Merlene Davis: Florence Crittenton Home's need hasn't decreased, but funding has

"Florence Crittenton Home is struggling and probably more so than we have since the 1980s," began the email I received from Mary Venezie, executive director of the 117-year old facility for pregnant and parenting girls.

Venezie has had to lay off workers and institute other cost-cutting measures because the number of girls committed to the home by the state — girls who would otherwise be in foster care, living with relatives or homeless — is fewer than in years past. It is state funding for those girls that keeps the home's doors open and the lights on.

"We are a licensed treatment facility," Venezie said. "I have to provide everything in this building."

That can be expensive and it's not news that the federal government and states have cut back on programs and services. The decreased number of girls committed to the home by the state, though, doesn't mean the need has decreased. In fact, calls to the home for help have increased.

"In the last few months, we have gotten phone calls from young women begging to come live here," she said.

Most of the girls living in the home were placed there by the state. But a few girls were accepted who had nowhere else to go or whose home environments were unhealthy.

"Sometimes their parents are on drugs and not taking care of them," she said. "Some don't have food in the house."

Some have reached out to social services for help but for whatever reason their requests were denied. Those girls receive the same services, said Venezie, but the home doesn't receive any funding for them.

Most of the home's funding comes from the government. About 10 to 15 percent comes from church groups, the United Way, individuals and a benefit golf tournament.

There are advantages to living at Florence Crittenton. Girls can simply step out back to attend a Fayette County public school, walk down the hallway to a therapist for help resolving emotional problems, and reach out to staff who teach parenting skills. All the while, they can live in a safe environment.

Having a skilled staff is expensive, though.

"If the public could help us, we could serve more," she said.

On a recent inspection by the Office of the Inspector General, the home received zero deficiencies, Venezie said. "I know we do a good job. We don't warehouse the girls," she said.

The home is licensed for 12 girls and six babies. There are seven residents living there now with two babies. The public school on the grounds has 26 girls enrolled with a capacity for 32. Nineteen of those students live elsewhere but attend the two-classroom school which offers a non-judgmental environment where teen pregnancy is better understood.

"We teach childbirth and parenting classes in the rooms," Venezie said, adding that if a pregnant girl is sick or a new mom's breasts leak, it is not as big a deal as it likely would be in other school environments.

Some of those 19 girls have given birth and are juggling day care and bus routes just to get their diplomas.

Despite the cutbacks, volunteers are still helping at the home.

Members of the Man o' War Harley Owner's Group (HOG), Chapter 1873, are spending weekends knocking down a wall and hanging drywall to create a nursery for five of the children of those girls, Venezie said. Having a nursery on-campus helps alleviate one more stumbling block for teenage mothers.

"If the mothers are breastfeeding, they can leave class for a while and then return," she said. "At lunchtime, they can be with their babies. They don't have to wonder who is taking care of them."

The new nursery is just one part of the home's vision for the future. Through grant money, Venezie is also hoping to build two duplexes on the grounds to house four of the girls who are transitioning from state care to independence.

With apartments on the same grounds where they were nurtured through their pregnancies, the girls can earn diplomas or GEDs and continue their education by walking down Fourth Street to the Bluegrass Community and Technical College when it moves to the corner of West Fourth Street and Newtown Pike.

"We are also preparing to offer parenting and child birth classes for teens who do not live in our home," Venezie said.

More and more young teens in the community are being ordered by judges and social workers to complete a parenting class, she said. "We feel we have the expertise to offer these classes since we have been teaching these classes to our residents for 117 years."

All those plans are doable. The home, one of many nationwide established in the early 20th century to give young unwed mothers a place to give birth, simply needs help making ends meet.

"We have helped save the lives of thousands of young women and their babies and we are now asking for help to save Florence Crittenton Home," Venezie wrote in her email.

"To the families that were blessed to adopt a child from the Florence Crittenton Home, we need your help. To the young women who the Florence Crittenton Home touched their lives, we need your help. To the church women and men who helped build the Florence Crittenton Home, we need your help. To most every community or county in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, we have cared for a child or young women from your area, (and) we need your help."

Remember, a donation helps not only a pregnant girl, but also her child.