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VOL. 126 | NO. 113 | Friday, June 10, 2011

Keeping Families ‘FIT’

Helping homeless expectant mothers just one Agape outreach effort

By Aisling Maki

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There are few situations as stressful as being a homeless pregnant mother, wandering weary, hungry and often hopeless from one shelter to the next with young children in tow.

Delana Turner hugs her 8-month-old daughter, Delajah. For the past year, Turner has been a part of the Agape FIT (Families in Transition) program that helps homeless pregnant women.
(Photo: Kyle Kurlick)

But it’s not unusual in the Memphis area, which has as many as 10,000 homeless individuals, one-third of those being women and children – and two-thirds of those being children under 5.

Many women become homeless after fleeing domestic violence or witnessing other acts of violence, which often leads to post-traumatic stress disorder and sometimes addiction to drugs and alcohol.

Meanwhile, other mothers are plagued by job losses and foreclosures.

Ten years ago, Agape, a 41-year-old Christian-based organization dedicated to providing children and families with healthy homes through a wide range of programs, began serving homeless expectant mothers in Shelby County through a program called FIT – Families in Transition.

“We have families coming really from a cycle of poverty they’ve known all of their lives, but wanting to come out of it,” said Agape FIT coordinator Angela White. “They know what they want, but they’re not able to connect to the resources.”

Although best known for its adoption and foster services, Agape also works to transform communities from the ground up, connecting residents of at-risk neighborhoods with resources that will enable them to create a more stable, nurturing environment for the children and families who reside there.

The FIT program is one of several Agape site-based services, evidence-based models that build on the strengths of a community, bringing resources to those living in poverty in a way that’s most helpful and convenient to them.

“We bring as much as we can to the community the way the community wants it,” said longtime Agape executive director David Jordan. “We’ve intentionally come into apartment communities with a range of services.”

So far, Agape – which means “love” in Greek – has moved into two Memphis apartment communities, in Whitehaven and Hickory Hill, and will launch a third site-based program this fall in Raleigh-Frayser.

The organization’s FIT program launched in July 2001 at the Bent Tree Apartments, near Memphis International Airport in Whitehaven, and has served about 150 homeless, pregnant women and their children.

The typical applicant is 21 years old, homeless, pregnant, and already the mother of three children, and she’s been referred to FIT by MIFA and organizations that provide services for the homeless.

“She’s normally in her third trimester, and she’s not had any prenatal care at all,” White said. “So we want to immediately connect her with medical care because, quite honestly, our babies are born with low birth weights and some other developmental issues.”

Tamara Weber recently joined Agape’s FIT program, one of many outreach efforts run by the 41-year-old Christian-based nonprofit organization.
(Photo: Kyle Kurlick)

The program initially served six families and today has the capacity to serve more than 40 at a time, providing safe, stable housing, pre- and post-natal medical care, nutrition education, counseling, and classes that include GED preparation life skills, job skills, computer literacy and financial literacy – all on site.

Each family is provided with their own apartment – entirely furnished through donations from individuals, churches, nonprofits and businesses – and rent and utilities are covered for two years.

“It has everything the mom needs so that when she comes in, she’s at home,” White said. “She brings what belongings she has with her and she can really make that a home for her family. We rely a lot on donors and volunteers for this program to work. We couldn’t do it without them.”

Mother of three Delana Turner has lived at the Bent Tree Apartments for the last year. She was pregnant with her youngest daughter, now 8 months old, when she arrived.

“They gave me transportation to my doctor’s appointments, made sure I was eating right, and checked the fridge to make sure there was food in there,” she said. “It took a lot of stress off me when I moved here. I didn’t have to sleep on somebody’s floor or in a wooden kitchen chair while I was pregnant. I walked into the apartment and I almost cried. It was nice, and it was nice to be able to bring my baby home.”

Turner said her children “now have stability. They have their own rooms, and they can go outside and play and they have other children in the program they can play with. Before, we didn’t have that.”

Turner now works across the street at a daycare, where she’s able to be with her children all day while earning a living.

And like all women in the program, she’s required to save at least 30 percent of her income to put towards her rent and other expenses when her 24-month period in the program has ended, at which time she can choose to remain as a renter in the Bent Tree apartment she already calls home.

And the vast majority of women not only choose to stay, but most choose to further their education, obtaining their GEDs and even going on to community college, graduating to become pharmacy technicians, certified nursing assistants and early childhood education teachers.

Self-sufficiency, Jordan said, is the FIT program’s ultimate goal.

“Some programs can become almost enablers, where people leave the program and go somewhere else and they really aren’t equipped,” Jordan said. “We don’t want to enable. We want them to live in this program as if they’re living on their own.”

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