A Chat with Mary's Shelter Founder Kathleen Wilson
On August 23, I’ll be the Keynote Speaker at the Summer Soiree for Mary’s Shelter in Fredericksburg, VA.
Mary’s Shelter offers housing and support to women and children in need, helps them learn basic life skills, and guides them toward getting an education, a job, and stable housing.
Yesterday, I called Kathleen Wilson, the executive director, who is also one of the founders. We were chatting about our kids, and I discovered that she has ten children . . . and then some. Here is part of our conversation:
KW: Besides my ten, I have two kids who are now five and six. They were with their dad, and he abandoned them in a shelter. The mom got them back, but things fell apart, and she lost custody, too. She begged the authorities to call “Miss Kathleen.” My husband was overseas at the time. Mary’s Shelter work is crazy, plus I had all my own kids. I had to get to everything and be everywhere. But my husband said “yes” to those kids. And I said, “Damn you for being such a good man!”
We’ve had them for over two years now. We have full legal custody. I could formally adopt them, but I’m holding out for God’s intervention for their parents. There is slim to zero chance that they will ever get custody back, but the parents are the parents. We’re leaving it open to what God wants.
SF:That seems like the hallmark of how your run Mary’s Shelter: you don’t only care about the babies and the kids, but you respect the parents. Is this a deliberate decision, to approach your ministry this way?
KW: Absolutely. We don’t just save the life of the baby. We’re out to save the life of the mother, and the father, if he’s in the picture. We crack up when we hear a pro-choicer saying, “You pro-lifers only care about the white baby in your belly.” That’s the biggest lie out there.
If the woman is abortion-minded, we’ll give her a place to live, if that’s what’s holding her back. If a woman walks in and she’s in a domestic violence situation, we get her counseling. We don’t even kick them out if they’re drinking or doing drugs; we give them an opportunity to do a program and stay with us.
We give women up to two years with us; and women who are “rock stars” – the ones who are really looking to move on and get a nursing degree or something like that -- she can stay up to three years while she does school and work and gets everything together. That’s all about the woman. That’s for her.
SF: I was amazed at the long list the services you offer: cooking and knitting classes, book clubs, mentoring, doula services and roundtables, a private thrift store for residents, academic tutoring, guest speakers, baby showers, and on and on. How many people do you have on staff?
KW: We have so, so many volunteers. The main group is me and two people that get small paychecks – a total of only $24,000 a year, and that’s for crazy hours. Then there are two or three volunteers I consider staff. Then there’s a whole slew of people doing other things.
For instance, we hook up every resident up with a mentor or two. And there’s a woman who comes every other week with a van, to take them shopping. A local church sends over volunteers to do service projects, paint room, put in a swing set, redo a bathroom – big projects like that.
SF:It sounds complicated! How do you coordinate everything?
KW: We started out in a basement apartment – didn’t even have a file cabinet! But it’s evolved. Everything we need comes along. Someone says, “Oh, I can do that.” We say we want a book club, book club leader comes along. These volunteers just fall out of the sky. We even have a volunteer coordinator who is a volunteer herself.
SF:I know you sometimes fit in more residents than you comfortably can. What's the ideal number of women you're set up to sheter?
KW: Yes, we will roll beds into our office, or put women in hotels in an emergency. We have four houses now, and we’ll be opening our fifth on the Feast of the Assumption, August 15th. When we open the new house, it could be seventeen or eighteen families in the homes all together.
We’re one of the few shelters that take in women with additional children. That really is rare. We’ve got a lot of kids floating around the houses. We don’t offer daycare, but we do have babysitters available during for classes, guest speakers, and baby celebrations.
SF:Do you feel like the residents form a community?
KW: Some of them do. At one of our houses, the women have family dinners together once a week. There’s independent living, but they get together once a week, and their kids play together.
They have babies, and they have to lean on each other a bit. They have to ask for babysitters, or just had a C-section, and they have to step up to the plate. A majority of them haven’t had family relationships. This starts opening that door.
SF: Are you a Catholic organization?
KW: Most of our staff is Catholic, but non-Catholic Christian churches have been getting involved. We’ve had a Muslim resident; there’s no religious criteria for getting involved. We believe life begins at conception, and we ask that if you work for this ministry, you respect that.
It would be lovely to convert everybody, but that’s not our mission. It’s to show them God through our witness, and we hope they will sees God’s hand in everything.