Tammi Hess was behind bars when she learned she was 4 weeks pregnant.
Booked into the Douglas County Jail on a drug possession charge, Hess was 36, and an addict. Once released, she moved into Bethlehem House, an innovative residential facility for homeless, pregnant women.
A dozen years later, Hess can still be found at Bethlehem House, just not as a resident. She returned as a caseworker to help residents.
“My job is to build them up,” she said, “encourage them to do the next right thing.”
Bethlehem House aids women in crisis who are ready to make substantial changes in their lives.
“We want to teach women to fish, not give them fish,” said Holly Sak, executive director, describing Bethlehem House as a “bridge out of poverty, addiction and unhealthy relationships.”
Bethlehem House is not a shelter. Applicants must follow program rules: get their GED or take college classes, work at the nonprofit’s thrift store (the Humble Lily), work at another job, and complete in-house, evening classes on topics ranging from financial literacy and healthy eating to parenting and religion. The program also tackles the tougher issues of domestic violence, codependency and drug and alcohol addiction.
It’s a huge step and commitment. While nearly 200 women inquire about the program each year, only about two dozen actually move in.
“They have to be at that point where they are ready to make a major change,” Sak said.
The average age of a resident is 27. About half are battling drug or alcohol addiction, and nearly everyone has been physically or sexually abused.
Residents of the former Sisters of Mercy convent at 2301 S. 15th St. are like a big family, Sak said. Women experience a calm, loving environment, where they learn to trust and have the opportunity to grieve.
New arrivals to the house operate in crisis mode, coping with pregnancy and addiction. They haven’t had the chance to cope with losses in their lives — lost relationships, lost opportunities. Some women grieve the loss of children taken away by the courts.
“We are known for reunification,” Sak said of Bethlehem House working with the court system.
The nonprofit relies on volunteers and donations to fix up the house, create an inventory for the thrift store, and provide baby and household goods for the women to take with them when they move out. Scholarships also are available to the moms to help buy a car, cover a security deposit on an apartment or help pay for an education.
After eight to 12 months, the moms move out to a safe, low-income apartment. But they don’t leave the program. For six more months, a case manager places weekly calls to make sure they are on-track with their new lifestyle changes. Moms also attend Thursday night “meet-ups” with other Bethlehem House graduates sponsored by several churches. Caseworkers continue to meet the needs of the graduates for several years afterward.
This fall, construction is expected to begin on a four-story apartment building on a nearby vacant lot that will provide classrooms and low-income housing for graduates as Bethlehem House expands its after-care services.
The program appears to be working. Of the 227 women who have lived in the house since it opened in 2005, 70 percent are employed, 65 percent have their own car, 87 percent maintain stable, independent living, and 70 percent no longer need government assistance.
Hess is one of those successes.
“It changed my life,” she said of Bethlehem House.
She learned to focus on goals she set for herself rather than on her bad choices. And when her baby died shortly after birth, she had support from the people at Bethlehem House so she never felt alone.
Although she had an associate’s degree in accounting, she went back to school to get her certification in counseling and case management and came back to work at Bethlehem House.
“God prevails,” she said. “He puts you in situations where you belong. He prepared me to be here.”