She got a headache on the bus ride home from school. Her feet ache from shoes that fit this morning but now strain against swelling flesh. She feels the baby shift inside her pregnant body, and she is both exhilarated and exhausted. Sitting to unlace her sneakers, she starts to cry. Catherine Aghaegbuna heard the girl come in and sees her sitting at the bottom of the split-entry home, her shoulders quivering. Aghaegbuna takes a deep breath and welcomes the expectant mom home. Aghaegbuna is not her mother. But on this day, and at this moment, she is all the young woman has.
Trained in addictions counselling and community service work, Aghaegbuna works at Elizabeth House (EH). Started in 1996 by the Sisters of Charity of St. Louis, the house provides a safe and supportive home to pregnant and parenting young women who need a safe place to live. To date, more than 200 young women have benefited from EH, one of two charities operated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary. (The other is Feed the Hungry).
Christians engaged in this kind of work often talk about the need to see Jesus in the eyes of the marginalized. An immigrant and a woman of colour, Aghaegbuna sees more. “I choose to work here out of my love for the youth and children,” says the woman whose typical shifts run from 5 pm to 7 am. When the mother of five looks into the eyes of the people she serves, she sees the eyes of her own children. She’s reluctant to say her parenting experience gives her an edge, but the parishioner at Corpus Christi admits that parenting her children, ages 27, 19, 18, 13 and nine, helps her through the rough spots at work. “When the women tell me, ‘I am not your daughter,’ I tell them plainly, ‘I have no reason to deceive you. I have children like you. I am a mother.’”
Moms helping moms
Since 2016, members of the St. Gianna’s Moms Group at St. Luke’s parish have made women and babies at EH house special beneficiaries of an annual Christmas campaign. Named after an Italian pediatrician who sacrificed her life for her unborn child, the moms’ group buys Christmas presents that include self-care items, make up and gift cards for the young moms. “We think about what we can do to make their day special, and some of the gifts include special notes of encouragement,” says group co-leader Michelle Widmeyer, a parishioner at St. Joseph’s.
Herself the mother of four, Widmeyer says members of St. Gianna’s feel blessed to contribute to the important work done at EH, where young women get help completing high school and preparing or starting post-secondary education or training. Life at EH also helps the women hone life skills that range from conflict management to cooking, laundry and housekeeping—all while carrying or caring for their new babies. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a young and single mother with very little support,” says Widmeyer.
That grassroots support for EH’s work is greatly appreciated, says Michelle Haywood, EH program coordinator. “We survive off private donations and are not funded by the government in any way,” explains Haywood, who often finds herself coordinating donations that range from money to supplies.
St. Michael’s parish, for example, recently donated a van load of baby and new mom supplies, as well as $4,000 in cash. “They provided everything from nursing bras to baby wipes. It was really something,” notes Haywood.
She also appreciates what members of the Catholic Women’s League and Knights of Columbus do to support EH. A group of Knights from St. Peter’s recently took a lead role in a major landscaping project. Individual Catholics also step up with support, including a woman from the St. Paul Centre of the Catholic school district who organized a donation drive amongst her colleagues, says Haywood.
Given how complicated the work at EH can be, program support translates into emotional support. “We serve vulnerable and at-risk women, and this can be very difficult work. When people care about what we’re doing, it’s like an emotional boost to our residents and staff,” says Haywood, whose professional work is tempered by life experience. The mom of three, including one born during her 12 years with EH, Haywood is a university graduate whose first baby was born when Haywood was still a teen.
To learn more about Elizabeth House, or to find out how you or your organization can support the program, visit www.elizabethhousecalgary.ca or email Michelle Haywood at email@example.com.
Written by Joy Gregory for Faithfully
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers