Vol. 19, No. 2
The Hope Center of Latvia: Help for Unwed Mothers
Latvia’s Daunting Road to Recovery
Latvia is a country struggling to recover from a half-century of occupation by a foreign, atheistic, totalitarian regime. Soviet rule undermined much of the social fabric of Latvian society and created a climate of distrust. God and church were seen as enemies to be conquered and eliminated.
Along with efforts at economic recovery, Latvia is struggling to retrieve its spiritual compass and respect for human dignity. The difficulty, however, is that volunteerism is just beginning to reappear. Many feel helpless and frustrated with Latvia’s lack of necessary funds to support a social welfare network that would guarantee some sort of minimal living standard for its less fortunate citizens. Alcoholism has had an impact on almost every family in Latvia. Its consequences include dysfunctional families, verbal and sexual abuse, as well as economic destitution. Increasing numbers of common law marriages frequently end with many single mothers raising children, a pattern that has become multi-generational.
The United Methodist Church in Latvia is in the process of rebirth after Soviet occupation led to the closure of all Methodist churches following World War II. Thirteen small congregations which have reopened since the fall of Communism are determined to spread the good news of the gospel throughout Latvia. They are helped and nurtured by support from other United Methodist congregations around the world. Nevertheless, in the current difficult economic conditions, it is hard to find ways to fulfill God’s mission to help the needy.
Hope Center Beginnings
The Hope Center in Latvia was born out of a deep desire to serve God by ministering to the outcasts of society, in particular, to provide new beginnings for young, single mothers and their babies.Through prayer, God put on our hearts the plight of young single women who were pregnant and who wanted to keep their babies. However, in the face of economic hardship and lack of living space, many of these young women thought they had no choice other than abortion. To address this concern we established the Hope Center, a non-profit organization that provides expectant single mothers with shelter and support, giving them a viable alternative to abortion.
In our first six months of operation, when all our work was still in the planning stage, God sent us a young homeless woman who was eight months pregnant. She either spent her nights in a bus terminal or went home with any stranger who would take her in. Helping this young woman proved to be a true challenge and leap of faith for us. At the same time, caring for her became the birth of the mission God gave us—to help underaged, pregnant teens, the discards of society, who had been both mentally and physically abused and who had searched for love in all the wrong places. The Hope Center became a haven for young women who either had no place to live or came from orphanages or less-than-adequate crisis centers. What is true of all of our young women is that they have no loving families embracing them, and they have never had loving mothers as models. Each of these young, injured souls needs the example of a loving mother who can provide for her. Each expectant mother needs to experience family life that will allow her to bond with her baby and learn how to give her new baby proper care.
One mission of the Hope Center is to model motherhood, which is accomplished through the wonderful heart and example of Rigonda, our house mother. She has a burning passion for this ministry because she herself came from an abusive home. Despite a fractured homelife, she credits her mother for saving her life and instilling in her values that have given her an opportunity to be a good and loving mother to her own children. It is her mission in life not only to teach parenting skills but to be a model of a loving mother for the young mothers in her charge in the hope that they will become loving mothers themselves.
Another mission of the Hope Center is to provide a safe environment for newborns for at least the beginning of their lives. A third mission is to teach young mothers how to budget their money to prepare them to accept responsibility and to properly care for their babies. It is not an easy mission because expectant mothers join our “family” regardless of their ability to pay. We also give consultations on effective networking with government social services. In addition, our Hope Center office in Riga collects and distributes used baby clothing and baby food to mothers who come for help.
We always stretch our available funds to cover as many needs as possible.We are funded mainly by donations from loving believers who have heard God’s call to aid in this ministry. It is hard to establish a working budget when we have no definite income except a small amount government social services provides for some of those coming from orphanages. Nevertheless, God has been faithful, and we have never lacked for funds. Our 24-hour nannies and our house mother are all underpaid, but they understand how desperately they are needed by the young mothers. We also have the assistance of a part-time psychologist, which meets a legal requirement. To date, we have been able to help over 200 young women.
