He wanted the walkie-talkie in the hand of the woman sitting next to him, and when it was pushed out of his reach, large tears filled his brown eyes, threatening to spill over until the woman handed him another toy instead. He turned the colorful play phone over in his hand a few times, but as his eyes turned to three small bottles of paint left over from craft time that were just out of his reach, he ditched the phone and grasped at the bottles.
“No, sweetie. You can’t have that, but I have some lunch for you,” she said sweetly.
This tender interaction in a home on Grove Avenue in Lorain between a woman and a tot barely old enough to walk wasn’t what it seemed — the woman who so tenderly scooped food into the child’s mouth was not his mother, and the child was not at his home.
Instead, it played out in Lorain County’s only crisis child care center, a place that is known by many in the community simply as The Blessing House.
Recently, the Blessing House increased the scope of its operations to serve children and to help the women in their lives get back on track. The addition inside a neighboring home is called the Grace Center. For the past six months both have worked to keep families together by telling moms it’s OK to ask for help, and there is no shame in starting over.
For many, the Blessing House and Grace Center keep lives from tipping over the edge. A place without judgment where all young children are welcome, and moms — most of them single and living in poverty — and where they can turn to for help without the threat of losing their children to a sometimes unforgiving judicial system.
Sister Mary Berigan, Blessing House’s director and a former nun who spent years teaching in parochial schools, says the Blessing House is the place people think of when tragedy strikes.
“We’re sort of the emergency room for social services,” she said. “We see people when they have nowhere else to turn, fix their immediate problem — which is often a place for their kids to sleep for a few days — give them some information on places to turn to for more permanent help, and hope they never need us again. But we are always here if they do.”
As a framed photo just inside the front door of the Grace Center says, “Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.”
Here to help
The Blessing House is one of only two such places to exist in the state — the other is Providence House in Cleveland.
Situated at the end of Globe Avenue on the edge of Sheffield Township, the Blessing House is a nondenominational, faith-based, nonprofit organization that takes care of children between the ages of birth and 12 years old when their families are in crisis and the children have no safe place to go.
Children typically stay for three to five days while their parents work out safe alternatives. Sometimes it means resolving homelessness, utility disconnection, hospitalization, incarceration or just dealing with high levels of stress because there is no one to help them.
While mom and dad are busy with such serious issues, their kids are in the loving care of trained employees who are happy to color, paint, cook, clean, wipe runny noses or teach youngsters how to ride a bike.
It’s not a day care. Parents are not allowed to leave and pick up children at their whim on a daily basis. Parents with those needs are directed to other community resources.
It’s also not foster care, as parents voluntarily hand their kids over for a few days. After a lengthy assessment where the needs of the parent are determined, children are admitted for as little as two days to as long as a week.
Often, Berigan said Children Services will refer families to the Blessing House, but in recent years 60 percent of families have been self-referrals.
“They belong to their families, and we are just here to help,” said Donna Humphrey, co-founder and business manager. “It makes me so mad when I hear about parents leaving, abusing or neglecting their children, because we are here if someone just picks up a phone.”
The case of the 3-year-old Cleveland boy who died earlier this month, allegedly at the hands of his mother, a 20-year-old who had a life full of childhood abuse, foster care and teenage pregnancy before she allegedly made up a story about Emilliano Terry’s possible abduction to cover up his death, is the type of saddening situation Blessing House wants to prevent.
“It is so wrong to say this, but with all the families we work with, and all the things we see, I’m surprised this doesn’t happen more often,” Humphries said. “The stresses of being a parent, dealing with the economy and just trying to make it day to day, it’s catching up with so many people.”
So when a telephone rings at the Blessing House, Humphries said the staff is prepared to hear anything and act immediately.
“It’s nothing for us to get a call from a mother saying, ‘I’ve locked myself in the bathroom. My kids are driving me crazy, and I need help,’ or for a grandmother raising her grandchildren to beg us to just come and get the kids for the night,” Humphries said. “You know, it’s not kids themselves that are stressful. It’s the stress of caring for their needs when there isn’t enough money, time or energy to do it. It’s when you can’t get a moment of peace to think about the next move to make. That’s when it can become dangerous for kids, and at those times, we would rather someone call us.”
