Home Sweet Shelter

Mary’s Shelter in Orange, Calif., has come a long way for babies — and moms.

The pregnant teenager had been awarded a coveted “pass” to spend the weekend with her family. On Friday, her folks picked her up; on Sunday, they were supposed to return her to Mary’s Shelter. But Saturday afternoon the girl phoned the office. It was Super Bowl weekend, and her parents didn’t want her underfoot at the party they had planned for game day.

“Can somebody come get me and bring me home?” she asked.

“Just the fact that she used the word ‘home’ let me know she knew she was loved,” recalls Barbara Nelson, the shelter’s executive director.

Celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, Mary’s Shelter got its start in Orange County, Calif., when members of a prayer group at nearby St. Cecilia Catholic Church pooled their resources to buy a small property. Over the years, the original three-bedroom home — which could house six pregnant girls — was remodeled and a second one was constructed. Today Mary’s Shelter has the capacity for 18 teen mothers and 12 babies.

Mary’s Shelter residents come from all sectors of society. Many are recovering from physical, emotional or sexual abuse; some have been abandoned by their families. Many come to Mary’s Shelter from social-services programs, while others find their way here: Mary’s Shelter is the only maternity home in California that serves pregnant minors who are not in the social-services system.

Monique Gonzales found Mary’s Shelter after getting pregnant at 15. She was excited to learn that the program would not only allow her to continue her education, but also teach her how to be a mother.

“The parenting classes were amazing,” says Gonzales, now 28. Her son Joshua is now 12 years old, and she has an 8-year-old son with her husband. “They encouraged us to pray a lot, to have faith so we had hope at that time in our lives.”

In its decade and a half of service, Mary’s Shelter has helped about 1,000 girls and been involved in the birth of close to 400 babies. For many girls, this is a haven where they can escape the anger of their parents, who are often struggling to deal with the death of their dreams for their daughters, explains Nelson. Sometimes parents even urge daughters to abort their grandchildren.

“Mary’s Shelter is very pro-life,” says Nelson simply, stressing that the work focuses not only on the life of the teen mother’s unborn baby, but also on the mother herself. In fact, the shelter’s tagline is “Changing lives two at a time.” The point is not only to provide a healthy option for a girl who turns away from abortion, but also to give her the support and education she needs to improve her options in the future.

Residents are required to continue their education. They walk down the street to a neighboring Presbyterian church that provides classroom facilities for Mary’s Academy. Girls must also be free of drugs, alcohol and tobacco, and they must attend classes in parenting and life skills. They also fulfill duties assigned to them on a roster of chores.

As the girls learn skills they will need to support their babies and themselves, they grow to trust the staff and — like the girl who was disinvited from her family’s Super Bowl party — see Mary’s Shelter as “home.”

Mary’s Shelter spends about $7,000 each month to house each girl and provide the physical, emotional and educational care she and her baby need. The costs to house those girls referred to Mary’s Shelter by government agencies are in large part (about 75%) covered by federal funding.

“Private placements” — those girls who are not in the social-services system — are asked to give what they can to cover their costs. In a best-case scenario, Mary’s Shelter might receive as much as $1,000 from a girl or her family.

“Most have nothing,” says Nelson, who was director of stewardship for the Diocese of Orange for nine years.

Budgetary Balance

All this means that Nelson has to raise an average of $60,000 per month to cover utilities. Washing machines and dryers run almost nonstop, and there are staffing costs, medical bills and, for those girls and their babies who require additional services, tutors, physical therapy and so on. Mary’s Shelter has a budget of about $1.6 million annually, and it is widespread community support — coupled with savvy management — that allows it to continue operating.

When the economy began its downward spiral last year, Nelson took immediate action. For example, after one full-time employee left, she did not fill the vacancy immediately. As the home’s economic outlook brightened, she hired a part-time employee to fill that vacated position. At the end of the fiscal year, funding was down $90,000 — which was not as dire as Nelson had been projecting — but expenses were down $70,000.

‘They Need Help’

Stretching donations and grants as far as they can go is a constant struggle, but that’s the mission of Mary’s Shelter.

“Jesus challenges all of us to reach out to those in need,” points out Georgeann Lover, director of the Orange Diocese’s Respect Life, Justice and Peace program. ”Our U.S. Catholic bishops put it this way: ‘Being Catholic means being socially responsible. We are called to work for justice; to serve those in need; to pursue peace; and to defend life, dignity and rights of all sisters and brothers.’ Mary’s Shelter res-ponds to this call.”

Gonzalez, who recently became a Mary’s Shelter board member, is amazed to see how the program has grown and to know that participants now have the opportunity to stay on past the births of their babies. (Once they turn 18, they must leave, however, as they are no longer minors.)

“They’re basically babies having babies,” she says simply. “They’re in a position when they’re forced to grow up — some by choice, some not by choice — and it’s scary. It’s a position where they need to be given hope and encouragement. They need help.”

Elisabeth Deffner writes from

Orange, California.

MORE INFO TeenShelter.org (714) 730-0930