Their lives have been sad, deprived, even harrowing. Many of the women who come with their children to St. Margaret of Cortona Transitional Residences have nowhere else to turn. They lack any permanent address and have exhausted the time limits for living in emergency shelters.
Many are jobless or only marginally employed. They arrive with few possessions and very little money. Frequently they are escaping violence, usually delivered by the hands – and fists – of boyfriends or husbands.
This is when the work of St. Margaret’s becomes critical.
St. Margaret’s, a Catholic Charities program in Woodbridge, Virginia, provides these homeless families with the time and support they need to reestablish independence. Participants are provided with low-income housing in private apartments and receive varying levels of assistance during the 12 to 24 months after their arrival.
The facility’s staff and volunteers offer life skills and financial literacy classes, employment training, and personal case management to residents. Children are enrolled in school and mothers are helped to find full-time jobs. If they lack a high school diploma, they study for a GED degree. While living in a protected environment that values their dignity, participants are helped to recognize their own worth and strengths so they can move toward self-sufficiency.
“It’s awesome here,” said one of the residents, a young woman who is relatively new to St. Margaret’s and struggling to rebuild a life after five pregnancies and repeated beatings by the men she lived with. “The people go out of their way to care about us. And the therapy I’m getting here really helps me to open up, embrace my past and understand what’s happened to me instead of hiding it or being ashamed of it.”
Another woman, who has lived at St. Margaret’s with her three children for 11 months, said, “For us, this experience has been truly, truly a blessing.” During her stay, she said, she has gotten a job, cleaned up her credit problems, and bought a car. Within a couple of more months, she believes she will be ready to purchase a Habitat for Humanity home for her family. “If you’re walking the straight line now this is a beautiful place to put yourself back together and to raise your kids.”
The program, launched in 2009, is named for St. Margaret of Cortona, the 13th century Italian penitent of the Third Order of St. Francis and the patron saint of, among others, single mothers and the homeless. Margaret’s own transformation, from family outcast and unwed mother to a woman of profound faith who dedicated her life to caring for the needy and sick, reflects the kind of second chance many of the program’s participants are desperately seeking.
Their pasts have been difficult – a turbulent childhood for one, the untimely death of a parent for another, drugs and alcohol issues in some cases, even a prison term, plus multiple out-of-wedlock children by different fathers.
“I was basically raised in the streets,” said one of the women. “I guess you would say I lived a reckless life. But being here at St. Margaret’s is giving me the chance to straighten out my situation, take care of my children and start over again.”
The physical isn’t the only component that St. Margaret’s serves: “keeping God present in our everyday speech and in our actions” is a critical part of the approach the staff and volunteers take, says Veronica Roth, Program Director.
The St. Margaret staff is very mindful of the suffering, fear, and loss experienced by families. Saying we are present for you because we care is meaningless until the families see us demonstrate care in our actions. “Our families are not ‘cases,’ they are individuals,” Roth said, “parents and children seeking a safer, steadier path for themselves.”
“God put these people here to help me,” the other woman said of the staff and volunteers at St. Margaret’s. “They’re so nice, down to earth and kind. They’re my crutches, you know. Crutches to hold me up and make sure I don’t fall, that I can’t fall. Then I can one day stand on my own.”
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Story written in part by Arthur Wiese