Help and hope for Christmas — and beyond

Seton Housing participant Kyrsten and her 4-month-old daughter, Avianna, secured safe, subsidized housing in Roanoke in July. The program, developed by Commonwealth Catholic Charities, helps expectant or new mothers facing homelessness find adequate housing with basic furnishings, and assists with other needs. (Photo/Marge Thornton)

Catholic Charities’ Seton Housing program aids single mothers


This Christmas season, thanks to Commonwealth Catholic Charities, Kyrsten, a 20-year-old Roanoke mother, and her infant daughter have a home. They also have hope.

Earlier this year, Kyrsten was dealing with an unplanned pregnancy and homelessness, but through CCC’s new Seton Housing program, she and her 4-month-old daughter, Avianna, now live in a safe, clean apartment of their own. (Their last names are omitted to protect their privacy.)

“I am so grateful to experience a program like this,” Kyrsten said. “And I’m working hard to become independent.”

Marge Thornton, CCC’s program director for adoption and pregnancy counseling, said, “The goal of this project is to see, with these moms who want to bring their babies to term, if you made sure they have what they needed, that they could make something of their lives, and especially of their children’s lives.”

Noting it’s a powerful way of being pro-life, she added, “This puts feet to our faith.”

Thornton explained that there is a lot of support in the early months, which will phase out as the mothers become more independent in all aspects of their lives.

“This is whole-life care for mother and baby,” she said.

Announced in May, the pilot program helps expectant and new mothers across the diocese facing homelessness find the housing they need. It provides pregnancy counseling and case-management services as well. Housing units are subleased to participants either at no cost or a subsidized rate, with utilities and basic furnishings provided.

Participants also receive employment training and placement, mental health counseling, financial counseling and access to food and nutrition assistance and baby supplies, at little or no cost. Case managers also can refer them for health care and public benefits.

“We are investing in the lives of mothers and their children,” stated Jay Brown, CEO of CCC, in the announcement. “Seton Housing is designed to provide the support that women need to make life-affirming decisions and to achieve independence and self-sufficiency. It is about having a long-term impact that transforms families’ situations from crisis and fear to stability and confidence.”

Hope for the lost

The Seton Housing program was developed through a grant from the Diocese of Richmond’s Office of Social Ministry and Respect Life, as well as funds from St. Mary Catholic Church, Richmond, and anonymous individual donors.

It is named after St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first U.S.-born saint, an educator who lost her mother at age 3 and cared for and educated the poor later in life.

At a November meeting at the Roanoke CCC office, Kyrsten described her life when she became pregnant and then homeless.

“I felt lost at first,” she said, after a family member’s home became too full and she needed to leave. She then stayed with friends temporarily. In the summer, she was considering a shelter when she learned about CCC and called Thornton, in tears.

Thornton worked quickly to find stable housing in July, as the baby was due in August. She has counseled Kyrsten from that first conversation and has given steady emotional support as well as material support — especially important when Avianna was born after a difficult C-section.

Kyrsten admits to some regrettable decisions in the past, but she now sees a hopeful future.

“I want to set a good example for Avianna; I want to figure it out for her. I’m doing everything I can to make a better life for her,” she said, adding that for the first time in years, she is looking forward to Christmas. “I want to give her everything.”

Help for anyone in need

Marnie Mills, CCC’s mission advancement associate and a parishioner at St. Andrew, Roanoke, noted that the agency seeks to help anyone in need, whoever they are.

“It’s right there in our mission statement.” (“Commonwealth Catholic Charities provides quality, compassionate human services to all people, especially the most vulnerable, regardless of faith.”)

“This work has really strengthened my own faith, just seeing the kindness of people at CCC and in the community,” she said of the agency which also has offices in Charlottesville, Newport News, Norfolk, Norton and Petersburg. “The Seton Housing program is another example of that kindness.”

The program currently has funding for three women in Richmond — those spots are filled — and two women in Roanoke, of which Kyrsten is the first.

Kyrsten has a part-time job at home as a telephone consultant for a company that tracks voting patterns. She earned her GED and hopes to work full-time soon, either at home or outside her home if she can find reliable and affordable childcare. She is also taking driver training classes to earn her driver’s license and participates in CCC’s required financial wellness program.

CCC is paying Kyrsten’s rent and utilities until she is able to do so herself and is helping with her internet service, which she needs for her job. CCC also assists with buying groceries that may not be available at the St. Francis Food Pantry, such as diapers, formula and other baby items.

For mothers like Kyrsten, who may have little or no income and a sparse work history, it can be difficult and overwhelming to find adequate housing. CCC provided Kyrsten’s landlord with a promissory note that the agency would cover the rent and utilities until she can do so herself.

At the Roanoke CCC office, mothers in need also may receive children’s clothing and other baby items such as blankets, diapers and formula. The items are given by area churches, with much of them coming from Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Salem, which holds quarterly baby showers for donations.

‘Get people on their feet’

Thornton explained that the Seton Housing program is just one way the agency works to identify barriers to success that people like Kyrsten are experiencing. For example, if someone has lost her job due to COVID and thus falls behind on rent and cannot feed her family, she may go to the St. Francis Food Pantry for free groceries. While there, the staff will inquire about her situation and may direct her to another CCC department to help with other needs.

“There are a lot of internal referrals,” Thornton explained. “We all work together to get people on their feet.”

“I want to be independent eventually,” Kyrsten said, smiling at Avianna. “But even if you want to be independent and you feel like you shouldn’t accept things, you may need to do it for your child. I do it for her.”

She added that her unstable family life left her without parental figures for support or examples.

“Marge is really like my mother now,” she said, a statement that caught Thornton by surprise.

“Hearing that made me a little emotional,” said Thornton, who visits Kyrsten regularly. “I am so proud of her, and she’s a great mother.”

Kyrsten wants women in similar situations to keep looking for help because she knows from experience that it is out there.

“I would tell them not to give up,” she said. “This program has restored my faith in people.”

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