Steps of Faith

by Deborah Flagg

Wendy (Brown '94) Fox loves to take visitors through the rooms of her dream house. Nestled in the hills of West Covina, its hard wood floors gleam, walls and high ceilings are bright and expansive, several fireplaces await the chill of autumn evenings, and large picture windows offer a magnificent view of the valley below. Its grounds are replete with lemon, banana, and guava trees, while roses and bougainvillea line the brick walkways. "This is a place where body and spirit can be nurtured," said Fox. And indeed, it feels like sacred space.

Although this picture-perfect house does not belong to Fox, it is the realization of a dream that she has shared with Stacey (Blackburn '94) Gesinger for the past several years - one that was born in their undergraduate years at APU, when both women were involved in the Gateway Program, an APU ministry that reaches out to young mothers. "Back then, we were just casual acquaintances," said Gesinger. "But through this experience, we both discovered that we had a heart for young women trying to cope with the challenges of single parenthood." "Shortly after my experience with Gateway, a supervisor asked me to come up with a dream on paper," said Fox. If money, time, and resources were no obstacle, what would she do? "My answer was simple: I wanted to help homeless teen mothers become self-sufficient and able to survive - to live beyond poverty and pursue their goals."

A few years after graduation, the two women reconnected and discovered their shared vision: a safe place for women and children, and a comprehensive program that would prepare young, single mothers for a good and successful life. They would offer classes in parenting, health, and financial management. There would also be job training and placement, and computers where the women could do their homework or compose their résumés. A strong spiritual component, with Bible study and spiritual formation classes, would round out the program. And finally, they would help the women as they moved out of the program to find permanent housing and continuous support systems. "All of this happens within a 24-month period," said Gesinger. "Our program is long enough to incorporate a holistic emphasis, long enough to help a woman turn her life around."

With a solid plan in hand, they began to do their homework. "We networked with other agencies in the area who serve our intended target population: young mothers from low income families with little or no social support," said Fox.

Their research uncovered that the greatest need existed for a transitional program where young women exiting a traditional maternity home could find ongoing emotional and spiritual support, while gaining the skills necessary for independent living. Plenty of homes serve expecting mothers, but once their babies are born, many women are forced to leave. "There was a definite gap in the system," Fox said. "And this is where we could make a difference."

To provide credibility for their endeavor in Southern California, Fox and Gesinger aligned themselves with the West Coast Maternity Home Association. They also assembled a group of people with a variety of professional skills and experience to help them put shape to their vision. Within a few months, they wrote a business plan, applied for nonprofit status, outlined strategic goals, established a funding base, and formed an executive board. The Stepping Stones for Women ministry was born.

The rented house in West Covina, with its expansive common areas and lovingly appointed bedrooms, will soon be home to four young mothers and their children. The newly decorated individual rooms come complete with cribs and other child-friendly furnishings. Designed and prepared by volunteers, they sport fresh wallpaper and paint, crisp new bed linens, pictures, flowers, and area rugs. "Sometimes I just like to sit in these rooms and think of the young women who will soon occupy them," said Fox. "When I'm tired or discouraged, it renews my spirit."

The home will also offer a flesh-and-blood resource in Michelle Vaughn, the "house mom," who will provide round-the-clock guidance and supervision for the residents. "I hope to help nurture these young women and see them mature into beautiful people with a sense of balance and responsibility," she said. "Wendy and Stacey have the balance I would like to see the Stepping Stones women achieve. And they have an uncommon amount of wisdom and a vision for the future that is so refreshing."

Fox now devotes all of her time to the Stepping Stones for Women ministry. Serving as executive director, she concentrates on funding development and community relations. Gesinger, currently working toward a Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology: Marital and Family Therapy at APU, serves as the Stepping Stones program director, working with the house guests, volunteer instructors, and mentors to ensure an ongoing quality program. The two hope to welcome the first program participants (referrals from pregnancy support agencies in the area) this fall.

"We want to be the leading resource for young homeless moms and their children in Southern California," said Fox as she stands on the house's back porch and surveys the expanse of hills in front of her. The view seems fittingly apropos for their vision and hearts for service.

Deborah Flagg is a student at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, and a freelance writer living in Azusa. [email protected]