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Cari Fensand (center), who is living at Mary's Shelter, graduated this spring from the Gladys H. Oberle School in Fredericksburg.
Cari Fensand, 19, (left) talks with birthing coach Amanda Winn at Mary's Shelter. Fensand is due on Aug. 30.
AT AGE 9, Cari Fensand left a Chinese orphanage for family life in America. Nine years later, she faced a future as a pregnant, homeless high school dropout.
Fensand was 18 and a senior at James Monroe High School when she became pregnant eight months ago. She couldn't keep up with her schoolwork and dropped out. She worried about living on the streets with a baby.
Then a friend suggested Mary's Shelter, a local nonprofit group serving homeless pregnant women.
Five months ago, Fensand moved into one of the charity's Fredericksburg homes.
Fensand settled into a downtown home with gleaming cabinets, hardwood floors and professional portraits of cherubic babies on the walls. The house seemed more like the cover story of a decorating magazine than a shelter.
And the surroundings were only the beginning. Volunteers helped Fensand enroll in the Gladys H. Oberle School and earn her high school diploma. Then they helped her apply to Germanna Community College, where she'll begin classes in August.
They also connected Fensand with Bethany Christian Services, where she attended prenatal classes. They've helped her keep her job at a city restaurant.
And Fensand discovered a new passion in the knitting classes offered at Mary's Shelter. Volunteers also host book clubs and teach cooking lessons and craft classes for the women in the the shelter.
Fensand faces a much different future than she envisioned five months ago. She hopes to go to Virginia Commonwealth University in two years and eventually become a forensic scientist.
She's also looking forward to motherhood; her baby is due Aug. 30.
"They teach me how to be a good parent. I learn new things every day from this program, and it definitely will help me get back on my feet again," Fensand said. "I don't see this as a shelter. I see this as a transitional house for me to learn to be a mother."
Her turnaround is nothing short of miraculous, said Fensand.
The founders of Mary's Shelter, three home schooling moms, dreamed of such transformations when they first began putting up mothers-to-be in Fredericksburg apartments four years ago.
Kathleen Wilson, Theresa Rousseau and Chris Taraschke met in a Catholic home-school group. The idea grew from their shared anti-abortion stance. They wanted to prevent desperate, homeless women from choosing abortions.
The three moms had 20 children among them, but no experience running a shelter. The move seemed risky and the timing precarious, as they started a nonprofit just as the economy started to plummet.
"We put it together with a wing and a prayer and just went with our gut," Wilson said.
Mary's Shelter recently opened its fourth home and has housed more than 70 desperate moms-to-be.
"It's not easy, what we do," Wilson said. "It's a full-time job just raising the money to do this."
But the work pays off in the delivery room, where Mary's Shelter volunteers have witnessed more than 50 births.
And there's a rush of joy when new moms leave the shelter with jobs, a support system and a home of their own, Wilson said.
But the work also carries heartbreaks when battered women return to their abusive partners. Or moms drop out because they can't handle the shelter's rules.
Each woman signs a contract agreeing to get a job or education and promising to live a healthy lifestyle. They're expected to keep the homes clean, to support each other and to be out of their pajamas by 9 a.m.
Kathy Nelson, a nurse at Bethany Christian Services' pregnancy center, said the rules are crucial for these moms.
"Some of them haven't had any order in their life, or direction," Nelson said. "And now they have it."
Nelson never hesitates to recommend Mary's Shelter to clients needing a place to stay: The homes are beautiful and the volunteers compassionate.
"We have homeless shelters," she said. "But wouldn't it be nice to be in a house where you could be mothered a little bit?"
That combination of compassion and structure is the key to the group's success, said Meghann Cotter, director of Micah Ecumenical Ministries, a homeless outreach.
"They have a very caring service model, and at the same time, have a good handle on how to help these women change their lives and become better mothers for their children," Cotter said.
Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973
The Summer Soiree will be held Aug. 13 at St. Michael the Archangel High School. The event is free, but RSVPs are due by Aug. 3. To get on the guest list, visit marysshelterva.org, call 540/623-5778 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.