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Hospitality for moms-to-be

Sat., Nov. 22, 2008

Mary House offers safe, family atmosphere

Just a few weeks ago, she was a mom-to-be without a home, living out of a van.

After sharing an apartment with a friend, Sarah, who asked to remain anonymous for an interview to protect her family’s privacy, and her roommate could no longer afford the rent. With nowhere to go, Sarah was forced to move into her van – all while several months pregnant with her second child.

“I was just kind of living in my van,” said Sarah, adding that she’d also lost her house months before moving into the apartment. “I really hadn’t been homeless before that, but it was getting worse.”

In October, however, everything changed for the 32-year-old.

That’s when Maggie’s Place, an Arizona-based nonprofit community that provides homes of hospitality for pregnant women who are alone or on the streets, opened the Mary House in the midtown area and welcomed Sarah into their extended family. With the help of many kind-hearted strangers from Coeur d’Alene and as far away as Phoenix, who provided everything from building materials and time in renovating the three-story home to furnishing each of its 11 bedrooms, dining room and living spaces, Sarah’s life has dramatically altered course.

Now she has a family, she has a home and, most important, she has the support and care needed to bring her baby into the world early next year. And as an added lifeline, the organization takes a unique approach to serving the community as each home is staffed with live-in, full-time volunteers who have committed to a year of service to provide supportive surroundings.

“I’m able to have a normal, regular life that I need right now,” said Sarah, adding that her 8-year-old son is in the care of other family members so that she can live in the Mary House. “And it’s a safer environment than what you would normally have anywhere else.”

About a year ago, Maggie’s Place was introduced to North Idaho by Bob Runkle who wanted to bring the concept to his hometown after losing his wife, Mary, to cancer in 2006. The home, which Runkle donated to the organization last fall and helped renovate over the course of the year, honors Mary’s passion for supporting pregnant women who feel scared or alone. The Mary House is the fourth residence Maggie’s Place has opened for expectant women, with the three others in Phoenix.

“I was looking around for a format to honor my deceased wife,” Runkle explained during a phone interview from his winter home in Phoenix. “Mary had a real heart for women that were with child and looking for options other than abortion. … It offered a chance to basically save the life of the mother, by providing a supportive family and a safe environment, and for their baby. That format so beautifully represents what my wife had a heart for.”

Maggie’s Place was founded in Phoenix eight years ago by Mary Peterson and four other women who wanted to create lasting opportunities for women in need. The homes offer two primary functions for a mom-to-be: Her practical needs, such as prenatal care, and a support structure, said Gail Pearson, executive director of the organization.

Mothers can come to a home at any time during their pregnancy and stay until the baby is 6 months old. Expectant mothers are required to perform 40 “productivity” hours each week, which can include school or work, while each home’s live-in staff works with each woman to establish a long-term plan for her family.

“What we want to see happen is the mom moves further toward independence because we don’t want their time here to be a waste of time,” said Pearson, director of Mary House. “We network with employers and help with résumés and stuff like that,” she added.

In addition to the family atmosphere of the home, where each of the seven bedrooms features a different theme, many of which were decorated by Lake City volunteers, there is a garden in the backyard and a small chapel in the basement for prayer.

“The work that we do is life-changing,” Pearson explained. “We really want them to grow in all kinds of ways, including spiritually.”

Maggie’s Place co-founder Peterson added, “The reality is that a lot of them are going to have to be a single mom out there working and supporting a family, and this is a great way to get started.”

When the Mary House – Idaho idea came up last year, all it took was a visit to the area to come across the need for such a place, Peterson said. “Not just for Coeur d’Alene, but for all of North Idaho and even into Spokane. We really are trying to spread the message that we are a resource to the Spokane area,” she said.

Because Maggie’s Place is a nonprofit group funded primarily by private individuals and a few government grants, the Coeur d’Alene community really stepped up to offer assistance in getting the home ready for its future tenants, Peterson said. “Even though we’re a home of hospitality, we have definitely seen Coeur d’Alene as a region of hospitality. That was a huge blessing for us.”

Mary House has been a sanctuary for expectant women through the years, and many of them come back later as part of the Alumni Mom Program to help out. Those are the stories that Pearson said she loves – the giving-and-receiving relationships that define Maggie’s Place. “I’ve really loved working with moms who have accomplished great things, and they are such an inspiration to me,” she said.

Now Sarah hopes to become one more success story. With a goal of becoming a nurse in the future, she said she is looking forward to the day when she can bring her entire family together under one roof. “Just getting a family life started,” she said.

Reach correspondent Jacob Livingston by e-mail at


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