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Today we are happy and excited to bring you a brand new story for:
¤ Spotlight Saturday ¤
"Courage is not the absence of fear. It is the conquest of it." William Danforth
…was founded in response to the alarming number of homeless women with unexpected pregnancies in the Atlanta Metro area. Our goal is to interrupt the social and economic patterns that lead to homelessness and the resulting effects on a woman’s family and on her community. We resolve the initial crisis of homelessness by providing a safe place to live during pregnancy and by providing mothers with the tools they need to improve decision-making, to enhance employment options, and increase family income, to act responsibly as the head of their household, and to develop the self-reliance to progress to permanent independent living.
Serving the metropolitan Atlanta area, our two modest homes in Marietta provide housing for up to six women and each woman’s newborn child. The typical participant is age 21-45, homeless, unemployed, no income, no transportation, and no support system. She is given a stable and supportive environment to deliver and bond with her newborn. During her stay, she receives counseling and a customized life plan including training in life skills, stress management, parenting, prenatal care & childbirth, finance, career building, spiritual development, and household management. The goal is to break the generational bond of poverty and dysfunction and create a new legacy for her child.
Since our inception in 2006, Sheltering Grace has been busy building a strong program allowing our participants to grow as women, mothers, and become heads of households.
An Interview with Dr. Ralph Bell
This is approximately verbatim but there is some paraphrasing for clarity based on a much larger contextual conversation and notes. Any errors you may see are exclusively mine. -Niki Flow, under1000skies
under1000skies: Thank you for taking time today to speak to me today, Dr. Bell.
Dr. Bell: I’m very happy to do so.
under1000skies: Can you tell me a little about how a desire to create a safe place for a really vulnerable group of people grew in your heart? Did you have an epiphany moment?
Dr. Bell: Not exactly an epiphany moment, but I did have a big change in my life. To give you some background, I didn’t start Sheltering Grace. The ministry is 11-years old. I’ve been the Executive Director for six years. Before that, I was the counselor. Prior to getting into counseling, I worked in the private sector in insurance. In 2004 I was diagnosed with cancer. I asked the Lord to show me what I should be doing in my life. I felt like there was extra capacity, and felt like I wasn’t doing what I should be doing. I know I am in the hand of Christ and the hand of Christ is in the Father’s hands. So that being said, my question once diagnosed was, “How does the Lord get honor and glory by my having cancer?” It was a North Star moment for me. It revealed to me that my place in life was one of service.
I started a cancer-support group. Then one day in 2006, I was with a Sunday school class that did a service project for our ministry houses. I was on a ladder scraping one of the houses when Karen Lang, the Executive Director of Sheltering Grace at the time, said to our group, “Pray with me. We need counselor.” I handed her my business card. Soon after that, I began counseling the women. Two years later Karen walked into my counseling office and said, “I should step aside so that the ministry can go to the next level.” I didn’t understand she was asking me to do until I conveyed the conversation to my wife. She said, “It sounds like she was asking you to become the new Executive Director.” So when I asked Karen about it, she said, “Yes, that’s what I meant.” So I had a conversation with my wife, then I said yes the following week to Karen.
under1000skies: You didn’t come to this service and an open-hearted devotion to Sheltering Grace from a blank page. Can you tell me a little bit about the people who had the biggest influences on your life?
Dr. Bell: My earliest remembrances are that my mother introduced me to Jesus at a very young age. My grandmother was also a big influence on my life. My grandmother owned a corner store. I’d hear her say to customers all the time, “Duty bound.” She’d just write it in the ledger whenever they came in for supplies, and at end of month when they would come and pay they’d say, “Thank you Miss Cora,” and she’d say “Duty bound.” I understand what it means to be duty bound. Just prior to Christ’s ascension into heaven, he asked Peter three times, “Take care of my sheep — feed my lambs…” And I think, from my youth, I have been being prepared to do that. I have always had a spirit that sort of was trusted. In high school people would confide in me. Often I knew things that I sort of wish I didn’t know. I think It was because of my demeanor and because I held things in confidence. God has given me a level of wisdom that is surprising to me. I say that because I sit across the table as a counselor, and I hear things come out of my mouth that I don’t know where they come from. I know I am called to counsel because I am “duty bound until I am better paid.” That’s another one of my grandmother’s sayings. We would help her for the weekend, and sometimes she would give me a quarter. But sometimes she’d say “until you’re better paid.”
under1000skies: I’m guessing that your studies had a lot to do with the direction you took to finally one day become the director of Sheltering Grace. What did you study at college?
