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LOCAL HERO

Her 'Baby' Offers Support, Education for Moms in Need

August 15, 1996|LIBBY SLATE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Three years ago, Debora Unruh gave birth to her second child, Erik--and to an idea. In the hospital before her own labor was advanced, she saw a woman in labor who was alone. Unruh disconnected herself from her monitors and went to the woman's side to offer support. She learned that the mother-to-be lived on the streets, had been mainlining drugs and would be giving up her addicted newborn.

As it happened, Unruh had been serving on a task force to help determine the best use for a house that had been donated to her church, Pasadena Covenant Church. The idea of a shelter for pregnant women had been suggested, but no one had stepped forward to take charge. Inspired by her hospital encounter, Unruh offered her services.

The result is Elizabeth House, one of the few shelters in California to accept women in crisis pregnancy who already have children. Named for the daughter of donor Margo Goldsmith of Tustin, and for the biblical Mary's cousin, who took the pregnant Mary into her home, Elizabeth House opened two years ago, just seven months after Unruh began marshaling her forces. A volunteer during that hectic effort, Unruh now works three days a week as executive director.

"I had wanted to be a mom my whole life," says Unruh, 39, who is married to a psychotherapist and has an older son, Nicholas, 5. "But the task of parenthood was far more overwhelming than I ever dreamed it would be--and I had a lot of support. In the hospital I realized how much more overwhelming it must be for women in a different situation."

Such compassion is hardly surprising for a woman who trained at a seminary, considers Mother Teresa one of her heroes and spent three years in the Philippines as a missionary. Returning to the United States in 1988 to be married, Unruh later worked for an organization called Child SHARE (Shelter Homes: A Rescue Effort), which recruits foster parents.

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"I was constantly aware of children who came through the system abused and neglected," she recalls. "I thought, 'We're doing a wonderful job, but what are we doing to prevent these children from being in the system in the first place?' Child abuse begins in pregnancy, for the ones born to high-risk parents without an education or support."

A cheerful, cozy Craftsman home refurbished and decorated through volunteer services and donations, Elizabeth House has offered refuge to 28 women and 20 young children; not all of the women are already mothers. Besides medical care, residents receive a comprehensive program of classes in childbirth, nursing, parenting, cooking, finances and other topics, educational and career guidance, and individual and family psychotherapy. They must work or go to school, do volunteer work and attend a church of their choice.

The home accepts women who have been through drug rehabilitations, but is not equipped to offer rehab to current users. Prospective residents are interviewed by program director Terry Bright, who screens for their motivation in wanting to make positive changes.

"We feel we're not just out there to save babies," Unruh says. "We want to teach these women how to be parents." Those who make the cut can expect the children they already have to also benefit, from the safe, stable environment and the training. Once the women give birth, they can stay several more months, with staff and volunteers guiding a smooth transition to independence.

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One who has made that journey is Liz, 21, who says she left an abusive relationship when she became pregnant, stayed at Elizabeth House for seven months and now rents a room from a shelter volunteer. She named her daughter, now 6 months old, Elizabeth.

"I had a very big turnaround," says Liz, as she nurses her baby in the Elizabeth House office. "I came into this program with a lot of problems, and I left with a lot of function in my life. I can take care of Elizabeth myself, I have a car and I'm going to be going back to school to be a high school math teacher."

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