When the local newspaper fingered Rochester, New York, as the third worst major city for poverty in America, some of its citizens looked for help to The Margaret Home, a maternity home now poised to open as early as May of this year.
Housed in a former convent, The Margaret Home will welcome up to eight women facing unexpected pregnancies and homelessness or unstable living situations. In a family-like setting, residents will receive the emotional nurturing, life skills training, and education needed to prepare them to sustain themselves and their coming children long after their two-year stay.
“The Margaret Home is not just a temporary setting, like a shelter,” Board President Paula Belemjian said. “It’s a home that provides more than just the physical nurturing. It’s a home that cares for the whole person, mind-body-soul.”
Beyond Pregnancy First-Aid
This vision of long-term help and change first crossed Belemjian’s mind in 2013 as she and her friend Amy Dorscheid approached an abortion clinic to pray.
“Why isn't there some way in which we help women beyond the emergency care and material aid that are needed for the children and moms in crisis?" Belemjian asked.
Over the next few years, while Belemjian and her husband Greg traveled to places like Bulgaria and China to adopt children, Dorscheid kept the dream alive, meeting with others who had similar longings for Rochester’s homeless moms. Gretchen Smith, who had once served at Maggie’s Place, a maternity home in Arizona, and Father Mike Mayer were key partners in that task.
In 2016, The Margaret Home was incorporated, named after St. Margaret of Cortona, patron saint of single mothers. The following year, a realtor serving on the board discovered the former Sisters of St. Joseph convent was for sale. An anonymous donor bought the property and gave it to the ministry.
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“That fall we began earnestly to renovate the building,” Belemjian said. “We put together a group of about 100 volunteers to participate in what we called the Adopt-a-Room program,” she said. “In less than a year all the rooms were completed.”
Each Adopt-a-Room group—whether individuals, families, faith and community groups, or local businesses—gave $2,000 to cover remodeling, to buy specified furnishings on the home’s registries at Target and Buy Buy Baby, and to purchase bedding and décor of the group’s choice.
When a donor in Florida shipped 11 mattresses at no cost, each group chose to donate their mattress allocation to The Margaret Home.
One group included parents of a son who undertook the remodeling of the chapel for his Eagle Scout project. Another group’s connection with Xerox led the company to spend their “Day of Caring” painting the entire first and second floor. Local medical instrument manufacturer LSI Solutions staged a team-building event at The Margaret Home, cleaning the home’s 89 windows and making other repairs.
Daycare and family rooms await the arrival of expectant mothers and their babies later this year. | Photo Courtesy: The Margaret House
Commercial-grade kitchen appliances, two washer-dryer pairs, two high-efficiency water heaters, and all-new toilets have been donated by businesses and individuals. And the vice president of a local construction company intentionally volunteered to become a board member and a general contractor to oversee the electrical, plumbing, and other professional construction work.
“While we haven't opened to pregnant women yet, we've already begun to minister to people who walk through the doors and hear the hope that this home will give,” Belemjian said. “Volunteers found an outlet; they have found a way in which they can tangibly contribute to our community.
“We tell people all the time, ‘You are giving of yourself in a way that is truly charitable. You are impacting a life that may not have been conceived yet. You are going to change generations by your efforts.’"
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How It Works
The Margaret Home will be overseen by an operations manager, case managers, resident assistants, and two mission core staff—women working on the experiential component of their master's degrees in social work. Each case manager will be designated for no more than four women at a time, providing personalized attention enriched by daily interactions.
In addition, moms from the community will volunteer to mentor the residents, filling the role of friends and neighbors as residents develop a new picture of healthy relationships.
Belemjian, the mother of 12 children—9 of whom are adopted—said gathering individuals into a house won’t be all it takes to create an environment where people learn to love one another and themselves. The family-like environment will be fostered during shared activities such as kitchen conversations during meal preparations, purposeful dialogue around the dinner table, and practical discussions around chores and household tasks.
Belemjian (left) and others show off residential room at The Margaret House. | Photo Courtesy: The Margaret House
“The structure at The Margaret Home is designed to build the mind-body-soul of a woman, to build confidence and to reinforce that she is worthy of our attention, she is worthy of her own attention, and because of that worth, she is capable of more,” Belemjian said. “The structure gives her the strength to see her worth, it gives her the space to practice her worth, and it gives her people to support her worth.”
To make transformational goals into reality, The Margaret Home has established clear admission criteria and developed a curriculum that will work together to help guarantee residents’ success.
The case managers will vet every applicant. Criteria to enter the home will require each woman to have a sponsor who is willing to make other housing arrangements should she need to leave the home. Other requirements to enter the home include that the woman be over 18, free of drug or alcohol addiction, and free of current domestic violence and serious mental illness.
“A woman who needs more wrap-around services than The Margaret Home can provide will be directed to the appropriate community resources who specialize in their area of need,” Belemjian said.
While settling in, a new resident will be assessed as to her current level of education and career readiness.
“We need to fill in those holes so this woman is standing squarely on her feet with skill sets that can propel her into her future solidly,” Belemjian said. “Our goal for the women and the home is self-sustainability, so that the women are able to care for themselves, their children and their living conditions.”
“The goal is to not send women back into the system, or a cycle of poverty and homelessness,” she said.
The Margaret Home women will follow a job program designed to promote a career-focused education and entrepreneurial skill growth. The home itself will host a business through which the women can hone the skills they are learning. When they move on, they will have references and resumes that vouch for their abilities.
“If we can move that poverty mindset to one that says, 'We are part of a community, we are worthy of work, we are worthy of a salary that provides,' then that Margaret Home woman has a chance of changing her life and that of her child,” Belemjian said. “The child then sees life through lenses of hope and provision.”
Right now, consultants from the Institute for Social Entrepreneurship are helping the team finalize their program curriculum. As key staff are hired, Belemjian hopes The Margaret Home will open in May—perhaps on Mother’s Day.
Major donors have started backing the project as the board’s careful planning and execution continued to impress them. Yet some people, like the man who installed the washing machine, have still asked Belemjian, “Why do you do this?”
Belemjian told him, “Because these lives matter. All life has an intrinsic worth. If it's worthy of God's attention, it's surely worthy of mine.”
She added, “In learning about self-worth, The Margaret Home women will minister to their children and their community. Changing an individual from their heart outward will change Rochester from the inside out.”
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