Embrace Alabama Kids Newest Partnership Provides Hope for the Homeless

Every time Ontario Johnson steps up to the door of her home, she gives thanks to God. “When I turn the key, I look toward the heavens,” she said. “I can’t get enough of praising Him.”

Just over a year ago, Ontario was living at Mary Ellen’s Hearth, Embrace Alabama Kids’ newest ministry partner that provides transitional housing for homeless women and children. “Being in your car or on the street can be very dangerous,” the first-time homeowner said. “If it hadn’t been for this program, I don’t know what situation I would have been in.”

Embrace Alabama Kids joined forces with the longtime Montgomery ministry earlier this year to ensure longevity for the program and stability for the families. It also allowed Embrace Alabama Kids to expand its reach and serve more of God’s children. “Partnerships are part of our strategic plan, and this was a natural fit for us,” said Dr. Blake Horne, President and CEO of Embrace Alabama Kids.

“Family homelessness is the second leading cause of children being in foster care, behind abuse and neglect,” he said.

“If kids enter the foster system, there’s a 50 percent chance they’ll grow up in the foster system.” That’s why family preservation – equipping families to stay together in a safe, healthy home – is an important part of Embrace Alabama Kids mission.

MEH provides supportive services that help mothers live independently and provide a loving home. They offer instruction on life skills, financial literacy, parenting, cooking and nutrition, all while meeting the basic needs of shelter, food, clothing, medical care and a spiritual foundation.

The families can stay for up to two years, allowing them to find employment, save money and pay off debt. “Our goal is to break the cycle of homelessness and poverty, and you can’t do that overnight,” said Kim Bullard, MEH’s Board President. “It takes time to change patterns and habits and what you’ve known all your life.”

MEH is named for Bullard’s late mother-in- law, Mary Ellen Harrell Bullard, a longtime volunteer and a lay leader in the Methodist Church at the local, state, national and international levels. The ministry, founded in 1904, has taken many forms and had several name changes, but the focus has always been on women and children in need.

Formerly known as the Nellie Burge Community Center, the ministry most recently provided child care for families in a nearby low-income housing development. When the development was relocated in 2010, Mary Ellen’s Hearth at the Nellie Burge Community Center was born. Day care rooms became bedrooms, and the focus turned to self- sufficiency.

MEH staff help Ontario move into her home.

Ontario already had a full-time job and a rental home, but she had nowhere to go when the owner decided to quickly sell. She got on a waiting list for subsidized housing and tried unsuccessfully to find a shelter with room for her and her son. She even considered giving custody to family members. “I wasn’t going to make him live in the car,” she said. “I wouldn’t want him to go through that.”

A friend told her about MEH, and she threw herself into the program. “The money I could have spent on rent, I put it toward savings,” she said. She paid off debt and worked on restoring her credit, raising her score from 605 to 755.

She found the courage to start house hunting, dismissing several because they were in unsafe areas, before finding the perfect one. “I looked around the neighborhood and thought, ‘My child could ride a bike around here.’ And then I went inside and it felt like home,” Ontario said.

“My first night here, I cried. I looked around and tears of joy were falling out of my eyes.”

Both Bullard and Horne are grateful the new partnership will allow the program to continue to offer homes, healing and hope.

“We’re working with a like-minded group that shares our values and goals of providing these families with a place where they can better themselves and find peace, comfort and certainty when there hasn’t been a lot of that,” Bullard said. “It was definitely God’s timing.”

Ontario’s son playing in his new front yard.

 

Embrace Alabama Kids Provides Connections to the Past for DJ and His New Family

Not long after Jamie and Daniel Kertis adopted 7-year-old DJ, their new son told them about the time he ate cotton candy at Disney World.

They were surprised since DJ had been born to a young teenage mother and had grown up in foster care, but after learning that he’d spent his first four years at Babies First, a Embrace Alabama Kids group home for young mothers and their children, the Kertises began connecting the dots.

“They took the moms and their babies to Disney World and Gatlinburg and did lots of things to help them bond and experience some of the joys of life,” Mrs. Kertis said. “He had a solid foundation there and it made a big difference in his life.”

The Kertises, who live in Mobile, long believed their family’s calling was to serve children who need care and love, and the Lord eventually put the idea of adoption on their hearts. After several potential matches didn’t work out, however, they grew discouraged. “We began to think maybe this wasn’t God’s plan for us right now,” she said.

Then Mrs. Kertis saw DJ’s photo on a website that features Alabama children looking for forever homes and she and her family fell in love. The adoption process moved quickly, and just weeks after it was finalized last July, Mrs. Kertis received an invitation to the groundbreaking for Embrace Alabama Kids’ new Babies First Home.