Dr. Bell: Biblical Counseling. The way that came about was, I was leading a cancer support group, talking on the phone for hours at a time, and people were blessed by what I did. I did it in a volunteer capacity, but I had to work also. I said to a friend, “I’m not sure I can continue to do this.” My friend said, “Why don’t you make that your vocation?” Two weeks after that, I enrolled in seminary. I don’t think going to seminary was essential to do what I do, but it was steadying and helped me in becoming familiar with counseling and the discipline. I pray for everyone I speak with and ask God to speak through me, to let them hear what they really need to hear him. My counsel comes from God’s word entirely. I use examples from the Bible.
under1000skies: So you’re located in East Point, a suburb of Atlanta. I read an article on “Curbed Atlanta” that claimed East Point was labeled the “most dangerous suburb” in the USA. Just to let you know, my birth-city Camden, NJ is in second place, right under East Point. So my question is, do you think this label is accurate?
Dr. Bell: No. We have a maternity home in East Point. Our office is in Marietta. We were gifted the home from the Diocese. The maternity home is a 10,000 square-foot, 16-bedroom, 10-bathroom facility on 5.7 acres. We’re not a Catholic ministry. We’re a non-denominational ministry, but the Diocese appreciates the work we do providing homes for homeless pregnant women. Even though we’re not on the front lines when it comes from the Pro-Life Movement, like being part of the “40 Days,” we serve in other ways. One of the things we decided was we were not going to get on the activist side of it because it would change our ministry. It is a Christ-centered ministry. We do preach Jesus to everyone regardless of who they are because we believe in salvation. The day-to-day activism is important, but our ministry is just as, if not more, important. If we don’t care for the moms, what happens to the babies? We’ve got to get the mom stable, get her understanding her role as a daughter of God so she is raising young men and women who don’t become a burden to society
Under1000skies: My mentor, Nipun Mehta, founded Service Space and a few years ago gave a TED talk called “Designing for Generosity.” During his talk he spoke about Casa de Paz. Have you heard about Nipun and Service Space, or Casa de Paz?
Dr. Bell: I have not.
Under1000skies: Casa de Paz is a home two “Love Warriors” as Nipun calls them bought in East Paulo Alto, California. It’s located in between two gang territories. They keep their doors always open, day and night, and it has become a sanctuary and a safe zone for the entire neighborhood. So now when shots are heard on the street, instead of everyone hiding inside, they run out to help because it is their home, their neighborhood, and they have become a lot more united. When you have people, like these two men who from Casa de Paz in in California, who have a big dream and a lot of faith, it seems to immediately start these beautiful ripples in their neighborhoods. Have you found that to be the case with Sheltering Grace?
Dr. Bell: Oh yes. But understand, East Point’s location is open on a limited basis right now. We thought we could open the facility, but it is a 10,000-square foot commercial building, and when you have participants in there, you have to have staff members in there at all times. I’s a 24/7 operation. Because of budget restraints, we are not able to operate it like we want to. The ministry is 11-years old and, in those years, we have served 300 women and 175 babies. We have tremendous success stories.
Under1000skies: Do these women give their babies up for adoption?
Dr. Bell: Of those 175 babies, only on one mother has chosen to give up her baby. We help the mother all the way through pregnancy, then training after pregnancy, then we help her learn skills, get housing and help her get connected to both higher education and to a job. One of our spokesperson’s for the ministry is a previous resident. She has gone on to get a degree in accounting and now has an MBA. Another former resident was a resident-manager for three years. Another has her own fitness store in Sandy Springs. Several have gotten their lives together, are working; some have married and are living in their own home.
