Cover Story
GODSEND: Becky Ahlberg (left) with Guadalupe Flores and her son David.
Photo by Tiffany Owens
GODSEND: Becky Ahlberg (left) with Guadalupe Flores and her son David.

Parent practicum

Hope Award | West Regional winner: My Safe Harbor helps single mothers break the dysfunctional cycle of broken homes

Issue: "Effective compassion," July 27, 2013

ANAHEIM, Calif.—Chatty Hispanic women spoon chicken soup with chickpeas and veggies into plastic bowls, topping it with crushed tortilla chips, cilantro, and radishes. They pull up chairs and dig into dinner, laughing and talking over the night’s lesson on how to discipline manipulative children. For these and other single moms, My Safe Harbor (MSH) is a godsend, and one that Christians in other cities could readily replicate.

When asked what she liked most about MSH’s year-long Strong Families Institute course, Virginia Lopez ran to another room and handed me a stack of her drawings. Before: The profile of a head in black. After: The same profile in color, with cogs turning in the brain. Before: A dying tree with leaves falling. After: A tree with new life and fruit growing. Page after page of carefully drawn before-and-afters, depicting Lopez’s transformed life. She said she learned what her strengths and weaknesses are, and realized that if she doesn’t know herself she can’t help her family.

The dozen women around her nodded in agreement, relating to her not just as low-income, Hispanic single mothers, but as women who feel they lack control over their lives—and desire change. MSH shows women, many abused by men or despairing over gang-banging children, how they can survive tumultuous waters and ultimately dock with Jesus Christ. MSH executive director Becky Ahlberg, who calls herself the “meanest mom in the world,” teaches these women (median age: 29) the basic skills of setting consistent bedtimes for their children, paying bills on time, and taking responsibility for their actions.

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For women who come from generations of broken families and come to the program via referral from governmental social services offices, many of these lessons are brand-new. The women are not unusual: While most people associate Anaheim with Disneyland and its sports teams, Ahlberg knows it as the city with the densest gang population in Orange County. Christians who teach dejected single moms that they are part of Christ’s big story of redemption can help change the lives of both the moms and their kids.

In 2008 Ahlberg and a group from Anaheim First Christian Church (AFCC) learned from local school principals, police officers, and social service managers that gang issues are symptoms. The root is broken homes: The official story these days is that single-parent homes are just as good as two-parent homes, yet three out of four children who join gangs grew up in a single-parent household. Ahlberg says, “We have a societal problem with talking about it without blaming the mother. All the help goes to the children who are at risk because that’s where the money is. It’s not as sexy and short-term to help mothers: It’s a long-range issue to break that dysfunctional cycle.”

For instance, when Leticia Sanchez arrived at MSH in 2011, she was depressed, struggling with two out-of-control teenagers, and a verbally abusive boyfriend. Talking to the women around her, she found she wasn’t alone in her troubles, and kept coming back for the community. She joined the first Strong Families Institute class, where Ahlberg taught the students through a translator about how to discipline their children. Sanchez gradually realized she was too aggressive with her children, often yelling and hitting them rather than explaining to them the consequences of their actions.

“I found out that I raised my children the way I knew from my parents, but that’s not the right way,” Sanchez said in Spanish. “Instead I need to discipline them, communicate with them, and spend time with them.”

My Safe Harbor shares a building with the state-funded Children Bureau’s Family Resource Center (FRC). The two now work closely together under one roof. FRC is only allowed to work with clients for up to 90 days, so once their time is up FRC sends the women to My Safe Harbor. When the women need diapers or court advocates in cases of domestic violence, My Safe Harbor sends them across the hall to FRC.

My Safe Harbor includes three programs. Mother’s Club, a weekly class on topics like cooking, knitting, or crafts, is an entryway into the organization and helps the women build relationships. Then come elective courses, taking two to six weeks, that teach skills like typing. They require more responsibility: Women must register and pay $5 if they miss a class without calling in first.

Three classes, each with 10 to 15 women, have gone through the main, year-long course—the Strong Families Institute (SFI)—and a fourth class is now in the middle of it. Students can join only through referrals. They need to fill out an application, including a short essay about why they want to join, and take care of the $1,000 fee. The women are required to pay at least $100 for it over the first nine months, and work off the rest of their fee by helping with childcare, office work, or translating for a class.

Follow this year’s Hope Award for Effective Compassion competition and vote for the ministry you believe deserves the 2013 award .

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