The Kertis family commemorate the adoption of their newest family member, Demarkis Jamal, with a family photo.

Although she has supported Embrace Alabama Kids financially for years, she’d never gotten involved with the ministry and didn’t know much about it. Something kept telling her to attend the groundbreaking, though, and that’s where she met Rebecca Morris, Embrace Alabama Kids’ Senior Vice President of External Affairs.

“I told her we had just adopted a boy named Damarkis Jamal,” Mrs. Kertis said, adding that the more they talked, the wider Morris’ eyes got. “She finally said, ‘Do you mean DJ? We raised him.’ Rebecca told me they had lost touch with him after he left Babies First, but they had been praying for him constantly,” Mrs. Kertis said.

DJ was born to a 14-year-old mother who had been placed at Babies First when she was pregnant. “She experienced a significant amount of trauma in her personal life and was unable to cope with raising DJ,” Mrs. Kertis said. After 4 1⁄2 years, she signed over her parental rights, and DJ was placed in a foster home.

Burke shared that DJ has always been a fan of the Ninja Turtles.

Figuring out her son’s connection to Babies First was a game changer, Mrs. Kertis said, because they met Blondine Burke who had recently retired after 15 years at the group home. She told them about DJ’s early years, shared baby photos, and gave them insight into his personality.

“It was invaluable,” she said. “A lot of people who adopt know nothing about the child, other than what they read in the clinical file. She was able to tell us that he loved Ninja Turtles, that he’s always been silly and that he’s fearful of loud noises. “We felt so lucky that we were able to hear from someone who knew and loved him from the beginning.”

DJ, now 8, is thriving in his new home. His sisters, 10-year-old Kate and Claire, 7, have welcomed him with open arms – smelly clothes, dead frogs and all. “It’s been one of the greatest blessings of my life to see how our girls took him in without missing a beat,” Mrs. Kertis said. “They have loved him from the start.”

Burke continues to be a part of DJ’s life by cheering him on at soccer games.

After reconnecting with DJ, Ms. Burke became a “surrogate grandmother,” Mrs. Kertis said, adding that she’s come to soccer games and other events. “She has such a sweet, maternal energy about her,” she said. “We felt like it was important for him to have that connection to his past.”

Mrs. Kertis said she is grateful for the love and support DJ and his birth mother received at Babies First and for the impact it made on his life. “The amount of love in that place, you can feel it,” she said. “It’s a ministry born out of love and care. DJ is definitely a testament to the fact that they are providing a loving, nurturing foundation for the children in their care.”

Babies First Staff Foresees More Lives Being Restored

When the Babies First program in Mobile started experiencing growing pains, Embrace Alabama Kids staff decided to take the same advice they give the young mothers in their care: Look for ways to turn challenges into opportunities.

The building was aging and repairs were becoming cost-prohibitive at the same time the demand for services was at an all-time high. That’s why ministry leadership made building a new home for the program a priority for 2019. The ministry broke ground on the new 9,600 square foot home in August. Plans are to open the facility, which is adjacent to the current home, in July 2020.

The Babies First home in Mobile serves mothers ages 14-21 who are pregnant or have a young child. The staff mentors the girls, teaches them how to mother their babies and helps them get an education and job skills so they can break the cycle of poverty and move on to independent lives, caring for themselves and their baby. The new facility, one of only two in Alabama that provides residential group care for pregnant teens and young mothers, will allow the ministry to serve twice as many girls and their children.

Embrace Alabama Kids staff and supporters tour the new Babies First Home as finishing touches are applied in June 2020.

“We’re evolving to help our mothers evolve,” said Janet Rawls, director of residential programs for Embrace Alabama Kids. “I think it’s important for us to model the kind of atmosphere we want them to aim for and to let them see that we value them and that they should value themselves. We want them to live in a comfortable, safe, warm, homey environment because that’s what we want them to aspire for themselves and their children.”

“Many of our girls don’t know what it means to live in a safe, loving environment,” Rawls said. “We have to teach them that.”

Feelings of self-worth and value don’t come easily for the young women, many of whom are in foster care because of abuse and neglect. “Many of our girls don’t know what it means to live in a safe, loving environment,” Rawls said. “We have to teach them that.”

The exterior of the Babies First Home makes good progress in May 2020.

In order to give the mothers and group home staff a voice during the process, ministry leadership asked for their input in deciding how the home should function. The girls wanted a play area for their children, and the new home will feature a beautiful fenced-in backyard and playground. The staff requested – and got – a covered outdoor area, which will allow everyone to enjoy meals and spend more time outside.

