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‘We want women to thrive’ - A look inside a Chicago maternity home

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Gina grew up in a Chicago suburb. In 2019, she discovered she was pregnant with her second child. At the time, she was homeless, and running from the law. She was addicted to drugs and alcohol.

Gina was scared. She didn’t know how she could provide for a baby, when she didn’t even have stable housing for herself.

She met with her mom for lunch, and her mom gave her a 1-800 number to call if she wanted help.

“I didn't think they were actually going to help me. Probably just give me some feel good words over the phone and that would be it,” she recalled.

Gina didn’t expect much from the number. But she felt like she was out of options, so she gave it a try. She was connected with Aid for Women— a Catholic network of five pregnancy centers and two maternity homes in the Chicago area.

Shortly thereafter, Gina moved into Heather’s House, one of the two maternity homes run by Aid for Women.

The staff at the house helped her prepare for her baby. They helped her stay clean and sober. They paid for her first year of school. They connected her with resources.

Today, Gina and her daughter live in a two bedroom apartment in a Chicago suburb. Her older son is in the process of returning to live with her. Gina is working full time and is studying to be a sonographer. She wants to do ultrasounds at Aid for Women’s pregnancy centers.

“If it wasn't for Aid for Women, and everything that they do, I wouldn't be here,” Gina told The Pillar. “I don't know if there's any other program or assistance that would've done what they did for me. I mean they just did everything, everything they could possibly do to help me. And I took full advantage of everything that they had to offer. And so, you know, now we're here.”

Aid for Women is one of more than 400 maternity homes in the United States that offer practical, hands-on support for women during pregnancy and the first years postpartum.

Residents at the organization’s maternity homes receive food, maternity and infant supplies, life skills training, educational and employment assistance, postpartum aid, and other support.

“These women come into my life and share themselves with me. They give themselves to me, selflessly,” said Faith Cintron, who manages Aid for Women’s two maternity homes.

“And they are some of the most amazing strong women. They are not damaged, they're not broken, they just need help and they just need love. And they just need to know someone is going to show up for them.”

Faith told The Pillar she’s seen somewhere around 120 women and children come through Heather’s House and Monica’s House - its postpartum counterpart - since the homes opened in 2011 and 2015.

The women are often poor and dealing with difficult situations including broken families, addictions, and domestic abuse.

“We don't have as much of a turnover as a lot of places do because we offer such a long continuum of care, and because we take women who have other kids.”

Moving into Heather’s House was scary at first, Gina said.

“I was very unsure,” she said. “[It was like] I was just in a black hole and somebody threw a rope and I didn't know what the rope looked like. I didn't know who was gonna be waiting for me on the other side of the rope, but I had to grab on because that's all I had.”

Heather’s House has rules. Residents must log 40 hours of productivity a week. If they want to leave the house - even just for a few hours - they must fill out a request form three days in advance. And they are expected to attend daily prayer and weekly Mass with the staff.

Gina said she was upset about the rules at first. But looking back, she realizes they gave her life structure and accountability and purpose.

“I am a planner…But, you know, the situation I was in…I was just in a mess,” she said. “And so it was super helpful to refocus me in a lot of different ways, in terms of scheduling and planning, in terms of my relationship with God. I was raised Christian. I had a relationship with God and just fell off there. So, moving back into the house and having devotionals and the Mass requirements, and even just getting back into my own church and stuff like that. Morning prayer. Evening prayer. It really just focused me back to everything that I had had before I fell off.”

The rules had another benefit as well. Gina had been running from the law, and was on a warrant when she came to Heather’s House. When she later turned herself back in to the courts, she was able to document what she had been doing during her time at the house, showing accountability and a desire for self-improvement.

Moms at Heather’s House go through online courses covering everything from prenatal development to general life skills. They have the option of taking financial literacy classes. And they dedicate time to pursuing individual goals.

“Part of our life is just goal setting,” Faith said. “So, someone comes to me and says, ‘I want my GED’ or ‘I want to go to school’ or ‘I just want a job.’ Great. And we provide transportation to them within a certain area to get to work, to get to school, to get to public transportation.”

In addition, moms have prenatal appointments, therapy appointments, and community events. They bake cookies and play games - Scrabble and UNO are particular favorites - and they celebrate special events: birthdays, baby showers, AA milestones.

“We're dealing with women who— especially at our maternity home— women that are coming directly out of crisis. Women who have been living on trains, living in their cars, who've been couch surfing, who were kicked out because their parents found out that they were pregnant at the age of 18,” Faith said.

“On top of just unpacking massive trauma, massive issues, we're trying to bring and find joy.”

When it came time for her daughter’s birth in early 2020, Gina felt prepared. And today, she says life is stressful - but in a good way.

“I have a lot of meetings, but those meetings are producing income. I'm going to school for sonography. So, you know, just stress. But like, good stress, not like, ‘Oh my God, I'm homeless. And I don't know what to do’ kind of stress.”

Gina thinks every woman should have the support she found in Aid for Women.

“When I got pregnant with my daughter, I was a homeless, alcoholic, drug addict. Statistics say that it would probably be better off to not give birth or bring that child into the world. And, you know, adoption didn't really seem like an option for me. I didn't know if I could live with that decision either. But I definitely knew that, after seeing the ultrasound on my daughter— once I saw her heartbeat— something that I couldn't go through with was to have an abortion,” she said.

“As unlikely and statistically negative as it was, you know, here we are,” she continued. “I don't think there's any situation that any woman should find herself in to think that she's not good enough for that, she can't do it. If that's what you want and that's what you have in your heart, go for it.”

Faith said Aid for Women tries to stay connected with women after they leave the house. The homes host a family Thanksgiving and a Christmas party each year. Anyone who has ever lived there is invited.

“Maintaining that communication is so critical,” Faith said. “I want to support you. I just want to take care of you, if you'll let me. That doesn't go away because they move out. That never goes away. I still have women that I lived with 11 years ago, who will send me ‘first day of school’ pictures of their now-11-year-old children. I'm invited to college graduations and weddings and things like that.”

She loves hearing from women who have incorporated traditions from the maternity houses into their own family life. Sometimes it’s little things like Friday pizza night. Other times, it’s bigger things, like daily prayer.

Faith clarified that the goal at Aid for Women is not to proselytize or push people to convert. They respect women who are part of other faith communities and give them rides to their religious services.

The Mass requirement at the home, she said, is “80% logistics.”

“Our staff has to go to Mass, and the moms can't be at the house by themselves. And then the other part is like, it's scripture, it's not gonna hurt you. It's an hour. You don't have to participate, but you do have to be respectful.”

Faith said that while maternity homes have been around since Roe v. Wade was first decided back in the ‘70s, many people aren’t aware of their work.

“It's shocking to me how many women are like, ‘I had no idea something like this existed.’ There's over 400 maternity homes in the United States, and people just don't know we are here.”

She thinks the work of maternity homes is an important part of the pro-life movement. When she hears people argue that pro-life advocates don’t care about women and babies after birth, Faith steps forward.

“I love those arguments. I walk fully into those arguments,” she said. “Because I say, ‘Hi, we do that. We don't just want babies to be born. We want women to thrive.’”

Editors’ note: The reporting for this story was first published in an episode of The Pillar In-Depth. To hear the women in this story for yourself, listen and subscribe to The Pillar In-Depth, a narrative journalism podcast from The Pillar. You can find it wherever you get your podcasts.

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