The Center has two facilities, one working and one temporarily closed. High heating costs have forced us for the present to close our largest facility deep in the country. With seven fully furnished bedrooms, it operated for several years. Our currently functioning facility is in Liepa, located on the second floor of the United Methodist Church of Liepa. It can accommodate six mothers and their children and has one on-duty nanny. It is the more cramped of the two facilities, but is also less expensive to run. We hope to reopen our larger facility in the future.
The Hope Center is the only home of its kind in Latvia. The few other centers in our country focus on offering shelter and food for women in crisis, but they do not prepare mothers for independent living. In contrast, we teach life skills, parenting skills, cleanliness, and proper food preparation essential for the wellbeing of babies.
“Ruth” came to us because she had become pregnant and refused to have an abortion. At 15, she had experienced incredible neglect and abuse: her father was unknown, her mother a drug dealer and addict. At age ten Ruth’s mother locked her and her ten-month-old baby brother in their apartment and disappeared. Ruth did her best to keep her baby brother alive and the two of them from starving. They were saved by the police who found them while trying to find evidence against the mother for drug dealing. Ruth and her baby brother were put into separate orphanages. The baby brother was so neglected that he is now mentally and physically handicapped.
Ruth’s orphanage provided little oversight. She ended up living in a car with three other orphans. When they needed money, the two boys in the group would act as pimps for the two girls. Ruth became pregnant by one of the boys who started to abuse her physically. Frightened for her unborn child, she went to the police who brought her to the Hope Center. Ruth had never had any nurturing, any normalcy, anything that would be an example to follow in the future. It took her a full, frightened, tearful month to finally begin to trust us. We were there to hold her hand and comfort her when the doctor predicted heart problems for her baby. When the doctor unceremoniously annnounced that the baby’s intestines were growing outside the body cavity, we were there to assure her that her unborn child was not a monster growing in her belly. We were there to hold her through all the tears, fright, and doubts. We were there to rejoice with her when a healthy baby boy was born with no heart problems. We were there to help after the operation to correct the intestinal problem.
The police brought “Anna” to the Hope Center. She had been camping out in a tent in a park in Riga. She was afraid of institutions, afraid that they would take her baby since she was six months pregnant with another child. This young mother had strong survival instincts despite having experienced an incredibly difficult life. Her first baby was born with indeterminant sex organs. She had to decide whether the baby would be raised as a male or a female. She had no family and no friends to help her with this overwhelmingly confusing and complicated issue. We surrounded her with friendship, love, and a safe environment. We took her to experts who helped her understand the issues. We were with her when she gave birth to her beautiful second baby and helped her understand that both babies must be loved and treated equally.
“Lana,” with Downs Syndrome, was our first mentally challenged young mother. Her mother is also mentally challenged and an alcoholic. Lana became pregnant by a boy who had his own serious problems. One day, this youth, suffering from depression, committed suicide by running in front of a moving train, with Lana as an eyewitness. Lana later gave birth to a son, but she was frightened by him. She did not know how to care for him, and she was afraid to bathe him. Government social services brought her to the Hope Center with the understanding that the baby would be taken away from Lana unless she could learn to care for him. Lana and her infant arrived so filthy and dirty that their clothes were immediately thrown away. Seven months later, Lana and her baby were able to leave the Center. Lana knew how to bathe and care for her baby. Social services found her a job and a day care center for her baby and watches over the family to make sure that Lana’s mother does not spend all of Lana’s money on alcohol.
Each of our “family” members has her own tragic story. Each one can stay with us until we are sure that she has found an appropriate place to live. Each one knows when she leaves our home that she can always turn to us for help. Many of our young mothers continue to stay in contact with us, sharing news of their lives.
The Helping Hands and Feet of God
Not all stories have happy endings, but we know that seeds have been sown and that the love, the nurturing, and the teaching our young mothers have received will sooner or later help them. The task of the Hope Center is to be the helping hands and feet of God and the loving heart of God in order to follow that great commandment to love each other and to take care of the less fortunate. We are trying to help break the vicious cycle of dysfunctional families into which our young mothers have been born. We ask for your prayers for these young women and their babies. Because Christ first loved us and gave His life for all, no one is undeserving of our help and care. F
Gita Mednis is superintendent of the United Methodist Church in Latvia.