The more things change

A part of the community for almost 90 years, the commitment of St. Mary’s Home to parents and kids has never wavered

St. Mary’s Home_Photo Courtesy St. Mary’s Home

Times have changed since 1933, but what hasn’t changed is St. Mary’s Home’s commitment to young parents and their children.

“When St. Mary’s Home (SMH) first started, there was so much stigma about youth being pregnant and SMH supported young pregnant women to safely have their babies and return home without anyone knowing they had been pregnant,” says Kathleen Cummings, executive director of SMH. “Now, thankfully, stigma isn’t as extreme and SMH has responded to the changing needs identified by pregnant and parenting youth and provides many services and programs, including pre- and postnatal and life skills programs; breastfeeding education and support; baby and toddler play and developmental groups; parenting education and support; infant mental health and attachment counselling; case management; weekly hood hampers and more.”

Things changed again when COVID-19 hit. “We moved many programs and services online, providing participants the option to attend remotely, or in-person when public health recommendations allowed,” says Alex Cloutier, LEAP coordinator with SMH. “It’s been a big change, but it has also provided an opportunity for SMH to be creative with different ways to connect and engage with young families who are especially isolated by the pandemic. We are presently in the process of implementing a new outreach service, called Safe Care, where staff will be able to meet and support young parents and their children in the community.”

In the age of COVID-19, there are fewer residents living at SMH’s specialized shelter, which is why the agency is implementing its new outreach program. Normally, the facility can accommodate 15 homeless young women and their newborn babies for the first eight months after the baby is born. On a yearly basis, about 70 young mothers and infants live at the residence, which is the only residential shelter facility in eastern Ontario to provide this service. SMH also runs its Young Parent Outreach and Program Centre in Vanier for young parents and their children. “Our centre provides access to multiple resources for pregnant and parenting youth and their children, all within one building,” says Cummings. “Young parents can learn parenting skills and life skills; access several medical clinics; meet one-to-one with case managers, support, parenting and attachment counsellors; and enroll in the achievement centre, which is a partnership with OCSB, to complete high school credits both in traditional studies and for completion of many of SMH’s programs.” Last year, SMH had 689 unique youth and children participate in programs and access services at the outreach centre. Programs are evidence-based, and participants provide important feedback to ensure the agency is responsive to the needs identified by pregnant and parenting youth.

Both Cummings and Cloutier say that dealing with isolation during the pandemic has been extremely difficult for many participants of the agency. “We’ve created play pods for parents and children,” says Cloutier, “which provide the opportunity for safe socializing during programs. Our community kitchen has moved online, so participants can watch our centre’s cook prepare a meal and ask questions in real time, but it isn’t the same as having everyone cooking and sharing a meal together,” she says. “I am excited to be able to have our in-person baby and toddler…parties and family picnics starting again soon.”

“The play pods are a great way of ensuring young parents can connect and support each other in a safe way,” says Cummings, “but they were costly. We are hoping to purchase more soon, so we can provide opportunities for more participants to gather safely both inside and outside, but we will also need to purchase umbrellas for shade outside.  All of these need to be completely sanitized between use, which is an additional cost, too.” 

Cummings says St. Mary’s Home is applying for grants and that staff are grateful to have received some grant money and donations already, but that they need more to respond to the increased need. “On top of these one-time costs, one of the biggest ongoing costs, which we didn’t have pre-COVID, is transportation,” she says. “We provide food bank for an average of 55 families a week and have been delivering the food hampers and other essential items for most of the pandemic, to prevent young families [from] having to take public transportation and be exposed to increased risk.” Gopher It, a local courier company has generously offered a discount and provided free deliveries for a few months last year. Even so, it still costs an average of $400 a week before the cost of the gas in order to implement SMH’s new outreach program.

Cummings and Cloutier understand people are struggling and don’t have a lot to be able to give right now. They are grateful for every donation SMH receives, as it all helps to provide the continued support for young families who access their services.

Most important for Cummings and Cloutier is to see how young parents learn, grow, and achieve the goals they identify. “I’m constantly amazed at the strength and resilience of young parents,” says Cummings. “I’m in awe seeing participants meet and overcome many challenges and it’s a privilege to witness and celebrate.”



Testimonials from young parents

Without St. Mary’s, I wouldn’t be where I am today. With this support of the staff, I’ve improved the lives of myself and my children. I couldn’t have done it alone and will be forever grateful.” 

I’ve grown as a person and parent because of this place. I’m so thankful for St. Mary’s.”

Without St. Mary’s, I would have lost what I had. This place helped me become a dad.”



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