At LifeHouse, women transform their lives and families
Former monastery offers hope
Women who are homeless and pregnant find safe haven and the opportunity to transform their lives at LifeHouse Crisis Maternity Home in Springfield, Missouri. Operated out of a former Carmelite monastery by Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri, LifeHouse is “a place where suffering meets grace,” Executive Director Michele Marsh said.
The only long-term, comprehensive crisis maternity home of its kind in the area, LifeHouse provides safety, stability, and care to women who “come to us with little trust, little or no self-esteem, and pain that would be difficult to measure,” Marsh said. “The fact that these women even try is what I consider the first miracle.”
Women who live at LifeHouse receive unconditional love and support, often for the first time in their lives, that allows them to strengthen their health so they can deliver healthy babies, gain skills that free their families from generational cycles of poverty and abuse, and ultimately live independent lives.
“We talk transformation in the Church,” Marsh said. “You don’t have to guess at it here. You can see it.”
Healthy moms, healthy babies
Several years ago Catholic Charities identified a regional need for a place to house, educate, and support women who were homeless and pregnant. In response, the organization opened LifeHouse in December 2013. Today it remains the only long-term, live-in maternity home serving 39 counties in southern Missouri, including 11 of the state’s poorest. LifeHouse serves 12 to 14 women at a time, on average, and can serve as many as 19. Every year it receives more than 100 calls for intake assessments.
“We are saving lives, both the babies’ and the moms’ sometimes,” said Ty Thornton, a LifeHouse counselor.
Poverty and suffering go hand in hand, and that is often true for women who live at LifeHouse. When they first arrive, they are extremely vulnerable and in desperate need of help, and often have acute mental health needs because they have been living traumatic, risk-filled lives. Many of them have survived physical or sexual abuse. More than 70 percent of them have struggled with substance abuse, and more than 60 percent have experienced domestic violence. Some have been the victims of trafficking or rape. Others have developmental disabilities or medical and dental needs because they had little or no health care in the past.
Tragically, the women LifeHouse serves are statistically likelier to continue engaging in some of the negative and unhealthy behaviors they have been exposed to. By providing them with resources and support over the long term, LifeHouse helps them defy these odds.
“They didn’t get to this point overnight, and they’re not going to solve these problems overnight,” said Denise Wilkinson, a LifeHouse family strength coordinator. “What makes LifeHouse stand out is that we’re not doing your typical Band-Aid social work.”
Unlike many substance abuse treatment programs and emergency shelters, women who come to LifeHouse can stay throughout their pregnancy. Once they give birth, they and their babies can continue living there for up to a year. After women graduate, LifeHouse’s aftercare program provides them and their children with ongoing outreach and support for an additional two years.
“We’re not looking for anything other than to help them. That’s the beauty of it,” Marsh said. “The world is full of goodness, and they have not experienced it. They do here. They begin not only to know good but also to believe in good.”
Skills to last a lifetime
While the program’s length varies, LifeHouse also provides the women it serves with guidelines, routines, and structure to replace the chaos many of them were formerly accustomed to living in. To stay at LifeHouse, women choose to commit to a wraparound program with expectations related to their health and conduct.
“We see the most success with the ladies who really are committed to the program and going along with the guidelines, who are willing to work with us and not against us,” Thornton said.
To stay at LifeHouse, women must attend all of their medical appointments as well as classes on parenting, child safety, prenatal and postnatal health, budgeting, and life skills. Residents and staff have chores — helping out in the kitchen, taking out the trash, and cleaning up after themselves. There is a curfew, and there are mealtimes. A part-time chef and retired nutritionist, along with staff members and volunteers, teach meal planning and preparation. A full-time, on-site nurse fosters wellness, monitoring health needs and often accompanying women to medical appointments to ensure that they understand and follow their treatments.
Licensed counselors like Thornton provide group and individual counseling to all women who live at LifeHouse, helping them learn skills to build self-esteem, cultivate positive relationships, and manage emotions. They refer women for additional behavioral health services as needed.
Residents also have mentors, and volunteers provide on-site tutoring services. Women who stay at LifeHouse are expected to earn their GED diploma or pass the HiSET exam, get jobs, and save 70 percent of what they earn. Once their babies are born, they must commit to using licensed child care facilities to help ensure the safety of their infants and children.
Case managers help residents stay on track with short-term goals so they can achieve long-term goals: completing the program, having their own home and job, retaining custody of their child, and keeping their child safe, healthy, and well cared for. Short-term goals might include learning to budget, save, and pay down debts; finishing a substance abuse program; and creating resumes or preparing for job interviews.
“Our women are totally changing their lives and how they make choices,” Marsh said.
While breaking cycles of homelessness, poor health, abuse, and neglect, LifeHouse creates community and connection. The women it serves have personal responsibility and accountability for sticking with the program. It is hard work, and staff members stand by them. LifeHouse makes sure someone is always on call to provide the help and support the women need so they can be successful. Respite child care is available for a few hours twice a week, and a local emergency child care partner is available to help out when needed. Sometimes helping is as simple as having a staff member hold a baby so that a mom can take a shower, go to an appointment, or finish an assignment.
“What makes LifeHouse work for these women is the unconditional love and total acceptance that abounds here,” Marsh said. “That love and acceptance empowers and frees them to transform their lives, often after living through unspeakable suffering.”
The work that residents undertake isn’t easy, and “there are a lot of ups and downs and all-arounds,” Marsh said. Despite the challenges, success stories abound.
Thornton recalled one LifeHouse graduate whom she described as destitute when she first started the program. By committing to the program and accepting help, this particular woman eventually secured a job, got a car, and saved up money to get a place of her own. Now she and her baby are thriving.
Thornton remembered another graduate who struggled with the program’s expectations but stuck it out. Now she is a phlebotomist and supports her family. Some LifeHouse graduates have been reunited with other birth children. Some are in college. Since opening five years ago, approximately 65 healthy infants have been delivered to mothers living at LifeHouse.
“I wish for each of them to have that wide-open, the-world-is-wonderful look,” Marsh said.
For the babies and children currently thriving in LifeHouse’s aftercare program, for those currently living at LifeHouse, and for the many women who receive the support, structure, and compassion they need to build happy, healthy, spirit-filled, and joyful lives, Marsh’s wish is coming true.
When it moved into the former Carmelite monastery that it shares with LifeHouse, Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri found a locked wooden box in a closet.
Staff members were going to move it into the chapel to replace the tabernacle that had to be moved elsewhere.
When they unlocked and opened the box, they discovered a relic inside from St. Mary Euphrasia Pelletier (1796–1868) who was born in France.
Further research revealed that this particular saint was part of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, a religious order that provided orphaned or abandoned women and girls who were living in the streets with the shelter, support, and opportunity they needed to turn their lives around.