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Home offers safe environment for young women with limited alternatives

Like the vulnerable pregnant mothers it shelters and nurtures, Mary's Mantle maternity home is emerging from its infancy and continuing to grow, along with its needs. A major fundraiser is planned here later this month, headlined by a former state Senate leader, to equip the "infant" for a long and more productive life.

A home for single, expectant mothers who may have nowhere else to turn or have been abandoned by their families, the Merced-based operation that relies heavily on volunteers started in late spring 2007. More than 13 women over age 18, from all over California, Georgia, Arizona, Ohio and New Mexico, have stayed at Mary's Mantle during their once-threatened pregnancies.

A main goal of Mary's Mantle is to ensure that crisis pregnancies don't end in abortion.

"We're doing a little better than expected," Mary's Mantle treasurer John Abbate said. "We didn't realize women would come in with a need for so many services. One of the challenges is funding. Our original budget forecasts have been thrown out the door. It's not just Merced County; we're hoping this is something the San Joaquin Valley can support."

While it was started by a group of local Catholics, Abbate said Mary's Mantle hopes to get support from all Christian churches in the community. The program's monthly budget is $4,500 and the needs far outstrip this amount.

"We're called not only to worship but to give of ourselves, our time, talents and energies," Abbate said. "It's all about saving lives, giving children an opportunity to live. It's just about doing something, giving back to those in need."

A 23-year-old woman, who asked not to be identified, has been at Mary's Mantle for more than two months while expecting her first child. She said her family doesn't know she's there. She wanted to be in a more safe and secure Christian environment than the "party house" she lived in before.

"I'm extremely glad I'm here," she said. "The environment and people have been a positive experience so far. They're there to assist you and they've helped give me a unique support system and opened doors for a lot more."

Her roommate, a 33-year-old woman who is a former marketing consultant with a bachelor's degree in marketing and business from an Ohio college, said her family also doesn't know she's at Mary's Mantle. She said the father of the baby would have preferred she give him up for adoption but she's keeping him. She plans on staying at Mary's Mantle until she can get back on her feet.

"I'm glad for the relationships I've established here," the woman said. "It's a very loving, pro-life environment. I've learned new skills and this has exposed me to a different life."

Dr. Cynthia Hunt, president of the Mary's Mantle board of directors, is optimistic about Mary's Mantle start and its future prospects.

"We continue to grow and learn," Hunt said. "I feel like we're helping women, one woman at a time. We are working on more funding and we need more donors. There is a lot to learn and a lot to do; we are trying to improve the actual program with more activities and classes."

Even after a woman and her newborn leaves the Mary's Mantle home, its leaders hope they have a game plan that's solid for them. While in the home, the women must be volunteering, working or taking classes that will equip them for motherhood.

Hunt said the Mary's Mantle board is still hoping to open a home for pregnant adolescents up to age 18. Not all participants have stayed with the program and some couldn't follow stringent house rules.

"There are certainly some disappointments, with people leaving because they couldn't abide by the rules," Hunt said. "It's heartbreaking to us when they continue to make difficult choices."

April Eastman is program manager and case manager at Mary's Mantle. She joined the program last August and said the job is very rewarding.

"The hardest part is when the ladies transition out," Eastman said. "We follow them and stay in contact. My job doesn't end at 5 p.m. The phone rings all the time. Every day is like a new beginning. Most of the time it's quite peaceful but at times I don't get any sleep trying to solve problems or defuse volatile situations."

Eastman worked as a mediation counselor and on the hotline for A Woman's Place for about a year. She transports the home's residents to appointments and tries to find resources for them, whether it's education, counseling or medical needs. She also does entry and exit interviews and community outreach.

Up to five women can stay at the four-bedroom house at any one time. While there, they must spend 35 hours a week in productive time, whether it's working, volunteering or attending classes on childbirth education. The residents must keep the house clean and do their own laundry. There is a 10 p.m. curfew during the weekdays and 11 p.m. on weekends. Drugs and drinking also are verboten.

Mary's Mantle participants attend classes in nutrition, childbirth, financial management, adoption, home safety, single parenting, infant care, cooking, crafts and other life skills.

Three paid staff members work with the program which also has about 10 volunteers. Abbate said the closest similar program to his knowledge is in Bakersfield. Mary's Mantle leaders are trying to get the word out about their program. Participants generally stay anywhere from two weeks to seven months.

Abbate said it's not good enough just to find shelter for these women during their pregnancies. That's just a bandage on a much-larger wound.

Former state Senate Republican Leader Jim Brulte, Rancho Cucamonga, will be the guest speaker at the first major fund-raiser for Mary's Mantle, a June 19 dinner and auction at Abbate's home at 2440 Piedmont Drive. Abbate is hoping between 300 and 500 people support the event.

Tickets are $55 per person or $100 per couple. Bronze, silver and gold table sponsorships are available for $750, $1,000 or $1,500 donations respectively. A social hour and silent auction begins at 5:30 p.m. with dinner served at 7 p.m. For reservations, call 383-1932 or 761-9180.

Brulte was the author of SB 1368, California's Safely Surrendered Baby Law. He served 14 years in the state Legislature, starting in 1990 in the state Assembly and terming out in the state Senate.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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