SAN ANTONIO, Texas (Mennonite Mission Network) – An image of Our Lady of Guadalupe – the Virgin Mary and protectress of the unborn – smiles serenely down on all who enter Guadalupe Home. The house, a transitional shelter for women ages 18 and older who are pregnant or caring for a child one year old or younger, is warmly decorated and often abuzz with activity.
Women that come to Guadalupe Home, located on the west side of San Antonio, often bring stories of physical and emotional abuse, homelessness, and lack of support from family and friends. So when women join the house, the first step is to equip them with access to a prenatal or pediatric caregiver and access to food, clothes and insurance, and other basic services.
When Sara* first came to Guadalupe Home, she was a new mother (her daughter was one month old). Sara’s boyfriend was in jail and her best efforts to develop a healthy relationship with her mother had failed. A few Catholic sisters who ran a maternity home moved her from a small Texas town to Guadalupe Home hoping to find a safe place for her to stay and Sara was frightened.
Suzanne de Leon, director of Guadalupe Home , quickly noticed Sara’s remarkable ability to care for her daughter. She was an excellent mother and did not require much instruction. But Sara suffered from low self-esteem and was unable to recognize her gifts for mothering.
“She was so unsure of herself because she had been beaten up all her life. She would come into the office and start crying and tell us that she was a bad mother and couldn’t do anything right. She just needed the reassurance that what she was doing was right and good,” said de Leon.
Heidi Willems is a Mennonite Voluntary Service participant who works, alongside de Leon and associate director, Elly Ramsay, with women like Sara every day, providing encouragement and a listening ear.
Willems, of Kalona (Iowa) Mennonite Church, said informal conversations like these are a highlight.
“Getting to talk to these women and hear the stories of things that they’ve gone through has been one of the most meaningful experiences here,” she said.
During her year at Guadalupe Home , Sara decided to go back and finish school. On her own she made daycare arrangements for her daughter and began attending classes.
Today, Sara lives in her own apartment with her three-year-old daughter. She has found a job at the daycare center her daughter attended. She works part time in the office and part of the time with the children. Sara’s interest in accounting prompted the daycare center to offer her a scholarship to attend San Antonio Community College for further education. And she still stays in contact with staff members at Guadalupe Home.
“She’s truly a success story. She always comes back and tells us that it is because we encouraged her. We told her that she was smart and could take those tests. They love her at the daycare now and they see her as a role model for other mothers,” said de Leon.
Willems, de Leon and Ramsay work hard to make Guadalupe Home a welcoming place that feels like home. The house includes bedrooms for each woman and her child, a common living room area, a kitchen and a large dining room.
“One of the most effective things about this program is that when you walk in the door it feels like home. Our hope is that when they learn skills here they’re able to transfer them and take them with them when they move into their own home,” said Ramsay.
Long-time residents who know the house rules also help to welcome and teach new housemates how to live in community upon their arrival. All housemates participate in regular house meetings to process upcoming events, conflicts and to talk intentionally.
Ramsay works alongside the women to identify areas where they need support and encouragement. Participants can choose to participate in childbirth and parenting education classes and are given opportunities to hear guest speakers, take life skills classes and attend cultural events like the symphony.
Margie Golan is expecting her first child, a boy, in late April. Like Sara, Golan attends school each day before returning to relax and talk with her housemates. She hopes to attend medical school after college to become an obstetrician-gynecologist.
“I like it that we can better ourselves here. We can change our ways to better our lives for our children in the future,” Golan said.
During her time at Guadalupe , Willems has built relationships and has seen many of the women grow into new roles as mothers.
“When I first came, some of the girls were pregnant and now they have their babies. I just love seeing how they’ve stepped into their mothering role,” said Willems.
When young women move out, house leaders hope they will have a place to live, a job and new confidence and skills to raise a child.
Jill Ramos, a house member, has found new meaning as a mother to Micah.
“I love being accountable for and to someone,” said Ramos. “And I love the pride that I can take in his accomplishments.”
*Name changed for security reasons.