The spirit of Christmas is alive and well at an aptly named shelter for homeless expectant mothers

By Annie Ferguson  •  Photographs by Amy Freeman
Read the original article in O.Henry Magazine here

There’s something extraordinary happening in Greensboro’s Historic Aycock Neighborhood, where Queen Annes, Tudor Revivals, Dutch Colonials, and Arts-and-Crafts–style bungalows stately sit along tree-lined drives. On Park Avenue in particular, you’ll find a lot of activity, both visible and invisible, at the former Sternberger Mansion, a large home inspired by Victorian and American Foursquare architecture that was built in 1898 on Summit Avenue and later moved to its current location.

The building is now the Mary C. Nussbaum Maternity Home, where the lives of pregnant, homeless women are transformed into ones of hope through the support of Room at the Inn, the only licensed maternity home in Guilford County that accepts women of all ages — and one of only eight licensed maternity homes in North Carolina. The nonprofit organization provides shelter, counseling, child care for clients’ older children, transportation and more during the pregnancies of women from across the state — from Murphy to Manteo.

O.Henry Magazine article about Room at the Inn

After the babies arrive, women who have graduated from the program can stay at what’s affectionately called Amy’s House next door while attending college. Women waiting for an opening in the maternity home may also stay there. Donations from Francis and Patty Disney of Our Lady of Grace Church, the Greater Greensboro Builders and collaboration with local churches have made Amy’s House and the college program possible.

“We began our support of Room at the Inn after losing a child,” says Patty Disney. “My husband and I saw Room at the Inn as a means of strengthening our belief in the gift of life and that God has a plan for each soul.” Disney says her family’s involvement with the organization began with the initial hands-on renovations of the Mary Nussbaum House. Later, they were able to help
Room at the Inn expand with the college program. “God’s providence offered funds to support the establishment of Amy Elizabeth Disney Home. We believe in offering a place for the women and children while they get the support they need to get a step up on providing for their families.”

The Disneys and many others in the community have truly rallied behind the organization with the aim of providing as much room as possible. Cherry Street United Methodist Church began offering space to Room at the Inn in 2005 through The Back Yard Ministry.

Now let’s take a look back at how all of these developments came to be. Room at the Inn’s genesis was in the early 1990s in the living room of the rectory at St. Benedict Catholic Church on West Smith Street. Gate City native Albert Hodges along with the pastor and several other parishioners were sitting around a table discussing a serious need. “A good number of us were inspired to get involved in efforts to help pregnant women and their unborn children, especially in the Greensboro area,” explains Hodges, whose grandfather moved to the city in 1920 to work at Cone Mills. “We were largely supported in our efforts by the pastor of Saint Benedict at the time, Father Conrad Kimbrough.” (Kimbrough passed away in 2011.) After the decision was made, Hodges, now Room at the Inn’s president and CEO, went to Good Counsel Homes in New York and New Jersey to learn how such ministries operate. Maternity homes opened in Charlotte and Raleigh too, but the three efforts later went their separate ways. In Greensboro, with the help of forty-five church organizations, various community leaders and along with Disney Construction Co., the home was completely renovated from a run-down triplex into a home that can house six women and their children. It opened in 2001.

Since then, the organization, which is affiliated with the Catholic Church, has served more than 400 women of all faiths and became accredited by the Council on Accreditation in 2010. Room at the Inn is the only Catholic maternity home in the Southeast with this national recognition. Although clients are invited to attend a place of worship of their choice, they are not required to. Hodges is proud of the accreditation since most charities that earn this recognition have millions of dollars, and Room at the Inn operates on a “shoestring budget.” But what speaks to Hodges’ heart of hearts, more than any outcome, statistic or official recognition, are the life-altering changes he and his staff have helped foster over the years.

“The mothers must make the decision on their own to change their lives, and we are here to support them as much as possible,” he says. Nicki, one of the first women to stay at the home, apparently caused some problems when she was living in the house. Hodges decided to have what people like to call a “come-to-Jesus” talk with her. “I said, ‘You know this isn’t a prison; you don’t have to stay here, but we don’t have to keep you either,’” Hodges explains with visible emotions. Afterward, the young woman proceeded to change her attitude and land a job, which led to finding her own home. When it came time for Nicki to leave the maternity home, she pulled Hodges aside and said, “You know, Albie, this place changed my life. I feel wholesome now.”

The organization has enjoyed impressive outcomes and success stories, including moms who have graduated from college with honors and a mom who earned a standing ovation in court for turning her life around. Yet Hodges says he can’t imagine a better outcome than knowing someone who once felt broken now feels complete.

“Albert Hodges’ whole life is this agency and these women,” says Marianne Donadio, who met Hodges at St. Benedict. “He’s a father figure to the women, women who have grown up without that male figure in their life. It’s nice to see that dynamic.”

Donadio volunteered as Room at the Inn was getting its start and for many years later. Five years ago Hodges hired her as the vice president of marketing and development. “Everyone has a story. You see someone on the street, and you just don’t know what they’ve been through, and it’s easy to make rash judgments,” Donadio says. “I enjoy the one-on-ones with the clients that allow me to get to know them and their stories. It’s not just generic information about the program that I share. I talk about our mothers, and the people relate to them. It’s much more convincing when I know closely what’s going on.” One of Donadio’s major responsibilities is planning the annual fundraising banquet in October, an enormous undertaking. This year’s event set a record by raising $150,000. More inspiring was the speaker: Immaculée Ilibagiza, a Rwandan genocide survivor and best-selling author who spoke on mercy and forgiveness.

With all of the activity in the home and of running the organization overall, Hodges shies away from the spotlight. “It’s really about the mothers and the amazing staff,” he says, mentioning Donadio; Jason Melton, support services manager; and Edith Clifford, vice president of administrative operations; and Sally Foroudi, the volunteer coordinator of baby showers and after-care resource center. Then Hodges mentions a more-recent staff addition.

“Danielle Dean is our residential supervisor. I’ve never had a house manager who could enforce the rules the way she does while still being respected and loved by the women who live there,” he says.

After just one year on staff, Dean feels at home, too. “I oversee the mothers, interview them when they come in, and basically provide them with everything they need resource wise: transportation to doctor appointments, attendance with clients at court, help getting them enrolled into child care centers in the area,” says Dean, who has fifteen years of professional child care experience and is studying to earn her bachelor’s degree in Birth through Kindergarten Education at North Carolina Central University. “We do parenting classes here as well. I try to teach them the proper way to raise healthy, thriving children and have a healthy pregnancy. I also do the food program to help ensure they’re getting the proper meals each day, so they’re balanced according to state regulations.” In March, Dean became a certified labor coach so she can be a support system for the moms who don’t have anyone in that role. Dean’s role has a special significance to her. “I felt this was a calling because I was down in the dumps. On November 1, 2015, I applied for what was going to be a part-time job doing childcare and parenting classes. I was full time before the end of the year,” she says. Dean hesitated to go in before her first visit, until Melton came outside to welcome her. “I walked through the doors, and I felt this is where I need to be. Hodges hired Dean the same day.

A year on, Dean says she feels like she’s the house mom. Everyone loves it when she cooks chicken and waffles.

“The children don’t even talk during those meals, so it must be good,” she says with a smile. “You’re not just here for a paycheck,” she reflects. “I’m a missionary right here in our local town of Greensboro.” OH

Annie Ferguson was fortunate to have Danielle Dean teach both of her children when they were toddlers. To support Room at the Inn, visit roominn.org, like them on Facebook or sign up for the fifteenth Annual Amy Elizabeth Disney Memorial Golf Tournament on May 4.