A Home for New Beginnings

Author: John Monczunski

Standing at the kitchen counter in Maggie’s Place, Sarah tells her story matter-of-factly as she chops onions for an omelette. The details are daunting but told without self-pity. An opaque film covers her eyes but doesn’t impede her work. Her blindness, she explains as she deftly dices the onion, was the result of a doctor’s mistake at birth. Like many premature infants of her age she was treated with oxygen to prevent respiratory disease, and, like many who received too much oxygen, her retinas were severely damaged by the procedure. Gradually she lost her sight, until now she perceives only light.

“I grew up in an abusive home in South Dakota,” the 23-year-old woman continues. “I was one of 11 children. My dad had seven with my mom and four from another marriage. When I was 10, my mom got smart and left my dad, and we came to Phoenix. But then she got sick with liver cancer and had to go to the hospital. So I ended up living with my aunt. That wasn’t the greatest year because my aunt is a little loopy.”

Recently Sarah was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She also discovered she is pregnant. “Most people don’t find out they’re going to have a kid like I did,” she quips. Unaware of her pregnancy, she was amazed during an ultrasound test to learn she was carrying a baby boy. Sarah’s ex-fiance, with whom she was living, was upset when he found out. “He was physically and emotionally abusive. He cared more about drugs than food, so I would have only one meal a day, dinner,” she recalls. The refrigerator contained only a can of pop and a loaf of bread.

For her own welfare and that of her unborn baby, Sarah decided she had to get away. But where? The question echoes in the minds of countless women not only in Phoenix but across the United States. Where do you go? What do you do if you’re pregnant and have no home?

The conditions associated with homelessness place pregnant women at special risk. Generally, street people have poor nutrition. With erratic and hazardous living environments, they also often suffer from sleeplessness. They have no health care and no one to help them. Inevitably such hostile conditions lead to complications for mother and child.

After staying “here and there” Sarah finally arrived at Maggie’s Place, a two-story 75-year-old bungalow in central Phoenix that offered her safe haven. The place is the answer to a prayer, a protective womb for mother and child. It not only offers food, shelter and prenatal care, but staff members help guests find employment or education assistance and counseling. A woman may arrive at any stage of her pregnancy and stay as long as six months after her baby’s birth. When the time comes to leave, the staff help mothers find permanent housing.

At least five times a week someone like Sarah knocks on the door or calls Maggie’s Place seeking shelter. After a story appeared in the Phoenix newspaper, the home averaged 200 calls a day for several days from people seeking assistance or wishing to contribute or volunteer. The good news is there is wide interest in the house; the bad news is it has a maximum capacity of eight guests at any one time.

“It’s hard to turn someone away,” says Christy Raslavsky ‘97, one of the co-founders of Maggie’s Place. “This is such a vulnerable time in a woman’s life.” If the house can’t accommodate a woman, Maggie’s Place attempts to connect her with an agency that can offer assistance. “Sometimes we can also help with maternity clothes or prenatal vitamins.”

With such high demand and limited supply, staff feel obligated to be picky about whom they accept. “Being admitted to Maggie’s Place is a commitment to change,” Raslavsky explains. “We have pretty strict expectations and rules.”

All guests, for instance, are expected to spend 40 hours per week in “productivity time” (it drops to 20 hours after the baby arrives). The time may include education, jobs, counseling, medical visits and the like. With the help of staff, each new resident identifies personal goals in such areas as employment, education, finances, parenting skills, counseling, spiritual growth and social skills. They also determine obstacles and methods to achieve their goals. Each week guests meet with their “go-to” person to evaluate progress. “The main goal of Maggie’s Place is to improve the overall health of mother and child,” Raslavsky observes. “We love them, but we don’t want to see them back here again.”

Sarah affirms the approach. “I’ve come really far. I’ve gotten a lot of counseling here. I’m not messed up like some people in my family.” She has been attending community college part time, double-majoring in elementary education and special education. As of June 1, six women had completed the Maggie’s Place program. Once guests leave the home, staff members maintain contact and have set up a mentoring program to assist alumnae. Some women have returned as volunteers.