Under1000skies: On your site I read that Sheltering Grace is the only dedicated maternity home serving homeless women over 21 in northern Georgia. What happens to homeless moms who are under 21?
Dr. Bell: The reason it is over 21 is we would have had to get a special use permit from East Point for moms under 21. Also, laws in Georgia are very different for maternity homes that are for women under 21. We partner with “Living Bind” which provides for services for pregnant girls and women under 21.
Under1000skies: So in 2001 after 911, a friend of mine in New York City decided to start making handmade gifts for the families who lost loved ones. She called it, “My Sister’s Keeper,” since there were especially so many widows and kids left behind when the rescue workers were killed. She soon had volunteers from all over the country, so she divided it into states. I was the Volunteer Coordinator for New Jersey and I remember getting lists from DV shelters about the amount of just basic supplies that were needed just in one month for each shelter. My Sister’s Keeper* donated necessities, but we also donated handmade gifts for the mom’s and kids during the holidays. Being in a shelter, no matter how well run it is or how loving the staff is, can be a bit of a struggle especially after losing a home. I know because it happened to me, so this was close to my heart. So my question is, do you work with any groups in Atlanta like My Sisters Keeper who help you with basic needs every month and maybe help you also with little personal gifts?
Dr. Bell: Yes, we have a very, very good relationship with several churches both Protestant and Catholic. I’ll tell you one thing we are never in need of is diapers because both do diaper drives. We have a large Transfiguration Church that has over 300 kids in their ministry and they prepare baskets for the moms. Many individuals and women’s group give us these necessities. Even a sorority recently gave us 40 projects they packed. With in-kind gifts we don’t have an issue. Where we run into the issue is getting the money. We are currently running a fundraising campaign called, “Be One of 5000.” That would more than cover our operational expenses. It’s a very, very slow process.
Under1000skies: So what would someone do who signed up to be one of the 5000?
Dr. Bell: So instead of asking for big sums, $50,000 a month which is what it costs to run the East Point facility at full capacity, we are asking that 5000 people pledge to be one of 5000 that gives $10 a month. It’s growing but it’s growing slowly. Getting the word out about that campaign has probably been the biggest challenge for us. Getting public service announcements over the radio is difficult for example. They will talk about your program but not about fundraising.
Under1000skies: Do you have any kind of “Day in the life” stories or series?
Dr. Bell: Four years ago we published a book called, A Story of Hope. It was about one of our residents we called Maria. She had lived for five years in tents and under bridges. When she came to us, she was 41-years old and pregnant with her tenth child. None of the others were in her custody. She said, “I think this is my last opportunity. I want to keep this baby. I want to raise this baby.” I can tell you now that her real name is Samantha because she put her story on Facebook. She had a traumatic brain injury at 16 from a car accident. So we’re talking about someone who is mentally challenged. When she came in, she didn’t have glasses, didn’t have a tooth in her mouth. We got her glasses and dentures. We enrolled her in adult education classes because she was not reading. Seven months after that, she had the baby. After a year, she was reading in morning devotions from the Bible. DFCS took the 10th child, but we went to court with her and they gave her baby back. She now lives in her own apartment and she is doing really well. Her baby is 4-years old now. She has such a testimony. It warms my heart to know that our ministry – Sheltering Grace – helped to make this miracle possible.
Under1000skies: Have you thought about doing a series of stories on YouTube or as podcasts or about doing a Thunderclap to get the word out?
Dr. Bell: We have not explored those avenues as yet.
Under1000skies: I have a question about the third phase in your program, the one before re-entry back into society. You said something about apprenticeships or work assistance?
Dr. Bell: Yes, the third phase is called Head of Household. We have instituted the “Sheltering Grace Academy Collaborative Workforce Training Memorandum” which is outstanding. It provides internships with our women. We’ve partnered with Kennesaw State University for continuing education. Our women are given a vocational assessment to determine where and what courses they should be taking. We just started, but after six years it is very apparent that if we don’t raise the economic standards of these moms, they go back to the same situation. So we want to raise their economic standards as much as possible.
