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Creating a Lasting Change: Women and Children's Center Breaks the Cycle of Poverty

By Kelly Church

St. Mary's Center for Women and Children in Dorchester, MA works to break the cycle of poverty through emotional well-being, educational achievements, and economic independence. Every year, the Center supports 600 women and children with shelter, clinical and educational services, job training, employment placement, and search for affordable permanent housing.

St. Mary's Center's history began in 1874, when an abandoned baby was left on a Boston church's doorstep. By 1902, just eight years after opening, the Center had provided care and shelter to 1,000 babies and unwed mothers that were commonly rejected by society. Over the years, St. Mary's Center has continued to provide comfort and care for pregnant women and infants, including teenaged girls.

"We make sure in partnering with our families that all of our staff are trauma-informed and receive the proper trainings and support to understand the challenges faced by the families we serve," says Susan Keliher, Vice President of Development and Communications for St. Mary's Center for Women and Children. "We also continue to collaborate among our seven programs as well as with our nonprofit partners that are on our campus or in our community."

Every summer the Center celebrates their Family Literacy Initiative. Keliher says St. Mary's Center hosts a "multi-week campaign to encourage reading and literacy among the women and children we serve." The agency encourages community engagement and support in this festive celebration. Keliher says that the Center believes education, especially reading, is the way out of poverty and homelessness.

St. Mary's Center has five residential programs and three education, employment, and prevention programs. Each of their residential programs has a different purpose. Bridge Home is a short-term crisis intervention program for children who have experienced trauma. Bridge Home staff serve twelve children at any one time, between the ages of birth to twelve years old, as they conduct assessments and offer recommendations for the child's well-being.

Crossroads is a larger shelter that serves more than 70 families each year. Based in East Boston, Crossroads provides shelter for families, case management, housing search, stabilization services and a food pantry. The goal is to help them move from homelessness to independent living.

Margaret's House serves 32 homeless families. The program provides a full continuum of family-centered, strengths-based, culturally competent programming so that families can thrive and successfully move to independent living. The average stay here is nine months. All families who move into one of St. Mary's Center's residential programs come through referrals from the Department of Transitional Assistance or the Department of Children and Families.

St. Mary's Home is the Center's longest-standing. It offers shelter and support to 17 pregnant and parenting teenagers, making it the largest program of its kind in the Boston area. Women between the ages of 13 and 21 are served and provided with parenting skills as they increase their independent life skills, while also pursuing educational, vocational, and personal goals.

Later this year, St. Mary's Center for Women and Children will open its fifth residential program. The Supportive Housing program will provide 12 young homeless families at any one time with the tools, developmental experience, and learning opportunities that they need to thrive and succeed.

Keliher says community support has been instrumental in St. Mary's Center's transformation in its 22 year history. The Center receives government support from the state's elected officials, as well as support from community members through events and fundraisers. These donations and financial contributions are vital to the success of St. Mary's Center for Women and Children, and Keliher says she feels blessed to have so much community support to make a lasting change in the community.

"We like to say change comes from the center and positively changing the trajectory of a family, impacts that family for generations," says Keliher. St. Mary's Center's other programs are GRLZradio.org, Women's Learning Center, and Women@Work Plus. To learn more about the Center, visit stmaryscenterma.org.

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