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Oct20ThuFor more than 120 years, The Salvation Army's Grace Haven facility in Hamilton, Ont., has helped single mothers graduate with honour. October 20, 2016 by Ken Ramstead
Jo-Anne Rochon, program manager at The Salvation Army's Grace Haven in Hamilton, Ont., was walking through McMaster Children's Hospital a couple of years ago when she was stopped by a woman.
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“You don't remember me, do you?” she asked Jo-Anne.
The 29-year veteran of Grace Haven, a Salvation Army resource centre that provides educational, residential, daycare and community programs for pregnant adolescent women and young mothers, was puzzled. She prided herself on knowing all of the hundreds of women she'd helped find a new tomorrow, but she couldn't put a name to the face.
“I was at Grace Haven 15 years ago,” the woman told Jo-Anne, who immediately realized who she was. “I have two children now and I work at this hospital. I wouldn't be here today without you all.”
“It was at that moment that I realized the impact Grace Haven has had for more than 120 years in Hamilton,” says Jo-Anne.
Grace Haven helps young mothers complete their high-school studies through a three-pronged approach.
The educational program is offered through the local school board and there are three accredited teachers on staff, who report to the local principal. Besides the usual math, computer, science and English classes, parenting courses are offered for new mothers and mothers-to-be. A public-health nurse is on site at Grace Haven once a week to conduct prenatal classes, while another health professional focuses on addictions and healthy relationships.
There's no standard school year at Grace Haven, and the length of time required to graduate depends on need. “Some girls lack only a couple of courses to get their diploma, some more,” says Jo-Anne. “There's no standard stay. It depends on where they are in the education process.”
“The staff is very supportive,” says Kanisius Romano, a mother of one who is planning to become a paralegal. “When it came to my education, they were on the ball with everything. My goal was to get the coursework done and they helped me get on track and stay on track—and now I'm graduating!”
An important part of Grace Haven is the Infant Parent Plus daycare centre located on the premises, where mothers can drop off their kids before classes begin.
“I loved the atmosphere. The on-site daycare is truly awesome,” says Brittany Gordon, a mother of two who plans to become a medical services business administrator.
“I adored the daycare,” Katrina Thompson says. “It's like being somewhere where you have 10 moms looking after your child. Having my son downstairs while I was attending classes made Grace Haven all that much more homey and cheerful.
“The staff is very supportive,” she continues. “They do everything they can to make sure you're successful.”
“The staff is hands-on,” agrees Kanisius, “and they let you know right away if even the teensiest thing is wrong. Thanks to them, we could totally concentrate on our schoolwork.”
Grace Haven also has residential facilities for mothers who have no place to go. “They may be homeless,” explains Jo-Anne, “they may have little in the way of family help, they may be referred to us by another agency or they may need extra support during their pregnancy.”
A pregnant Taylor Pipe had a falling-out with a family member that left her with nowhere to go. An acquaintance told her about Grace Haven, she moved in and started attending classes.
“I had a rough pregnancy but the staff were always there for me,” she says. “After I gave birth to my son, I returned, buckled down and graduated.”
Elected class valedictorian, Taylor is planning to pursue a career in journalism.
“I don't know what I would have done without the staff to lean on,” she says. “If you have obstacles to overcome, they are there for you.”
“We provide positive role models and positive reinforcement,” says Rebecca James, the school liaison. “Because we are part of The Salvation Army, there are opportunities for faith—there is a chaplain on staff—but we are non-judgmental.
“What we do,” she continues, “is simply live out our faith, whether it be by helping some of the moms with their homework, by baking cookies or muffins, or even playing with the babies. No matter what, you can't fail here.”
The gymnasium is festively decorated on this day in June. Food and drink tables are set up in the back for after the ceremony. Graduation photos line the side wall, and the overhead screen proudly announces “Grace Haven Year End Celebration and Graduation 2016.” There's a buzz of excitement in the air.
This could be a scene played out in hundreds of high schools across Canada at this time of the year. What makes this one slightly unique is that every one of the graduating class have either young sons or daughters in tow, or are visibly pregnant.
After the singing of the national anthem and speeches by faculty members, the diplomas and other awards are given out, to hearty applause by the hundreds of invited guests. One by one, the 10 women march up to the podium to receive their diploma from the principal. Dozens of selfies are taken by the happy graduates, who pose with their children, friends and families.
As she watched the ceremony, Jo-Anne could not contain her pride.
“Each one of these graduates has a story to tell,” she says. “They've rebuilt their lives through courage and resilience. Even though there were barriers and roadblocks in front of them, they've moved forward to making a successful future for themselves and their children.
“There's often a stigma attached to unwed mothers, and many reality shows have perpetuated the myth that they're a drain on the system. By accomplishing what they set out to do, these young women have shattered that stereotype.”