That Sarah and others have found a nurturing place to stay is the result of a series of happy accidents and good ideas cascading through time. Some might call it serendipity, synchronicity and synergy. But Christy Raslavsky, who deferred her admission to Notre Dame Law School to be part of the project, is inclined to see it as the Holy Spirit moving in the world.

A little over a year ago, Maggie’s Place was a dilapidated, abandoned house near downtown Phoenix and a gleam in the eye of five young women. Recent college graduates all (the other four had attended the University of Arizona), they decided to place their future plans on hold in order to help other women through a difficult period of their lives.

The young women, none of whom is named Maggie, knew each other through a tangled web of friendships and work relationships. Some were roommates, others friends, still others were acquainted professionally. What they shared was a desire to establish a “house of hospitality” in the Catholic Worker tradition of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin.

Raslavsky was well-acquainted with the Catholic Worker and its back-to-the-roots brand of Catholic Christianity. As part of a Notre Dame Urban Plunge, sponsored by the Center for Social Concerns, she visited Su Casa, the Chicago Catholic Worker house, her freshman year. As a student, she volunteered at the Holy Family Catholic Worker house in South Bend. Following graduation, the government major from Washington, D.C., spent a volunteer year with the Holy Cross Associates in Phoenix at Andre House, a Catholic Worker-inspired house established by Holy Cross priests.

When her Holy Cross Associates commitment ended, Raslavsky worked an additional year at Andre House. It was then that she became friends with four other young women, Teresa Revering, Mary Peterson, Jennifer Bradford and Lisa Armijo, who wished to form a Catholic Worker community of their own. The women wanted to do more than help needy people; they wanted to live with those they served as an expression of their religious faith. Solidarity with the poor and oppressed is a key element of the Catholic Worker Movement. “We’re not just visiting here,” Raslavsky says.

She sums up the philosophy of the house: “If we have a spare bedroom, if we have a spare coat, if we have a spare bed, it is our obligation to share that with others. We are a house of hospitality, not just another social service agency; we believe that we are no different from other people just because we may have other resources. We receive as much from our guests as they from us.”

The women spent 18 months planning and networking, laying the groundwork before beginning renovation work. The house was in such disrepair that a carpenter friend who saw it just shook his head in despair. The group persisted, however, and with assistance from a wide array of volunteers, they gutted the structure, completely rebuilding the interior. “We tore out walls, ceilings, everything,” Raslavsky recalls. “We even re-did the footings because we made new load-bearing walls.” The renovated house has been designed to accommodate 14 people, six live-in staff and up to eight guests.

“This has been incredible for my faith life,” the Notre Dame alumna says. “I see God acting in this house, bringing us the people we need, the donations we need, the support we need. There’s such a forceful presence here.”

Appropriately, Maggie’s Place was “born” nine months after construction began. The house opened its doors on May 13, 2000, with an outdoor Mass and block party. It was a real “loaves and fishes” party, Raslavsky says. “We had a budget of $100 and 500 guests, the entire neighborhood. We had so much donated food, however, that at the end we were giving away pans and pans of enchiladas to our neighbors and an incredible amount of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.” In honor of their first anniversary, the party was repeated this May with a similar result.

Maggie’s Place has been adopted by the Notre Dame Club of Phoenix, and a significant number of ND alumni have been involved with the project. For the last two years the club has designated the house as its “Christmas in April” project, working on the initial renovation last year and working this year on a secondary building that houses a multipurpose room, counseling room and storage area. Additionally, until she left Phoenix for a new job, Theresa Kersgieter ‘84 had served as treasurer on the Maggie’s Place board of directors. This fall, Jennifer Getman ‘01 will join Raslavsky on the Maggie’s Place staff.

One last thing: Don’t go looking for Maggie at the house. You won’t bump into her. But she’s there all right — only in spirit. Following Catholic Worker tradition, the house is named for a patron saint. In this case, Saint Mary Magdalene, or just plain “Maggie” to her close friends in Phoenix who care for women like Sarah.

John Monczunski is an associate editor of this magazine.

Contact: Maggie’s Place P.O. Box 1102
Phoenix, AZ 85001.