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ANAHEIM, Calif.—Chatty Hispanic women spoon chicken soup with chickpeas and veggies into plastic bowls, topping it with crushed tortilla chips, cilantro, and radishes. They pull up chairs and dig into dinner, laughing and talking over the night’s lesson on how to discipline manipulative children. For these and other single moms, My Safe Harbor (MSH) is a godsend, and one that Christians in other cities could readily replicate.
When asked what she liked most about MSH’s year-long Strong Families Institute course, Virginia Lopez ran to another room and handed me a stack of her drawings. Before: The profile of a head in black. After: The same profile in color, with cogs turning in the brain. Before: A dying tree with leaves falling. After: A tree with new life and fruit growing. Page after page of carefully drawn before-and-afters, depicting Lopez’s transformed life. She said she learned what her strengths and weaknesses are, and realized that if she doesn’t know herself she can’t help her family.
The dozen women around her nodded in agreement, relating to her not just as low-income, Hispanic single mothers, but as women who feel they lack control over their lives—and desire change. MSH shows women, many abused by men or despairing over gang-banging children, how they can survive tumultuous waters and ultimately dock with Jesus Christ. MSH executive director Becky Ahlberg, who calls herself the “meanest mom in the world,” teaches these women (median age: 29) the basic skills of setting consistent bedtimes for their children, paying bills on time, and taking responsibility for their actions.
For women who come from generations of broken families and come to the program via referral from governmental social services offices, many of these lessons are brand-new. The women are not unusual: While most people associate Anaheim with Disneyland and its sports teams, Ahlberg knows it as the city with the densest gang population in Orange County. Christians who teach dejected single moms that they are part of Christ’s big story of redemption can help change the lives of both the moms and their kids.
In 2008 Ahlberg and a group from Anaheim First Christian Church (AFCC) learned from local school principals, police officers, and social service managers that gang issues are symptoms. The root is broken homes: The official story these days is that single-parent homes are just as good as two-parent homes, yet three out of four children who join gangs grew up in a single-parent household. Ahlberg says, “We have a societal problem with talking about it without blaming the mother. All the help goes to the children who are at risk because that’s where the money is. It’s not as sexy and short-term to help mothers: It’s a long-range issue to break that dysfunctional cycle.”
For instance, when Leticia Sanchez arrived at MSH in 2011, she was depressed, struggling with two out-of-control teenagers, and a verbally abusive boyfriend. Talking to the women around her, she found she wasn’t alone in her troubles, and kept coming back for the community. She joined the first Strong Families Institute class, where Ahlberg taught the students through a translator about how to discipline their children. Sanchez gradually realized she was too aggressive with her children, often yelling and hitting them rather than explaining to them the consequences of their actions.
“I found out that I raised my children the way I knew from my parents, but that’s not the right way,” Sanchez said in Spanish. “Instead I need to discipline them, communicate with them, and spend time with them.”
My Safe Harbor shares a building with the state-funded Children Bureau’s Family Resource Center (FRC). The two now work closely together under one roof. FRC is only allowed to work with clients for up to 90 days, so once their time is up FRC sends the women to My Safe Harbor. When the women need diapers or court advocates in cases of domestic violence, My Safe Harbor sends them across the hall to FRC.
My Safe Harbor includes three programs. Mother’s Club, a weekly class on topics like cooking, knitting, or crafts, is an entryway into the organization and helps the women build relationships. Then come elective courses, taking two to six weeks, that teach skills like typing. They require more responsibility: Women must register and pay $5 if they miss a class without calling in first.
Three classes, each with 10 to 15 women, have gone through the main, year-long course—the Strong Families Institute (SFI)—and a fourth class is now in the middle of it. Students can join only through referrals. They need to fill out an application, including a short essay about why they want to join, and take care of the $1,000 fee. The women are required to pay at least $100 for it over the first nine months, and work off the rest of their fee by helping with childcare, office work, or translating for a class.
The requirements for joining SFI alone often deter people from joining, but Alhberg believes that’s important: “If they don’t pay, they don’t own it. … You have to want it enough. Some of them will show up with $5 a week to pay their way.”
Guadalupe Flores, a graduate in the second class, was so intent on taking the course that even the birth of her fourth child didn’t make her miss class. She got larger through the first three-quarters of the course and had her baby over winter break. In January, she showed up for her fourth quarter with her newborn in her arms. The other mothers in the room helped her when the baby got fussy, and understood when she needed to breastfeed.
A facilitator leads the class for three hours a week, working through sections on personal development, disciplining children, managing money, and spiritual formation. The final project is a reflection paper on the course–a big step for many women illiterate even in Spanish.
The spiritual formation section covers the Bible, the church, and what it means to have a relationship with God, with the goal of pointing women to a church community where they can see healthy marriages modeled by Christians. AFCC’s Spanish-speaking pastor and his wife regularly dine with the women, and the pastor’s wife has started a Bible study with a dozen of the MSH women. Flores said she had never read the Bible before SFI, but now she reads it every day. She joined the Bible study and is so excited about what she’s learning that she reads ahead of her assignment.
The SFI alumni association now has 22 members, with 10 more joining next month. Since January four SFI women, two children, and two boyfriends—one now a husband—have been baptized. Many of the graduated students continue to come to the center to teach classes and mentor other women: On May 1, women from the first and second SFI classes helped teach women how to make paper flowers in Mother’s Club.
An MSH volunteer demonstrated how to cut, fold, and twist the colorful tissue paper as more than 20 women, some rocking babies, sat at tables laughing and perfecting their creations. Sanchez, dressed in a blazer and pumps, spoke up, showing the women a better way to fold the petals delicately. The mother of three now teaches classes at the city’s Family Justice Center, helps out at My Safe Harbor, and maintains a good relationship with her children. Even her wardrobe has changed since attending SFI. She told Ahlberg that although she may not be professional, she can look professional—so she bought suits from a thrift shop.
Many of the other women in the room, including Flores, attribute their involvement in MSH to Sanchez. Cradling her now 5-month-old baby dressed in a polar bear onesie, Flores lists her graduation from SFI as one of her proudest moments. The soft-spoken mother of four said that through MSH she is able to trust people for the first time, making friends with the other women and opening up to them.
“I feel like this place is my anti-stress,” Flores said. “I come here to relax, to learn new things. This place makes me feel like family.”
Listen to a report on My Safe Harbor from The World and Everything in It:
• 2012 contributions: $98,281
• 2012 expenses: $95,757
• Net assets at the end of 2012: $28,771
• Executive director Becky Ahlberg’s salary: $42,178
• Staff: Three part-time employees and 112 volunteers
• 2013 budget: $121,000
• Website: mysafeharbor.org