“Open Door” church talk
OPEN DOOR CHURCH TALK
Presented by Edith Krause on April 30th.
- describe what it was
morning drop-in for single moms and their preschool aged children, 1985 – 1999
- how it came to be
project of LMF Peace and Social Concerns Committee
Maureen Richardson and I worked on getting it started
Maureen and Rob had lived in townhouse complex in Aldergrove, many single moms for neighbours, saw the need
I had been talking with Alice Klassen, who was at that time working as a social worker in Aldergrove, and also heard about the needs of single parent families in that community, that there were few support services for people until things got very dire, at which point, often children were simply put into foster care. But there were no respite services – no daycare offered to mothers in crisis, no funding to pay for childcare, so women who didn’t have family or friends around who they could go to for help, were on their own, without any relief. On top of this, they were living in sub-standard housing on poverty-level incomes. It was an eye-opener to me when Alice commented to me how these people who were the least equipped to manage at all were expected to manage with so little, a feat requiring managerial brilliance. The situation was particularly difficult in Aldergrove, because there was no reliable public transportation, at that time, no community centre or any other kind of services women could access; the situation was better in Langley, because there was a centre where people could go for help, and there was better public transportation into metro Vancouver.
Rob and Maureen met Elvira Corbin at the Missions Fest – they were there manning the MCC booth and Elvira had a booth for Open Door, a service that she and women from her church, Capilano Community Church, had started.
Elvira was an ER nurse and one night she cared for a 12 year old girl who had been shot by her mother. The woman had also shot and killed her 15 year old son, and then attempted suicide. This woman was so desperate she could see no other way out of her situation. She had no family to turn to, so Elvira decided to start a service that could provide the kind of support that family would provide – two mornings a week of free babysitting, and a place for mothers to meet, chat, uninterrupted by the demands of their children. They also provided free lunch and a food bank service, had annual clothing drives, and special meals for holidays.
We decided to start a similar group in Aldergrove.
- how we organized it
We realized from the start that our church alone didn’t have the resources to do this so we connected with people from other churches. Maureen’s mom was a member of the Aldergrove United Church, so we asked if we could use their building; they agreed. I believe in the first year or so we even had some volunteers from the United Church. I had connections with Bethel Mennonite, and we got many volunteers from that church. From there we also connected with South Langley MB and North Langley MB. Volunteers also invited their friends to help. From our church, probably most of the women my age and older helped out at one time or another. Sheryl Plenert ran the preschool program for many years, with help from Bev Short, Carol Driedger, Margie Klassen, Carolyn Braun, Joanne Brown (Linda Wheeler’s sister); Inge Rollins, Peggy Gustafson, Esther Northey and her sister Elsie were our main cooks. Many women from the other churches helped as well. Is there anyone else I’ve forgotten? Many of the volunteers were women who were stay-at-home moms, with small children or young children just starting school, so Open Door was a good place to volunteer, because it took place within school hours, and women could bring their preschoolers with them to the program. Other volunteers were women who were retired or only worked part-time and had the time to contribute. Some volunteers came every morning, some came only once a month. It didn’t matter – we were happy for everyone who was willing to help.
- describe what we did
For the first year or two, we had Open Door every Tuesday and Thursday morning at the Aldergrove United Church, but as our volunteers roster waned, we dropped to one morning a week. We advertised at the local social services offices and elementary schools; once a few women started coming, they told their neighbours. At the peak we had about 20 families that we were serving.
The Aldergrove United Church was a really great place for us because it was close enough to Aldergrove that women could walk (a bit of a hike but doable); also, the Aldergrove Food Bank was run out of the United Church, so women could pick up some groceries after Open Door. At some point, the church decided to sell the building, and we moved Open Door to our building in Langley, at 198 St. and 56 Ave.; our clientele changed somewhat – this was happening each year anyways, as children began attending school. We stayed there for several years until we sold that building; for two years, while our church was being built, we met in the Christian Reformed Church on 72 Ave. In 1998, when our church was built, we moved Open Door here, and ran it for one year.
