convert into a retreat for adoptive families.

Photo by Daryl Sullivan

The journey that led Pam Wolf to found Harmony Adoptions took her to China and back. Now, it leads her to Chilhowee Mountain in Blount County, Tenn.

Wolf, founder and CEO of Harmony Adoptions, wants to open "The Harmony Family Center at Montvale," a unique residential adoptive family counseling center, on the site of the much-loved Camp Montvale, which has been closed since 2005.

By establishing a residential counseling center for the entire family, Wolf sees an opportunity to address the entire family's needs - rather than removing a child from the family to seek individual treatment. It would be the first program of its kind in the nation.

"When the family gets in trouble, what traditionally happens is they remove the child from the family and go and try to fix the child," Wolf said. "The best place for that child to heal and live and grow is within that family. Work and play - that's how you form bonds and attachments," Wolf said. "What I want is a place where the family can come and, through work and play, resolve some of those issues, come together and really help that child heal."

Returning Camp Montvale to its best use is what Wolf wants to do.

"It's time for us to step up and reclaim this place and hear the laughter of children again," she said. "That's what I can't wait for. You can go out there and hear the echoes of it. It's really a sacred place."

Adoptive families face formidable challenges, Wolf said.

"The kids in the adoption system today are older, and many have suffered abuse and neglect," she said. "Today's adoptive family has very little understanding of the child's history and how this will impact them. The Harmony Family Center at Montvale is designed to help the entire family meet these challenges.

"After all these kids and these families have been through, these families are heroes to step up and adopt these kids. Those kids are heroes for surviving that abuse. That's what I see Camp Montvale as. It's a place for heroes."

A Mother's Love

The genesis of Harmony Adoptions lies in a mother's love. "Harmony happened because I adopted my daughter," Wolf said. "Anna Li was the fourth little girl to come home to East Tennessee from China. ... Two weeks before I left to go to China, I found out I was adopting a child from China ... and losing my job," Wolf said. "She was my girl. I had to go get her. We came home. I started putting together part-time jobs."

At that point, Wolf decided to start her own adoption agency, feeling she hadn't been well prepared for the reality of the challenges of adoption.

"I didn't feel the person really prepared me for what the process was like," she said. "I could do this, and I could do this better."

When Wolf incorporated Harmony in October 1996, her assets at the time were a child placement license, a kitchen table and a computer. In 2001, she managed to win a $1.6 million grant from the federal government.

"It was kind of like the dog that caught a bus - now what do I do?" she said.

The agency now employs 38 full-time staff and contracts with an additional 65 employees across the state. It has an annual operating budget of $5.2 million. Harmony Adoptions is accredited by the Council on Accreditation (COA), an international child and family service accrediting organization.

"It's been a real journey - and a journey of great joys," Wolf said. "You think about all the kids we've impacted. It does make me sit back sometimes and smile."

'Perfect Place'

Given an opportunity to tour the closed camp, Wolf knew in her heart that it could be salvaged.

"The more I walked it, the more I knew this was the perfect place," she said. "It could be a place that we could open back up to the community. It is a place that is beloved by many and has not been available for community use for many years."

Wolf is working hard to return Camp Montvale to use.

"I've had this dream for many, many years for a camp for adoptive families," she said. "... Camp Montvale provides an ideal setting for us. We currently serve 1,000 children across Tennessee, but the camp property will allow us to significantly increase the number of families we can reach each year. It will allow us to expand our already successful work in keeping families together post-adoption."

Less than 1 percent of children participating in Harmony's post-adoption programs are returned to the foster care system. By comparison, the national average disruption rate is greater than 15 percent.

"What we do at Harmony works," Wolf said. "We have found homes for 100 special needs and older children, all of whom had been in state care for an average of five years. Our work makes a difference to the child, the family and the long-term health of our state."

The camp site will also allow Harmony Adoptions to expand the success of its programs by offering a location where the agency can train counselors and professionals from across the nation. The agency currently trains 1,500 professionals each year across the Southeastern United States.

"It becomes a way to help raise a little bit of money to sustain it," Wolf said.

In addition, Wolf has a personal interest in the site.

"My daughter went to Camp Montvale," she said. "I love it."

Financial Challenge

Interested parties have been trying to restart the camp since it was closed in 2005. A development group, Harmony Property, purchased the property the next year, giving the Friends of Camp Montvale a chance to operate a youth camp on the site. The Harmony group spent $4 million to purchase the property, $3.4 million of the total financed by a promissory note to the YMCA itself.

Financing for the purchase had been secured with proceeds of the development of a 281-acre site close to the camp property called The Overlook at Montvale, but Harmony Property found itself in financial straits after the near-collapse of the national economy.

Knoxville auctioneer Samuel Furrow stepped in, purchasing the debt in 2008, in order to buy time for the Friends of Camp Montvale to raise funding to purchase the property outright, but that never materialized. On Sept. 1, Furrow transferred the debt to the Camp Investment LLC. He serves as chief manager of the company.

"I swear, he's a hero," Wolf said. "He has given us until Dec. 31, 2012, to close on it."
Challenges remain.

"This is not a cheap proposition or a small undertaking," Wolf said. "... It's taken us a while to raise the awareness. Development is about relationships. We didn't have the relationships to raise the money we needed to quickly. People are learning about us. Now we've got volunteers. We've got our first large donations."

The community will have to help if the project is to be a success, Wolf said. "It's really going to be about those who love Camp Montvale and those who are passionate about adoptions to come together and make this happen," she said.

Camp Montvale is located off Montvale Road just past Six Mile Church, at the foot of Chilhowee Mountain in Blount County, Tenn.

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