An old stroller brought Beth Barden to Florence Crittenton Services. A friend had suggested she donate it to the residential program for young unwed mothers. That one small act soon led Barden to her true calling.
Barden, a Charlotte native and mother of two boys – Oliver, 4, and Sullivan, 18 months – was struck by the plight of the girls she met at the agency, which was established in 1903 to provide young moms with support, parenting lessons, life skills and more.
“It’s always piqued my curiosity that these girls are so much younger, most don’t have the father in the picture, and are trying to finish their education. Their days are so much fuller than mine, but even at 15, the feelings you have as a mom are the same across the board.”
Barden was touched by the girls at Florence Crittenton Services, especially those living at Sarah’s House, a residential facility for single adolescent mothers between 14 and 18 who are in legal custody of the Department of Social Services.
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Contemplating her most prized possessions as a mother, she realized that she had one thing that the girls at Sarah’s House did not: photos and albums showing her with her children. “Cameras are a luxury item,” Barden says, “and a lot of the girls don’t have photo albums. I knew I could come with my little camera and wander around outside with the girls and their children.”
Barden’s informal photography sessions were always a source of excitement for the girls at Sarah’s House, who “ran around getting ready like it was the prom,” Barden says. After taking pictures of the young moms, Barden would return with prints and photo albums for the girls, who treasured these tokens that many take for granted.
What began as a simple volunteer photography project quickly grew into something more. Barden always met the girls in the Sarah’s House living room, and with her interest in interior design, Barden lamented the less-than-homey feel of the room, with its outdated furniture, mismatched décor, and clashing colors. “I thought about this room every time I came to take pictures,” she says.
Barden was soon invited to join a focus group at the agency, where they discussed ways to bring more volunteers who were moms to the center, hoping to give the young moms at Sarah’s House a chance to interact with mothers in the larger Charlotte community.
“We have a special connection with area moms, given the population of mothers and at-risk women we help,” says Katie Rozycki, development specialist for Florence Crittenton Services. “We can really benefit from their wisdom, guidance and resourcefulness.”
A member of the focus group casually suggested a room makeover project. Barden immediately knew that she had found her calling. “I was like, ‘Me! Me! I want the Sarah’s House living room!’”
Spreading the word Barden used her blog, Momsie (www.momsiecharlotte.com), a source of interior design tips, parenting hints and the inside scoop on local activities for parents and children, to spread the word about her new project. “I had a little audience going with my blog, and I had always had a link to Florence Crittenton Services on the homepage, so from there it was an easy tie-in. I knew FCS would tug the heart-strings of my readers, just as it had mine.”
Barden gathered her forces, from friends to strangers to her own children. A book drive in March collected reading materials for the room. “Oliver was all about the books!” she says of her son. Local vendors donated supplies, and Barden and her friends buckled down for a week of labor and redecorated the living room, from the carpet to the cabinets to the couch.
Initially a hobby, interior design grew into a more serious interest for Barden. “Interior design is kind of my forte, and I love doing it. I am like an expert budget shopper, so I knew I could do this even working with a smaller budget,” she says.
The walls were painted, the kitchen cabinets replaced, the furniture updated, and shelves filled with books by the end of the week. The central living space for the moms of Sarah’s House was now a bright, light room that shone with life. “I wanted this room to be more of a home for them,” Barden says. “We were recognizing how hard it is to be a mom, so we wanted to do something special for them.”
After a week of decorating and renovating, Beth and her fellow volunteers revealed the new room to the excited girls. “That was the best part, the girls coming in the day I was finishing up in here. They were like, ‘It’s a home! Everything matches!’ and that was exactly what I wanted to hear. It made everything worthwhile.”
Feeling ‘at home’
“The living room and kitchen are so pretty. I love it,” says one client of Sarah’s House. “It feels so ‘homey’ - like out of an HGTV show!” (The client is not being named for confidentiality reasons.)
Sarah’s House is just that – a house and a home – for these young moms. “Florence Crittenton Services is truly home to our clients — and probably the safest, cleanest and healthiest living environment they’ve ever been in,” Rozycki says. “It’s important to us to make them feel as ‘at home’ as possible, given their difficult circumstances, and we rely heavily on supporters like Beth to provide this important resource.”
Barden continues to volunteer at Sarah’s House and admits to occasionally viewing the redecorated living room as a home for her, too. “I find myself straightening and organizing when I come by, like it’s my own living room,” she says.
For now, Barden is brainstorming more projects and has several more rooms at Sarah’s House that she would like to tackle.
Interior design aside, what is most important to the girls of Sarah’s House is seeing ordinary women, and mothers, like Barden taking the time to bring light into the lives of these young mothers.
“Beth’s support means so much more than simply designing a sophisticated living room,” Rozycki says. “It models the importance of giving back to the community. Counselors and social workers can teach our clients the value of volunteerism, but the real impact on their lives is when they see it firsthand.”