No other option
Holly didn’t want to give her last name as she talked hurriedly on the phone. She had just moved to another home and was still working to put the pieces of her new situation in place, but she wanted to talk about her experience with Blessing House.
The mother of several children — two of whom are little girls with special needs — said the day when she needed to turn to Blessing House didn’t start out as a crisis. Yes, she was tired, overextended and in need of a break when she walked into the Nord Center for a counseling session with her children in tow, but she was making it.
However, a quick evaluation by a nurse let Holly know she was dangerously closed to not making it. Her blood pressure was so high she needed to be immediately admitted to the emergency room. Her children would have to go somewhere else for a few days so she could focus on her health.
“It was through the roof, as they would say,” Holly said. “But I had no options. I have no one else to take care of my kids. I’m a single mother, and every day it’s me 24/7 with these kids.”
Holly said she recalls her counselor asking her if it was OK for them to call the Blessing House. She had no idea what the Blessing House was or who were the people who ran the place.
Berigan said she remembers taking the call, and she went to the Nord Center immediately. On Friday, she listened as Holly told her story. She never tires of hearing about a successful outcome.
“At first, I thought, ‘I can’t let them go. I have no clothes for them. No medication for them,’ ” Holly said.
As the anxiety of leaving her kids swept over her, her blood pressure continued to climb. Holly said she had to make a decision. The children were brought into an office at the Nord Center and told they would be leaving with Berigan.
“Those little troopers didn’t say anything. They just walked right out the door and got in the van,” Holly said. “Seeing that they were OK with leaving made it OK for me to do what I had to do. But when I think about it, I just didn’t have another option.”
Holly’s children have long returned from the Blessing House, but looking back, Holly said the stay — two nights and three days — was just what she needed. Before that day’s particular counseling session, Holly said she was just beat down, found herself being short with her kids and just sniping at them out of frustration. Basically, she was not being the kind of mother she wanted to be, she said.
“It was to the point where I was spending all of my time taking care of them,” she said. “No one ever took care of me, and Blessing House took care of me by taking care of my kids. I got a much-needed reprieve. I was able to pick them up with a much better attitude and be the mom I needed to be.”
Now, Holly said she knows the Blessing House will be there if she needs them again, which could be a possibility.
“It’s OK,” Berigan said toward the speaker of the phone. “We will be here again if you need us. We are always an option.”
A little grace
The Blessing House operates under the premise of being there when a family needs help. Open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, someone is always available to answer a phone or offer arms to a child in need.
Humphrey said the idea is to keep families together because parents who are in bad situations are not bad parents. With the help of a few community resources, Humphrey believes many families can turn the corner to success.
However, sometimes, as was the case for the past seven years, knowing where to find those community resources is also a struggle. Humphries hopes Blessing House’s new endeavor, the Grace Center, can serve as a beacon for people looking for a place to turn.
“The Grace Center started because of those so-called frequent flyers we have, those families that turn to us again and again,” she said. “We want to be there, but also we want to do what we can to break the cycle of instability so kids are happier in their homes.”
Sometimes it’s putting a young mother who has dropped out of high school on the path toward her GED or getting a woman to recognize the abusive situation she is in or how she needs to address drug and alcohol issues in her life. The Grace Center does not duplicate the services of well-established community organizations like Genesis House or the Lorain County Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services.
Instead, a part-time social worker is there to help moms come up with a workable plan that involves others in the community.
“That’s how God works here,” Humphries said. “We hold them responsible for the work they need to do to get their kids home. We don’t judge their situation because we don’t possibly know their story. We just believe that sometimes we all need a little grace.”
Berigan said there is a reason why motivational statements like “Asking for help is a sign of strength” are posted in the house.
“To us, saying ‘My life has gotten so out of control, and I need help’ is really a major step forward in fixing your situation and putting yourself on the right path,” she said. “The majority of our parents are good parents, maybe not as well-versed in good parenting as other people may be, but they just need someone to give them a new perspective.”