Moms in crisis choose life, find refuge at Mary’s Choice RVA

Shy and one of her twin daughters. (Photo/D. Hunter Reardon)

“Had I not been able to come here” to Mary’s Choice RVA, said Shy, a 21-year-old mother of three, “I really don’t know where I would be right now.”

Shy is one of the “mamas” – as they are affectionately called by Mary’s Choice executive director and founder, Maureen Nwoye – living at Mary’s Choice, a home for women facing unexpected pregnancies.

Mary’s Choice is a Christ-centered program providing no-cost housing for up to four years for expectant mothers and their children. The women have a schedule that includes work, prayer, mentoring/counseling, volunteering and classes in everything from parenting to budgeting.

“We are Catholic, first and foremost, and we believe that life begins at the moment of conception,” said Nwoye.

“I love that this program is about life, and I love that it’s not just about our belief about life, but we’re actually providing an opportunity to support these women who choose life,” said Jackie, a volunteer.

In addition to weekly prayer times, all the moms in the home go to Mass together each Sunday, unless they already belong to a parish or attend other services.

“The women that come to us don’t have to be Catholic, but they understand we are Catholic and we are not bashful about our faith,” said Nwoye, “but we will use our faith in serving God and serving them.”

“This program brings you to God,” said Mia, a 22-year-old who was 16-weeks-pregnant at the time of this interview in early February.

Though Mia is not Catholic, she says she is Christian and that she looks forward to the daily devotions on Wednesdays, when they read from the Bible and look at prayer cards. “It strengthens my relationship with the man upstairs,” Mia said.

Shy also said she is not Catholic, but “since I’ve been here, I’ve grown more in my faith. … I started to pray more, and going to Mass on Sundays, I feel closer to God. I’ve always been religious, but being here with Ms. Maureen, who is so strong in her faith … has been inspiring.”

Virginia, who is Catholic, arrived at the home in August with her three-year-old son, Alexander. She spoke with The Catholic Virginian in Spanish since she is still taking classes to learn English. A native of El Salvador, Virginia said that often, a volunteer will take her to Our Lady of Lourdes, Richmond, so she can attend Spanish Mass.

“We have a lot of support with religion,” Virginia said. “We never miss Mass.”

Community in faith

“I tell the girls, I don’t care what your yesterday looks like,” said Nwoye, who calls Mary’s Choice her “apostolate work.”

“Whatever you’ve done, whatever you think society has placed you at, that’s all in the past,” Nwoye added. “Let’s look at what your future will look like.”

Twins K.C. and J.C. with childcare provider Rosie. (Photo/D. Hunter Reardon)

Mia prepares dinner. (Photo/D. Hunter Reardon)

At the time of The Catholic Virginian’s interviews, three mamas were living in the home with a total of four children, all under the age of three. The same day of the interviews, a fourth mama and her young son moved in. In the days afterward, a fifth mama joined the group.

“It has been a sense of community here,” explained Shy, who has 16-month old twin girls and a three-month-old baby boy. “All the moms get along, it’s not like any of us don’t talk to each other. We’re all close, we help each other with each other’s kids.”

“To see the kids acting almost like siblings … it’s really beautiful,” said Holly, a volunteer from the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Richmond.

Virginia said that both she and her son are happy in their new home. “Alexander is in love with everyone,” said Virginia. “He has love for everyone, especially for [director] Maureen.”

Alexander, age three. (Photo/D. Hunter Reardon)

Shy said the structure of Mary’s Choice has turned her life around, with help from the support system from Nwoye, the volunteers, and the other moms. “My eventual goal is to build up my skills … and to eventually be able to provide for my kids on my own … and have confidence to leave here and know I can do it myself,” she said.

The day The Catholic Virginian visited the home, it was Mia’s turn to make dinner. She chatted while she expertly checked on Italian baked chicken, yellow rice, and collard greens, the delicious aromas wafting in the kitchen. With a sense of pride, she explained that she liked cooking, and that cooking at Mary’s Choice “brings us all together.”

The moms take turns making dinner each week. On Saturdays, they all cook together in preparation for Sunday dinner. The moms and their children eat dinner together every night.

Virginia with Shy’s three-month old son. (Photo/D. Hunter Reardon)

Mentors, volunteers, donors

Nwoye said that mentoring the mamas is one of the most important aspects of Mary’s Choice.

Jackie, a parishioner at St. Mary’s, Richmond, has been mentoring Shy since last September, when Shy moved into the home.

“I would say my relationship with Shy is really about helping her carve out her path forward,” Jackie explained. “She’s a busy mom of three really young children, and I was in that role at one point, and I had a husband and family to support me, and she’s here on her own.”

Jackie laughed as she recounted helping Shy take her three babies to the pediatrician that morning – which included loading three car seats into the car. Jackie said mentoring is providing parental guidance, helping to coordinate things like grocery lists and doctor appointments, and getting the moms to think about the future.

Virginia, who only began to learn English last year, attends English classes each week with a mentor; two Spanish-speaking volunteers help her study and take her to class. “Learning English is what I want most right now,” she said.

Virginia added that, since arriving, Mary’s Choice has supported her and Alexander in many ways. “There is nothing we lack,” she said. “We have food, we have a roof over our heads. They helped me look for work, they help me take care of the babies, with doctors, with classes.”

“We say we’re pro-life and we stand by that,” said Holly. “And sometimes people question that – ‘well, what do you do?’ And this is a tangible way to support life.”

Molly, a parishioner of St. Bridget, Richmond, has been volunteering for about a year and a half, educating the moms on financial topics including budgeting, credit, and building wealth.

Molly said “financial topics are complex and not always fun to think about. But the women here are so eager to have the knowledge and the tools to make the best decisions for their families. It’s really wonderful to be a part of that.”

The volunteers want others to know that Mary’s Choice RVA is changing lives, but it needs support.

“It’s a gem of a little organization that not enough people know about,” said Jackie. “It’s … helping some women in really amazing, deep ways, trying to help set them on a course to be prepared to go out and make their way in the world on their own two feet.”

Mary’s Choice receives support from several local parishes. Holly said the response from the parishioners at the cathedral has been overwhelming. In addition to financial support through programs such as the Advent tree and baby bottle campaign, parishioners donate their time and efforts.

“They need a lot of help from people, in all kinds of ways – money, teachers, babysitters,” said Holly. “There’s a great need, and there’s people out there who can fill it.”

One-time and recurring monetary donations can be made to Mary’s Choice. Last year, the Women’s Giving Circle, a philanthropic group for the diocese through the Catholic Community Foundation (CCF), gave an $8,300 grant to Mary’s Choice for technology upgrades, including online courses and computers, so the women could complete their GEDs or make a résumé.

“Every organization that gets a grant doesn’t necessarily have to be Catholic, but they have to be aligned with Catholic social teaching,” said Margaret Keightley, executive director of the CCF. “Mary’s Choice obviously has that in spades.”


Read the story in Spanish.

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