“We’re always looking at ways to teach our young moms to interact with their babies that don’t involve television or technology,” Rawls said. “We’re setting up all the common areas in ways that will encourage reading to their babies and interactive play. We’ve put a lot of thought and a lot of love into the design of this home.”

In March 2020, Babies First staff tour site from which they’ll care for teen mothers in foster care and their babies.

In addition to mentoring the girls, the Babies First staff transports them or their babies to doctor’s appointments and daycare, as well as to school or part-time jobs. Counseling and other services are also provided to help the mothers achieve self-reliance, emotional stability, and spiritual growth. Long-term goals include helping the moms become self-sufficient, strengthening the bonds between mothers and children, and preventing repeat pregnancies while single.

“This program makes a tremendous impact on two generations, and this new home will allow us to better minister to the needs of the girls and their children,” Rawls said. “It will help us provide the nurturing and loving atmosphere they need to thrive.”

To help furnish this new home, visit BabiesFirstHome.com.

 

Teen Mother Finds Hope at Embrace Alabama Kids’ Babies First Home

“I knew what I was capable of.”

A mother at 16, Lateskia Turner figured she had two options. She could stay at home with her drug-addicted mother and face a future as bleak as her childhood, or she could step out in faith and try to find a better life for herself and her son.
“I didn’t want him growing up in the same situation I grew up in,” she said. “It was scary, but just looking at my son I knew I had to do better. I had to think about more than just myself.”

Lateskia Turner, a former Babies First resident, pictured working at Grand National Hotel & Conference Center.

Lateskia found her way to Babies First, a ministry of Embrace Alabama Kids. Today, 21 years later, she’s happy and proud of the life she and her son, a college student, have made. “I’ve struggled a lot,” she said, “but I keep getting up every day. I keep praying every day, and it works.”

Making a decision

Lateskia, now 38, was 17 when she boarded a bus with her 11-month-old baby, Antonious, and headed for the Department of Human Resources. “I let them know my situation and they gave me some options,” she said. Babies First, a residential group home for teenage mothers and their children, was the one that felt right.

“I wanted to raise my son, but I also wanted to go to school,” said Lateskia, who was an A/B student. “I really didn’t want to leave my mother because of the shape she was in, but I wanted better. I always did. I knew what I was capable of.”

Lateskia and her son stayed at the group home, located then in Selma, from 1996-99. The program, now in Mobile, provides nurturing and support for young mothers juggling school, jobs, day care and doctor’s visits. Long-term goals include strengthening bonds between mothers and their children, building self-esteem, and preventing repeat pregnancies while single.

“I knew it was the place we needed to get our start in life,” she said. “I didn’t have to worry about food or shelter or clean clothes for me and my child. All I had to do was achieve my goals while watching my child grow up happy.”

A supportive family

She earned her GED and enrolled in community college, making both the Dean’s List and President’s List. Antonious was in day care, and Lateskia worked as a receptionist. Eventually, she qualified for transitional housing. “The Children’s Home afforded me the opportunity to get well mentally because I had been through so much,” she said. “It allowed me to flourish and rise above what I needed to rise above. They made me feel like I had a family.”

Life hasn’t always been easy for the mother and son in the years since leaving the group home. There have been struggles and set-backs, but they draw on the strength they found at Embrace Alabama Kids. Antonious, 23, is a student at Alabama A&M, earning a major in construction management and a minor in business. Lateskia, who lives in Phenix City, Alabama, works in a hotel and conference center in Auburn.

She still keeps in touch with some of the staff members who were at Babies First when she was, and they have continued to be sources of strength and support. Most recently, she met a Embrace Alabama Kids Board member at the hotel, a chance meeting that didn’t surprise her at all.

“Every time I’ve struggled or am at a pivotal point, God always brings the Children’s Home back in my life,” she said. “It’s like He’s saying ‘You have someone. You have family. I’m watching you and I’m here for you.’”

New Babies First Home, scheduled to be complete by Fall 2020, will provide a home for teen mothers in foster care and their babies.
Did you know?

The Babies First program serves mothers ages 14-20 who are pregnant or have a young child.

Since 1986, more than 400 mothers and children have received some 97,000 days of care. The average stay is 243 days.

In order to meet the need, Embrace Alabama Kids is growing the ministry in Mobile and building a 9,600 square foot residential facility that will house up to 10 mothers and their babies. Each room will have its own bathroom and plenty of living space for a young mother and up to two children.

For information or to donate, visit BabiesFirstHome.com or contact Rebecca Morris at rebecca.morris@embracealabamakids.net or 205.837.0141.