By Alicia Doyle

The Writer
Specializing in Good News
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Tender Life gives mothers-to-be a place to reinvent themselves

Photo by Dana Rene Bowler: Vanessa De La O hugs her daughter Faith, 1, with her housemate Araceli Corral close by during playtime at the Tender Life Maternity Home & Women's Shelter in Ventura.

December 17, 2008/Ventura County Star

Pregnant and homeless at 29 years old, Vanessa De La O would have had nowhere else to go were it not for a maternity home and women's shelter that serves a unique population of expectant mothers and their babies who find themselves with no place to live.

"If it weren't for this organization, I would most likely be in some pad in Oxnard, on dope, no job, no college," said De La O, a resident at Tender Life Maternity Home & Women's Shelter in Ventura since June.

Now 30 with a 6-month-old baby girl named Faith, De La O is a student at CSU Channel Islands with plans to pursue a career in acting.

"Because of Tender Life, I am now in college made good friends and going in a good direction," she said. "I am sincerely grateful that Tender Life took Faith and I in. It is because of Tender Life that my future is so very positive."

De La O is among more than 1,000 women who have gone through Tender Life in its 23 years. Currently, there are five women staying in the maternity home and two mothers with children living in a separate transition house.

A faith-based organization, Tender Life was founded to give women who wanted to carry their babies to term a place to go, said Robin Fosler, executive director. Clients are at least 18 years, and the oldest client was 40 when she gave birth.

"Our clients need only want to make a change in their life," Fosler said. "No mother wants her baby born homeless."

The program is considered a "life-healing process," so the girls must agree to simple house rules like shared chores, as well as attend classes in parenting, wellness, self-esteem and Bible studies.

"The requirements are designed to build skills the women need to become independent and self-supporting," Fosler said. The maternity home is a restored Victorian residence in the older part of Ventura, where two women typically share one room. Shared activities include cooking inside a state-of-the-art kitchen, and breaking bread together in the dining room for evening meals.

The moms gather for meetings or classes in a living room with a fireplace, or retreat in a postpartum sitting room to regenerate. There also is a prayer garden for mothers to study or meditate.

A three-bedroom cottage behind the maternity home serves as a living quarters for the house mom, who comes on duty at 3:30 each afternoon and eats with the moms, facilitates meetings, and is on call 24/7 should anyone go into labor.

The transition house also is an older Victorian, where two families are housed at a time.

"The women are allowed to bring other children here if they have them," Fosler said.

The circumstances revolving around the mothers are as diverse as the moms themselves.

"The women have been rejected by family, have no family, gone through drug rehab or simply don't have the life skills to support themselves and their babies," Fosler said. "Without Tender Life, many of them would end up on the street."

Take, for example, 20-year-old Brittany Owen, who would be "going house to house or a hostel."

"Another thing that Tender Life has done was bring my family close to me and respecting me for making my choice keeping this baby," said Owen, who heard about the program through the Ventura Crisis Center.

A resident since August, she said, "I have become more independent as a woman and more responsible than before."

Seanna Olivas and her daughter, Joy, would likely be "back and forth between my mom's, baby's dad, grandma's and probably still in active addiction" if it weren't for Tender Life.

"Joy and I feel as Tender Life is our home," said Olivas, 23. "It's a safe place to come home to every day."

For Carolyn Kleider Arenas, whose baby is due in April, the organization provides "a wonderful opportunity and once-in-a-lifetime chance to get my life back together and live a happy, healthy and sober life."

Araceli Corral, 25, decided to stay at Tender Life "because they accepted me with open arms." Due in April, she appreciates the organization for "helping me put my life in order and bringing me closer to God."

For the women who enter the maternity home and continue through the transition house, the success rate is more than 90 percent, Fosler said.

"We have many we keep in contact with," she said. For instance, once a year at Christmastime, the moms get together for a family celebration. "This year's event will culminate in Santa arriving with a gift for every child."

The work of Tender Life is vital to the community, because these women and children would otherwise be dependent on government support and many of the children would end up in foster care, Fosler emphasized.

"And since we continue many of the moms on a sobriety road, we save them and the community from a life of addiction and its legal implications."

Valerie Morales, 28, doesn't know where she'd be today if it weren't for her first visit to Tender Life in 2005.

"The thoughts are sometimes endless, knowing I could still be on the streets, in jail or even dead," said Morales, who became a part of the program when pregnant with her son, Jacob.

While living in a safe, nurturing environment, she was able to graduate from an outpatient program called Miracles for Moms, and has remained clean and sober nearly four years. She has since graduated from Ventura College and is majoring in psychology at CSU Channel Islands.

"I can't even begin to explain how much Tender Life impacted my life and gave me the desire to turn my whole life around," Morales said. "I want to thank all the people behind the scenes as well as all the staff for keeping the program open all these years so that young women can have a second chance at life."

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