Under1000skies: I read that the “Womanhood” phase, the first phase, includes an “Assessment to determine barriers to attaining stable housing and employment.” Are those barriers primarily substance abuse?”
Dr. Bell: We’re primarily talking about prior debt, because most have had apartments in their name but didn’t pay utilities or rent, and until they resolve those it is very hard for them to get into housing. One of the first things our case manager does is pull their credit report and help them make a debt-reduction plan.
Under1000skies: That’s a life-skill a lot of us could benefit from. So under the second phase, “Motherhood” you write about “Pregnancy and labor education and support.” Is that like Lamaz lessons? Breathing? Do the participants have coaches and birthing support?
Dr. Bell: Yes they have birth coaches. Some of them are “Dulas” which is like a midwife.
Under1000skies: You also provide “Weekly counseling?”
Dr. Bell: Yes we have an agreement with a private organization which hired a therapist to work with our women exclusively. Twelve is our max, and that’s a full and better caseload for a counselor.
Under1000skies: You also offer, “Education in the form of financial, employment, and life skills workshops.” Can you tell me a little bit about the education? What does a typical day look like for one of your participants?
Dr. Bell: The typical day (Monday to Friday) is breakfast is from 7-8. From 9-10 we have a devotional hour. Then from 10-12 we keep a class slot. There’s not a class all five days, but we put that there so we can have a morning class. That’s typically where we’ll have a finance class or a life-skill class like budgeting. How many classes we have depends on how many volunteers we have at that time. We have 25 or 26 different classes.
Under1000skies: Do you offer online classes?
Dr. Bell: Yes we have online classes, particularly for those that need academic help. One thing we require if they don’t have a high school diploma is we help them get their GED. So we have online courses. That way we’re able to customize specifically for a particular woman’s needs. She may say, “Well, I already know this stuff.” We’ve had women who have their Associate’s Degree stay with us.
Under1000skies: Do you pay teacher salaries or is this donated time?
Dr. Bell: It’s all volunteer. We’d love to have an educator on staff, but again that’s one of those things that is secondary to housing the woman.
Dr. Bell: Yes.
Under1000skies: This is a really comprehensive plan. No wonder you have so much success. This one section under “Womanhood” includes, “Assistance in developing a one, three, and five year Strategic Life Plan.” Anyone could use that. Where do I sign up?
Dr. Bell: Yes! The Strategic Life Plan is a two-hour, three-session seminar I put together a couple of years ago. It’s a process where we talk about values and they develop a personal vision statement, a personal mission statement and define what their goals are in one, three and five years. We follow up with case management through their one-year goals, at least through those. One thing that works in my life is something I have noticed very few people do which is to have written goals. Without written goals your routine is interrupted by living and daily life because we don’t have a roadmap and written goals. A Strategic Life Plan is one of those things that, if you are going to be productive and successful, you will need.
Under1000skies: So you provide “Safe housing and delivery of her new baby. A Life Plan developed to secure stable housing, employment, training and improved future economic status for the family. A plan for the participant to receive the tools to begin taking steps toward her short- and long term-goals…” So all that begins from whenever they come into the program until two weeks before delivery…” Then they go to the “Womanhood” phase. So are the moms moved to another part of the facility or just signing up for new classes?”
Dr. Bell: They stay in the same place but I separated it as a program. Before I took over, it was all one program. We actually physically enroll them in the next stage because some of the women come to us because, when they have a baby, they have to have someplace else to go. We have some women whose primary goal is to have the baby and get back to where they came from. So this is difficult and we want to work to support the entire family. We had, for instance, a prostitute talked out of having an abortion and she couldn’t wait to deliver and get back to her profession. She loved it. And when the women are not willing to participate it can be difficult. She is the only mom who relinquished her baby. We tell the moms, “You’re here because you’re pregnant, so when you have the baby we’ll help you find someplace else to go.” Most of the time, we have had success. Very rarely we have woman with violent tempers who are not allowed to come back. Most have stayed through the program.
Under1000skies: So the last phase is when you prepare the moms to be heads of households.
Dr. Bell: Yes. Six weeks after baby is born they begin that phase. It’s the most expensive time, the “Head of Household” phase. It’s difficult for some to leave too.