Open Door provided licensed childcare; all our volunteers had to have criminal records checks, the space for the program complied with regulations, etc., so that the moms could be assured that we were providing quality care for their children. The program started at 9:30 and went til 12:30; we found that a structured preschool program was the easiest to manage with the kids. A lot of the kids were used to just sitting in front of a TV and needed some guidance in activities, so craft time, story time, singing, active games, were all a part of guiding them through activities. A snack first thing helped a lot with behavior problems – we discovered this the first Christmas, when the volunteers were trying to get the kids to string popcorn to decorate the tree and the kids kept gobbling up the popcorn. We realized that a lot of the kids weren’t getting breakfast, so we started giving them a snack first thing; as soon as we fed them, they settled down. The moms could just drop off their kids and leave, or stay and visit with other moms. We always had coffee and tea and muffins; there was also a craft activity – we found that it was much easier for the women to start to connect around a craft activity, than just sitting around a table staring at each other. We also found that the crafts were a huge confidence builder, that being able to make something beautiful really built their self-esteem.
We also provided a hot lunch for the moms and the kids, separately, so that the moms could have at least one uninterrupted meal once a week. Many of our cooks went out of their way to make really nice lunches for the moms – Inge Rollins especially always made sure there were flowers on the table and pretty napkins. After lunch, for those moms interested, we had a short Bible Study. Most of the moms stayed for this, largely I guess because it was an extra half hour time off from their kids.
We also provided a space for clothing exchanges, with donations from the supporting churches. For holidays, like Thanksgiving, Valentines, Easter, Mother’s Day, we would have special meals and treats. At Christmas we had an evening dinner and program with moms and kids; at the end of each year, in June, we had a field trip picnic in the park, with outdoor games for the kids. For Mothers’ Day and Valentines, we often had care packages, with chocolates and toiletries, for the mothers. On a couple of occasions, we had hairdressers come in to cut hair.
Open Door was not without its challenges. There were disputes among the mothers, some feeling that others had it better. One of our rules was that the service was only open for single mothers, but we made a few exceptions. One of our moms was severely handicapped from years of unmanaged type 1 diabetes; a couple of other mothers had husbands who were addicts, with unpredictable behavior and using all of the family’s resources to support their habit, arguably a worse situation than being single. Some of the single moms objected; at one point we had to reach out to CJI for an intervention, which the counselor said was the most intractable situation he had even encountered. There were also the predictable incidents of head lice, which was not good for volunteer retention, children with severe behavior problems, mothers bringing sick children to Open Door and spreading around the cheer, etc. These kinds of difficulties led the husband of one of our volunteers to nickname Open Door as “Open Sore”.
There were also moments of real joy and empathy. I recall an incident that happened while we were meeting at our old church; the women’s program met in the house next to the church on 56 Ave, and the water pipes were really in bad shape; whenever anyone used the water, the pipes would moan and groan, very loudly. One day, one of the moms, who had FAS and was severely challenged, was talking about her life, a story of unbelievable tragedy. As she wept, the empathy of other women was obvious in their tears. When nothing more could be said, the water pipes suddenly started to moan, breaking the silence, and the entire group of women burst into laughter. It was a moment of transcendent healing, for the entire group. For the children too, the example set by the volunteers, and I think too by the volunteer’s children, who were coming from stable homes and had learned how to play nicely with others, these examples really rubbed off on some of the kids we were ministering to. I think what was very telling was that we had a few children who really acted out at Open Door, and their mothers couldn’t believe that this was happening, because their children were fine at home. But I think that Open Door provided a safe place for these children to vent their frustrations, something that they wouldn’t be able to do at home without fairly negative repercussions.
- why it ended
Over the time from 1985 to 1999, there were some significant changes to the public support services for single moms and children. In 1985, when we started Open Door, there were no public services for single moms with preschoolers; by 1999, public services had improved to the point where single parent families at risk were provided with full-time daycare, 5 days a week, if they required it. Some of our moms were actually taking their kids out of daycare to bring them to Open Door, but most women didn’t bother, so by June of 1999, we had only 2 families coming to Open Door, and those children were moving on to school in the fall. Many of our volunteers were ready to move on to something new, and it wasn’t possible to inspire new volunteers when we couldn’t demonstrate a real need, so it was time to close the door.