Taking baby steps to a bright future - Catholic Courier
Susan Aiello, director of Mercy Residential Services, sits in front of a quilt made by some of the teen mothers who have received asistance from the Rochester ministry. Susan Aiello, director of Mercy Residential Services, sits in front of a quilt made by some of the teen mothers who have received asistance from the Rochester ministry.

Taking baby steps to a bright future

When a large family was evicted from its home several years ago, a young teenager was split up from the rest of her family just weeks before the teen was to give birth. 

Her mother and brothers went to an adult shelter. Because she was pregnant, the young woman was sent to an emergency shelter run by Mercy Residential Services.

"Her housing situation wasn’t going to be resolved in a month, so she decided to stay here and become part of the transitional housing program," said Susan Aiello, executive director of Mercy Residential Services. "She had a little boy, and she stayed here 10 months."

Staff of Mercy Residential Services provided advice and support when the young woman coped with two medical problems: a discovery that she was diabetic and her son’s milk allergy, which kept him from getting a good night’s sleep. A mother now to twins in addition to her son, the woman got her general equivalency diploma and now works full time outside the home.

"This young woman is a loving and effective and determined mother," Aiello said.

That’s the goal of all the programs that Mercy Residential Services offers to pregnant and parenting young women up to age 21: transitional housing, supportive apartments and emergency shelter. The ministry, which began in 1980 as Melita House, is based in the former Holy Rosary Church convent in Rochester.

Mercy Residential began as an offshoot of the Catholic Worker home Bethany House, a shelter for women.

"They realized they were serving two distinct populations, and they realized young moms would be better served in a separate program," Aiello said. "That’s when the Sisters of Mercy got involved."

The Sisters of Mercy started Melita House in 1980, and it was separately incorporated in 1998 but remains a nonprofit ministry of the Sisters of Mercy of America New York, Pennsylvania and Pacific West region. As additional services were added, Mercy Residential Services, of which Melita House is a part, was established.

During the organization’s June 2009 to June 2010 fiscal year, Mercy Residential Services saw a 30-percent increase in the number of teen moms using its services. Most of the 110 women and 93 children were referred there for emergency housing. Some then moved from emergency shelter into the ministry’s transitional or supportive housing.

"The others may patch things up with their family or find a relative or friend to stay with," Aiello said. "The young women who choose to stay with us recognize they might benefit from stability and support."

At that point, a case manager will begin an assessment process with the mom. In addition to advocacy and case management, the young woman receives parenting education and support, independent-living education, and mentoring and support to reach goals the mom sets, which could include educational or vocational plans.

According to the MetroCouncil for Teen Potential, a Rochester-based program that aims to promote teen health, teen moms make up a significant demographic in the City of Rochester.

Although Rochester’s teen birth rates have declined 41 percent from 1990 to 2006, 19 percent of total births in 2007 were to teen mothers. Those 672 children born to teen moms will fill 30 kindergarten classrooms in the city school district in September 2012, the MetroCouncil noted.

"Over 10 years, 6,500 children in the City of Rochester from newborns to age 10 have had a teen mom," Aiello said. "I’m sure some of the ongoing issues of high-school drop-out rates and poverty in our community may be tied to the high numbers of teen births."

Times are tight and state budget cuts have affected the ministry, Aiello noted. The ministry operates on a budget of about $500,000 and saw about a $60,000 cut in revenue from its contracts. To meet the gap, Mercy Residential Services is working to increase its outside fundraising and in 2010 began a new fundraising event.

"In this economy, we’re finding a high demand for our services and less money to do the work," Aiello said.

Mercy Residential Services also is on notice that it may need to find a new site in the future, because the Holy Rosary campus may be sold to Providence Housing Development Corp. for the development of affordable housing.

However, Providence officials have said that the deal won’t proceed until the housing agency is notified of the receipt of affordable housing funds, so Aiello noted that Mercy Residential has not yet started making plans for the future.

She said the Holy Rosary convent has been well-suited to helping women deal with difficult issues.

"The young women who come here have had a really hard life and have had disappointment and heartache and unbelievable loss in their lives and violence in their lives," Aiello said. "We believe that an essential key to a promising future for young moms and babies is self-esteem, and we take any opportunity we can to nurture that self-esteem in them."

That’s why the ministry plans parties to celebrate milestones big and small.

"We celebrate all the little baby steps along the way," Aiello said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mercy Residential Services always is looking for donations of baby items and household items and supplies. A complete wish list for the ministry is available at www.mercyresidential.org/contributions or contact 585-254-2175.

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