Under1000skies: How do you handle moms with substance abuse?
Dr. Bell: We’re not equipped to deal with substance-abuse issues – and I mean stuff beyond marijuana. That’s very common. Of 15 of the women we interviewed, 12 failed a drug test due to marijuana so we can’t worry about that. But anything more we refer them to a partner to help those moms.
Under1000skies: What is the average age of most of the moms?
Dr. Bell: It’s about 25, 26.
Under1000skies: So I have to ask. I did some research and found a couple of negative reviews about Sheltering Grace on Google by two women who claimed they stayed there. Can you tell me about the ones that drop out or are asked to leave?
Dr. Bell: We’ve had six women walk away from the program because we don’t permit them to have their cell phones. If we allow them to have their cell phones, they can scream at baby daddy all night and then they are really unpleasant the next day. So we take away cell phones. The scripture I use is one about changing a person’s environment. God called Abraham to leave his father’s house where there was idol worship and to go to a land he did not know. Because Abraham was obedient and could do that, God blessed him. If he had stayed he wouldn’t have been able to overcome his surroundings. So it is coming out of the dysfunctional environment that gives you the best opportunity to change. So they have the opportunity, but some do not take it.
Another example is, I served in the Air Force for five years. One thing that stood out to me was that we were in basic training for six weeks. The guys got off the bus and no one knew anyone. The drill instructor’s first command was “Line up and march.” And everybody just walked to this barracks at their own pace. Six weeks later, if you were watching that same squad, you would see that it moved like an arrow. Everybody was in in step. The way that they do that is they separate you from the environment, changing you from a civilian to a GI. That’s sort of the model. We’re not making soldiers, but the concept is the same. You’re going to have a better opportunity to change old behaviors that did not serve you if you change your environment.
I have also had to dismiss two for smoking on the property. There are three things we tell all the women when they come, three things that will get you removed from the program: 1. fighting with participants or staff; 2. bringing a man on the premises; and, 3. smoking on the property and, aside from the health risk for mom and baby it is an insurance issue.-
Under1000skies: So I noticed that you have a deep faith and you speak a lot about the Bible and Bible study. What if someone isn’t Christian? Like suppose I’m a Buddhist mom-to-be, or an atheist, would I still be welcome?
Dr. Bell: Yes. Our primary job is the mom and child’s safety for her physical needs and evangelism for her spiritual needs. So you may be the only Jesus this person will ever know. We will talk about Jesus, but you can’t force Christ on anyone. Unless a person is drawn by their own calling, they will not come.
Under1000skies: Dr. Bell, it has been such an honor and a privilege to speak to you today. Thank you so much for the beautiful work you and everyone at Sheltering Grace are doing. If there’s anything else I can do to serve you or the participants and their babies in the future please don’t hesitate to let me know.
Dr. Bell: Thank you so much. I will.
How to contact Sheltering Grace to help or if you are in need of help.
Sheltering Grace Ministry
797 Roswell Street
Marietta, GA 30060
In-Spired (“Filled with Spirit”)
Just a quick postscript. As I mentioned, safety, education, fully supporting the mom and baby together, these are close to my heart. I think that not only is the Sheltering Grace plan brilliant and inspired, but that Dr. Bell’s love and compassion for the women and babies he serves is at the very core of who they are. It just filled me with so much joy to talk to Dr. Bell last week. I wish him, the moms, staff and volunteers at Sheltering Grace every success. Every city in the world needs a Sheltering Grace. May theirs be the first one of many more!
So my husband and I talked about it and decided that we are going to be one of the 5000. We signed up this morning. Ten bucks a month – that’s about the price of two cups of coffee at Starbucks (not that we ever go there). This is a small gift, but one that will bring big, big dividends in the years to come. I hope they get all 5000. I’ll be writing to Dr. Bell too with some ideas I’ve had since we spoke last, and that includes sending enough artist packs, once we can get 12 together, for every mom currently in residence at Sheltering Grace.
Thank you for reading. Have a wonderful weekend and may you find joy every day of your journey through life,
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