Casa de Vida gives hope to unwed mothers

.- Before moving into Casa de Vida, a residential program for young, pregnant women, 22-year-old Dominique Sawyer had two options: the street or a homeless shelter. “It was the shelter, the streets or here,” said Sawyer, who is expecting a baby girl in December. “I thank God every day that I was sent here. Everything turned around for me. It opened a lot of doors.”

Casa de Vida in Reno provides support and services for young, pregnant woman who have nowhere to turn. They may be homeless. They may be drug addicts. They may be rejected by their family and friends for being pregnant out of wedlock and refusing to have an abortion.

Some girls are as young as 12.

“A lot of the girls would not be in a very good situation,” said Valerie Luevano, executive director. “This is a ray of hope for them.”

Casa de Vida, a nonprofit program, gives them a roof over their heads, nutritious meals that support maternal health and access to medical care. For many of the women, it’s the first time there’s been enough to eat.

“Sometimes there’s some hoarding and stockpiling of food,” Luevano said. “So we really have to teach them that it’s safe to be here. You never have to worry about being hungry.”

Casa de Vida was founded in 1982 by three Catholic women: Pat Glenn, Terry Ricciardi and Sister Peter Damian. The women were answering phones at a crisis pregnancy hotline and realized the community lacked a residential resource for the women they were counseling.

The program, which is privately funded through grants and donations, has the capacity to house six women. Some women stay after the babies’ births in order to get on their feet. A social worker provides case management services to the clients, as well as any other pregnant or parenting women in the

community. The women receive individual and group counseling by a behavioral health care professional, and classes on parenting, budgeting and child development.

“When girls come in, we make sure they are physically prepared to care for their babies,” Luevano said.

In return, the women must attend school, take parenting classes, abide by the 9 p.m. weekday and 11 p.m. weekend curfews, stay sober and perform simple daily chores.

The women receive assistance in completing their educational goals and finding jobs, health care and permanent housing. Some attend adult education on site through the Washoe County School District, while the younger women leave the home each day to continue high school at Cyesis-Washoe High School for pregnant teens.

Before moving to Casa de Vida, Sawyer didn’t have a high school diploma. Today, she is making plans for nursing school.

Sawyer wakes up each day by 7:30 a.m., attends classes to receive her high school equivalency diploma, then performs daily chores and attends parenting classes.

“I am very determined to get my GED,” she said. “I need extra help with the math, and the people here encourage me to stay in school.”

Following the birth of her daughter, Sawyer plans to move in with her mother and grandmother. The baby will be named Mary LaRae after her grandmother.

“I’m doing this for me and the baby,” she said, rubbing her belly.

In the house’s basement, each resident has a locker where their parenting essentials are stored, including a stroller, a crib and a car seat. The residents will take the items with them when they leave.

Ongoing resources are available on-site at Wanda’s Baby Closet, which provides free infant, child and maternity clothing, along with diapers, formula, baby furniture and toys to Casa de Vida clients and anyone in need in the community.

From July 20 to Aug. 20, 294 children received goods from the store, Luevano said. There are no qualifications to receive aid, and clients can visit every three months.

Donations of size 4, 5 and 6 diapers always are needed, she said.

In the future, Luevano would like to expand Casa de Vida’s services to provide a day program for the women after they’ve had their babies.

“We’re here to have healthy babies, but we’re not satisfied with that,” Luevano said. “We want healthy toddlers, children and adults. We want to make sure they aren’t repeating the same cycle.”

If women do need help immediately after their baby is born, Casa de Vida offers House of Hope, a transitional home for new mothers and their babies younger than 6 months old.

Residents pay a fee and must be 18 or older, with priority given to former Casa de Vida residents.

The women at House of Hope must either be working or in school and meet weekly with a social worker.

Printed with permission from Northern Nevada Catholic, newspaper from the Diocese of Reno, Nevada.

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