By DEBORAH GERTZ HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
Kelley always saw herself as someone helping other women rebuild their lives when things fell apart.
However, when a trio of traumas struck that left Kelley and her teenage daughter homeless and in debt, she turned to Madonna House for help.
Without Madonna House, "I don't know what we would have done," Kelley said.
Kelley, not her real name, has been employed for a little more than two months, and her daughter soon will be leaving Madonna House for their own apartment.
"We're on our way," she said.
Providing a safe nurturing home environment where homeless pregnant women and women with children can break the cycle of instability has been the mission for Madonna House since its doors opened on Mother's Day 1988. Twenty-five years later, Executive Director Joanne Dedert said the need for the organization's services, ranging from shelter to food pantry and counseling, continues to grow.
Madonna House had 10 people on its waiting list last week for its five, and soon to be six, bedrooms. A new handicapped-accessible bedroom will open by July 1 at the home at 405 S. 12th as part of a larger remodeling project that includes a wheelchair ramp designed to open the agency's services to "a whole new population," Dedert said.
Women come to Madonna House after job loss, natural disaster and other events which stress paycheck-to-paycheck lives.
Kelley lost her house to a fire, lost her long-time job and saw her daughter get very sick in quick succession.
"We ran out of savings. We had been renting after the house fire, and I could not come up with rent. Even if I did, there would be another month, another month," she said. "You don't just become homeless. You lose everything. You become less of everything -- less financially, less emotionally strong, less physically strong. It's exhausting to go through."
Tired, exhausted and overwhelmed, Kelley knew she needed help.
At Madonna House, "you get a house to live in. You get to make your child meals. You get to do laundry, go shopping. You do everything you would have done before. You're just doing it somewhere else," Kelley said.
Maintaining normal routines helps build a sense of stability for the women who can stay for up to two years but usually spend 60 to 90 days at Madonna House. During their stay, the facility's two full-time and five part-time staff help the women hone resumes, build job skills, access needed services and learn to move on -- not only from what happened to them but from Madonna House.
"I have forgiven myself. There was no way I could have stopped the house from burning down, the company from collapsing, " Kelley said. "When you get here and people are backing you up saying you can do this, you can do this, you start to feel better about yourself."
Kelley worried most about failing her daughter.
"I'm hoping she understands that bad things happen to good people, that you move on and make the best of it," she said. "I'm hoping when my daughter grows up that she sees this as a positive thing, not a bad moment."
Progress comes with each step, even something as simple as paying a bill on time.
"You feel human again. You feel like a grown-up, feel responsible," she said. "You don't realize how much paying a bill or asking for a lease is not to be taken for granted."
Kelley wants to see even more women benefit from Madonna House in the future, but Dedert said it's harder to fund programs and keep the food pantry stocked.
Building community awareness is key.
"People just forget the good work that we do here," Dedert said. "We're looking at new donors, new grant providers. Maybe instead of giving Grandma another thing she may have 20 of, you might do a gift in honor of Grandma. The beautiful thing is when you give locally, you get to watch what's happening."
Moving away from Madonna House is another step for Kelley and her daughter towards a new life, but they still can draw on support from the facility and its staff.
"We can come back for the food pantry, come back and volunteer," she said. "We will always have a connection here. One thing told to me way back is even when you get your home, don't forget that this door is wide open. That's exactly right. We can stop by here and say hi anytime we want."
Madonna House will mark its 25th anniversary with a Tuesday night celebration. The event begins at 5 p.m. at Town and Country Inn and Suites, 110 N. 54th. Executive Director Joanne Dedert said the event will highlight Madonna House's programs, its history and its success stories. Hors d'oeuvres and a cash bar will be available. More information about Madonna House programs and services is available by calling 224-7771 and online at madonnahouse.net.