Susanna Wesley House in Baltimore, Maryland: A Stable Foundation for Personal Growth
by Lesley A. Carter
On a recent visit to Susanna Wesley House in Baltimore, Maryland, three of the house's nine housing units were found to be empty. This was a positive sign. It meant that three families had recently made a successful transition from supportive housing to their own residences in the community.
Funded in part by the Baltimore-Washington Conference and United Methodist Women, Susanna Wesley House has served women and their families in various ways since 1919. Originally, it was founded by the Women's Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church as a boardinghouse for working girls and women, named for the influential mother of John and Charles Wesley. In 1993, the facility was severely damaged by fire. When rebuilt, it was designed for a different mission, meeting a different set of needs. So, since Susanna Wesley House reopened in 1999, it has served as a transitional home for homeless mothers and children.
Currently Susanna Wesley House partners with the Women's Housing Coalition to provide housing and supportive services for up to nine families. Candidates are well-screened before they take up residence. An applicant must already be free of drugs and alcohol and open to the multitude of programs and training opportunities provided for resident mothers and children during their stay. Residents take an active part in determining the goals they want to accomplish in their post-residency life. In turn, case managers provide careful and creative guidance to help them reach those objectives.
Space to Grow and Change
The home's nine units all include private baths, and there are shared kitchens throughout the building. A playground and small garden are provided outside, and residents also enjoy a large computer room and play area in the building's basement. During the summer, Susanna Wesley House's younger tenants bring the house alive every day with their cheerful shouts and energetic romping--enjoying a childhood that, in many cases, had previously been denied them.
The successes, particularly in recent years, have greatly outnumbered the disappointments, says Chris Palmer, the deputy executive director. "Lots of families have been in and out during the two years I've been here," she reports, "but only one person has not made it through the program in that time." One of those success stories is Antranette Coxson, who transitioned out of the house in June 2011. Before her arrival in 2008, she had faced many challenges, starting with childhood abuse and including drug and alcohol problems, homelessness, and mental illness. When she moved into Susanna Wesley House, her life changed dramatically. "By the grace of God," she says, "I came to Susanna Wesley House, and it met me in my need. Immediately, I experienced freedom. I had my own personal space and my own sanctuary."
With the help of case managers and staff, Coxson lifted herself out of debt. She successfully completed a General Equivalency Diploma (GED) program, making her a high school graduate, and she finished several job-training programs. She was also reunited with her son, then age three, who had been living in foster care. Now she is working to regain custody of her daughter.
Upon leaving Susanna Wesley House, Coxson moved into a rental townhouse. She is using her newly honed knowledge and skills to fashion a new life for herself and her children. "I'm taking everything instilled in me, the foundations laid," she says, "and I'm applying them to my life."
Beyond Temporary Housing
Jacqueline Edwards, who left Susanna Wesley House in January 2010, also found her life transformed by her time there. For Edwards, the home provided a safe space where she could learn to parent her son more effectively, manage her own finances, and continue abstaining from drugs.
Because of her time at Susanna Wesley House, Edwards says, "I became a responsible adult. Now I can make choices and plans for my life." One of those choices has led her to Bon Secours Hospital in Baltimore, where she now works as a volunteer coordinator, connecting with families who are undergoing similar life circumstances. "I love to help people," she says. "God has connected me with other families who come to me for help. I know where they're coming from because of what I've been through."
Marika Floyd, bringing her three children with her, came to Susanna Wesley House from a shelter in May 2008. Like the other women, she found a safe, supportive environment in which she and her children could not only survive but flourish. The home, she says, "gave me a stable foundation in which to grow and a fresh start.... If I couldn't provide something myself, it was provided for us."
While at the facility, Floyd earned her high school diploma and completed a training program in medical transcription and billing. She also served as resident house manager while living there. Echoing Edwards, she credits the ongoing support provided by the staff after her 2010 departure as a key to her continuing success and growth. "People still check in," she says. "Staff members truly care."
Pam Pryor has seen a number of other success stories in her time as a case manager at Susanna Wesley. One former resident is now interning with a local agency as a bakery cook while completing her GED. Another works for the Maryland Transit Administration and is in the process of purchasing her own home. (Both job and home are monumental achievements, given her past struggles.) Pryor finds the work tremendously rewarding, especially when she's helping residents design their individual service plans. "I love seeing these ladies grow," she says. "Once they start, there's no stopping them."
A Place Like Home
For Chris Palmer, the "magic moments" have been many. She tells the story of a mother who arrived from a shelter with her shy five-year-old son. When the two saw their assigned unit for the first time, the little boy looked up at his mother with awestruck eyes and asked with wonder, "Mommy, can we really sleep here tonight?" During his time at the facility, the boy was transformed into a happy, outgoing child.
Most of the children arrive at the home from a shelter. For many, this is the first time they've experienced a permanent, stable home. Former board president Elaine Schaefer was at the playground one day when a child approached her, pointed to the building, and said with pride and shining eyes, "That's my house."
Many mothers get the chance to reunite with their children at Susanna Wesley House. One mother was living with several of her children for the first time. At first she found it challenging. However, when her children surprised her with balloons and a card for Mother's Day, she was overwhelmed. A realization dawned on her, perhaps for the first time: "My children really love me!"
Alongside the women it has served over time, Susanna Wesley House is now expanding its own dreams and goals. Having recently bid farewell to the fiftieth family served since renovation, staff members are now moving forward with plans for a capital campaign to renovate the building next door (which Wesley House already owns) to double its capacity. These plans are driven in part by the lagging economy and its effects on women. "With this economy," Palmer says, "we're getting increasing requests for housing for larger families. So we need to build larger units that can accommodate more children."
When asked to describe Susanna Wesley House, many of the women interviewed found it difficult to briefly summarize its impact on their lives. They often tell others who are in similar circumstances about the facility and its services, testifying to the changed lives it has produced. One former resident brought her church group to the home recently to volunteer for a day.
Marika Floyd says of the staffers: "This isn't just a job for them. They're hands-on, and they truly care." Antranette Coxson adds: "Susanna Wesley House is a blessing! It gave me willingness and determination, hope, and a commitment to myself, my church, and my family. It made me independent and responsible." Perhaps Jacqueline Edwards summarizes the residents' feelings best: "That's my family," she says, "and I don't know what I'd be without them!"
Lesley Carter serves as Webmaster for the Baltimore-Washington Conference of The United Methodist Church.
Date posted: Sep 13, 2011