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Home offers refuge for young mothers, babies

1/15/2014

ELIZABETH GOLDEN egolden@dailynews.net

ELIZABETH GOLDEN egolden@dailynews.net

The Mary Elizabeth Maternity Home began in the late 1990s as a way to combat abortion. Catholic Charities had seen the need for a place geared toward pregnant teens. In 1997, the home was established to provide unwed mothers between the ages of 10 and 21 with resources and shelter during their pregnancies.

"A lot of times our girls are state-placed, which means they're in the foster-care system," said Christin Nunnery, executive director of the home. "They can come at any point during their pregnancy. We've had some girls come after they have their babies. They can stay up to six months after giving birth."

MEMH attempts to accept any girl who seeks help, whether through the state or self-placed.

"It's usually based on if we have openings," Nunnery said. "And a lot of times we have girls who have some mental issues that we aren't trained to deal with. So sometimes we can't take everyone just because of us not being trained in certain areas. But, usually if the girl is between those ages and needs a place to go, we can help them."

While in the care, the organization makes sure the girls have healthy pregnancies, along with helping with personal well-being and teaching life skills.

"A lot of times the girls we get haven't been to the dentist or eye doctor in years, so that's another big thing we do," Nunnery said.

Life skills range from how to be a parent to how to plan a menu.

"The girls have a life-skill class each evening," Nunnery said. "They plan, they shop, they cook. They do chores, which isn't their favorite, but they all get to do chores. Budgeting is an important life skill we teach because a lot of girls will be on their own when they leave. We also teach other things on an individual basis. Like if we have a girl who smokes before she was pregnant, we try to go over why it's not healthy to smoke while pregnant or around the baby."

Nunnery said most of the time the girls are receptive to the classes, but some don't believe they need the organization's help.

"They don't have the option," Nunnery said. "They still have to sit through the class each evening."

If a girl feels like the program isn't for them, she might not have the opportunity to leave.

"If the girl is self-placed, that's one thing," Nunnery said. "It's usually easier for them to leave. If they're state-placed, a lot of times it has to go through a judge first, and the judge decides if they get to leave and go somewhere else or if the case worker says we'll try to find another placement then they can look elsewhere, too."

During the past few years, the organization has housed approximately two to three girls at a time. Nunnery said when she first started seven years ago, the organization averaged six girls at a time. The facility can house up to eight mothers and two babies.

The decreased number of girls is likely due to state funding cuts, according to Nunnery.

"They're not pulling girls out of the home for small issues anymore," Nunnery said. "They used to pull girls out of the home because they were a truant from school and just weren't going. Now a lot of girls that we get are in trouble with the law."

After leaving the program, Nunnery said the girls have all the knowledge they need to raise their baby and be on their own, but sometimes the girls fall back into their old ways.

"If they go back home, a lot of the girls fall back into the lifestyle they were in," Nunnery said. "We see more success with the girls who actually go and are on their own."

Girls usually stay in the care of the organization for six to nine months.

"A lot of times, they'll leave right after the baby's born," Nunnery said. "A lot of times they'll leave before the baby is born. Usually they come to us at about four to five months pregnant and then stay, deliver the baby, then go home."

While in the program, the girls are allowed free time to watch television or leave the house.

"They like going to the library," Nunnery said. "Fort Hays donates tickets to football and basketball games, so that's awesome. They also go to movies and get to eat out once a week. We try to do as much as we can, but with our limited amount of money we have, we really don't get to send them a lot of places."