Sarah’s House Is a Warm, Welcoming Home in a Cold, Cruel World

The Fort Meade, Maryland, Sarah’s House is more than an emergency shelter — it also offers an atmosphere of trust built on love.

Sarah’s House in Fort Meade, Maryland
Sarah’s House in Fort Meade, Maryland (photo: Catholic Charities of Baltimore)

“Those children just become drug addicts or live a life of abuse. You can’t help them.” 

As I recently ventured out to discuss the issue of abortion in a more mature manner with longtime friends in favor of legalized abortion, these were some of the reasons given to me for not being pro-life. They simply saw no way of changing the life of the child for the better given the odds of the environment in which it was born. Unexpectedly, no one mentioned that they did not believe that the fetus was not a human being.

It was Jan. 22, 1973. I was 9 years old and can still remember where I was on that day, next to the stairway in the old home in which I was raised. “Mom, why won’t the church bells stop ringing?” It was on that day when Roe v. Wade was passed that I learned from my own mother the truth that abortion is murder. Nevertheless, my mother believed we could find better options for both mother and child and continued to encourage her children to get involved in the pro-life movement.

Despite so many conversations (really, arguments) when I was in college, I remained one of the few among my graduating class who considered herself to be pro-life. I kept my friends who disagreed, although it was a topic we agreed not to discuss. More than 30 years later, I wish we had been able to have these more mature discussions earlier in life.

Although seemingly unrelated, the expansive effort at my parish to help the homeless in Baltimore encouraged me in retirement to get involved in hands-on work to help the homeless. I recall one parishioner’s van full of food approaching St. Vincent’s in Baltimore where outside of the parish were clearly drug-addicted, mostly young men waiting for us to open up the church door to feed them. As a rookie in the back seat, I couldn’t help but exclaim, “There’s Jesus!” and a fellow parishioner in the passenger front seat acknowledged, “Yes, that’s Jesus!” These men were images of our Crucified Lord. What an enormous cross they had to carry!

Inside St. Vincent’s, as we arranged the tables with large trays of food prepared by several parishioners, I found myself volunteering to give a side dish of salad to the homeless men and women who lined up for food. With each spoonful I handed out, I wondered while looking into their glazed eyes, “How did you get in this state?” Some men glanced back at me with an expression that seemed to say, “Please don’t ask. I’m ashamed to say.”

I thought to myself that these men and women at one time were loved enough to have been given life by their mothers. It was now almost 50 years since Roe v. Wade had passed. How did those precious baby faces with the sweetest little feet and hands come to this?

At the end of that year, I volunteered to help out during one week of Winter Shelter at a local parish where we worked with other churches to give homeless men and women a place to live during the winter and food to eat. Again, it was rewarding to help those who mirrored Christ. Moreover, at the end of the week, I commented to one of the volunteers that it would be great to continue our help to the homeless throughout the following year. It was then that I learned about and got involved in mentoring the school-age children at Sarah’s House, a homeless shelter sponsored in part by Catholic Charities in Fort Meade, Maryland.

“I get mostly D’s,” was the introduction from a middle-school-aged boy on my first day of volunteering there. Without realizing it, I piped back, “That will change.” And it did. That same 12-year-old boy later in the next couple months announced to us all that he had A averages in a couple subjects. How can even such a minor transformation begin?

At Sarah’s House, I think it starts when the school bus pulls up to the shelter, its last stop for dropping off children. In the most discouraging of circumstances, God finds a way of making them so much better than if they had taken place in what we consider a perfect setting. Yes, the school bus pulls up to a homeless shelter. But awaiting the children were at the time three of us doting big sisters, not just volunteers putting in time.

We volunteers were genuinely pleased to see the children, our children, return to us after a long day and greeted them with big smiles and shouts of joy! We were also there for the children each day to talk to us if they wanted to about a day that may not have been the best. We were there to listen to their complaints in an atmosphere of trust built on love. We were their older siblings. How many other children not living in a homeless shelter get this much love and attention when returning home after a day at school?

I noticed very few, if any, behavior problems among the children of Sarah’s House. Most, if not all, of the children had their homework completed before returning to the shelter and were so pleased to have a big sister willing to listen to them read their favorite book.

“Hi, Miss Maryella!” was the greeting from one boy as he arrived at the child center later one day with his mother. He was at home. I had his trust. We were family. His mother beamed with pride at her son’s good behavior and looked relieved and overjoyed that her son was loved that much while she was working or looking for long-term housing for them.

These young boys not only gained self-respect from the love that we showed them, but they also learned to respect the dignity of women. We were women they could look up to and that they had to learn to respect from the start. It was from this standpoint that they developed a positive family relationship with women.

One day I arrived earlier than expected at the after-school program at Sarah’s House, before the school bus arrived at the shelter. Just one boy was present, and he wanted the opportunity to try and do his homework by himself before I checked it. Pleased to see such self-confidence, I respected his decision but was also aware of the reassurance he had in having family present, just being there while he tried to do his homework himself.

In the meantime, I walked quietly over to the shelter’s childcare center for the babies and toddlers and watched as they joyously played with a box turned into a gingerbread house at Christmas time by one volunteer. I looked around and thought, “Mother Church really has these children in her big extended arms, if we will just do our part and be their family.” At Sarah’s House we were the family of God to each other.

As the remaining COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, I look back to these times with longing to return. And as I hear of so much sadness in our country, I can only hope that more people will get involved in helping children who are stuck in the middle between being an infant and an adult. It can make a difference in a life, and it is a true joy to know that you can play a part in making our country a better place.