Alicea dialed the hotline number for pregnancy help, but when a cheerful female voice greeted her, she hung up. Again.
Her feelings of misery didn't match up with the happy voice on the other end, and she couldn't bring herself to say the words that would seal the upheaval in her young life: "I'm pregnant and I need help." As she relates the story now, she can smile. In retrospect, it seems like an obvious thing to say.
For weeks, she had tried to act as though her 19-year-old life was unchanged. She went to her job at KFC. She sometimes went to class at Northern Virginia Community College, but the downward spiral of her grades was another reminder. She had to face up to her pregnancy soon.
The day she acknowledged her pregnancy was everything she feared. A blunt conversation with her mother, who was concerned the young mother would really expect her to raise the child around her work schedule. Anger from her sister. Suggestions she not keep the baby. A first visit to the doctor.
Internet searches and phone calls led her to Borromeo Housing, a faith-based charitable organization in Arlington, Va., that seeks to do more than merely provide a safe haven. It reaches into two lives at a time, mother and child, and attempt to set them on a path to self-sufficiency.
The program has a work mandate with an education requirement for a combined total of at least 35 hours, with goal-setting and parenting classes rounding out the program. Residents are typically 16 to 22 years of age when they arrive, often still in need of a high-school diploma. Some go further: "We had our first four-year graduate last year from Marymount University," Director Joy Myers said. "She did it."
The home environment includes rules new to the young women, such as being home by 8 p.m., doing household chores, and having no men in the house. Myers, the only full-time staff member, says the program communicates the message to each resident: You are now in a safe place, so focus your time on improving yourself, not on drama.
Borromeo, founded in 1988 by St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church and now managed by an independent board of directors, typically houses five to eight young women at a time in two locations. No signs mark the little house that blends into the residential neighborhood. It is comfortably furnished and decorated, not cluttered. Borromeo's other facility includes two two-bedroom apartments, but the organization is considering eventually adding a second house.
Holding her 8-week-old daughter, Alicea is confident she is in the right place. From now on, every Monday and Thursday evening is a group session with the other three young women sharing the house, and various teachers or counselors. The sessions work out any issues among the residents early on, and include classes and discussion on everything from disciplining techniques to healthy eating and meal preparation. Each of the residents takes on meal planning and preparation for these evenings for one month at a time, serving 12 to 14 people.
Laura has lived there two years and is preparing to transition out on her own. At 24, she confidently takes on an organizational role within the household, and she is happy with her full-time job at the front desk of a lawyer's office. She earned her associate's degree while at the house. She's considered becoming a paralegal, but her real goal is to become an accountant. To that end, she's taking a few online college courses.
Yet when Laura first moved in she couldn't quite bring herself to unpack completely, because the stability of her new environment didn't feel real. "You just have to have trust," she said. "That's where the 90-day probation comes in. That's more for us."
For months during her pregnancy she had moved from house to house, staying with friends. Two weeks after she learned of the existence of Borromeo Housing, she moved in. The residents take part in the decision-making, and they interview each new applicant.
"We're looking for someone who's motivated," Laura said. "It's not just a place to stay."
The goals of the program go beyond giving them a safe place to sleep, so counselors pointedly tell them they have to get beyond a minimum wage job. "That's not going to get you anywhere," Myers said. Instead, Borromeo works with them as they set their own goals for educational development and job progression. Her message has been picked up by the residents. "You can't be lazy," Alicea said.
Laura, now the one who has been part of the home the longest, helps welcome the next single mom from chaos into calm. Alicea got a recent helping hand from Laura, when Laura picked up her baby and sent the tired new mom to bed for a few hours of uninterrupted sleep. "You don't get support like that anywhere else," Alicea said.
Stephanie, "extremely relieved" to learn of Borromeo, moved in a few weeks later, now nearly a year ago. She hid the pregnancy from her family for nearly 20 weeks. Pressured to place the baby for adoption, she considered it but thought her connection to her baby too strong: "I felt like that was the only person I had."
She initially looked into other housing, but Borromeo's educational opportunities were important to her, since she wanted to be a nurse. Now a licensed Certified Nurse's Assistant, she's hoping to eventually work with mothers.
Alicea also just earned her license as a Certified Nurse's Assistant. She is hoping to eventually proceed through college for a biology degree. From the stability of her new home, Alicea can see possibilities: "I've always wanted to be a doctor. . . . I like taking care of people."
Sally Keyes, a board member for the charity, said parents of the young women often end up accepting their grandchild and repairing the broken relationship, once they see mother and child settled at Borromeo. Her point garnered nods from the three residents in the room, who all have improving contact with their families.
"They come full circle," Keyes said.
-Joel Hannahs is a Virginia journalist; he used only first names to protect privacy