Facing deficit, Catherine’s House to close its doors Feb. 24

Jayron Johnson and Nadia Wynn learn yoga during the parenting class Feb. 2 at Catherine's House, a teen pregnancy program in Little Rock that is closing Feb. 24.
Jayron Johnson and Nadia Wynn learn yoga during the parenting class Feb. 2 at Catherine's House, a teen pregnancy program in Little Rock that is closing Feb. 24.

For a year the board of Catherine’s House struggled with the financial problems that were facing the agency that serves low-income teen mothers and their children in Little Rock.
On Jan. 24 the board made the decision to shut down the Catholic-supported program after 10 years of operation. Its doors will close Feb. 24.
In 1995 Catherine’s House was started with a grant from the Sisters of Mercy Health System and named after the order’s founder, Sister Catherine McAuley. The sisters were looking at ways to support “innovative health care programs” and saw promise in the mission of Catherine’s House. Since it was established, the religious order has continued to financially support the agency along with dozens of state and city government agencies, other charities and churches, including Christ the King and Our Lady of the Holy Souls churches in Little Rock and Immaculate Conception Church in North Little Rock.
Catherine’s House has been led by a Sister of Mercy for the past five years and employs two other sisters on staff, but the agency was an independent corporation and not owned by the Sisters of Mercy.
“We needed to make this decision,” said Suzanne McCarthy, board president and member of Christ the King Church in Little Rock. “The Sisters of Mercy over the years have been abundantly generous. It is extraordinary what they have done as far as being a shepherd to this place.”
In the end, the effects of Hurricane Katrina and the poor economy made it even more difficult to operate a non-profit, director Sister Ann Hardcastle, RSM, said. Because Catherine’s House depended almost solely on donations and grants, over the past year it has been harder to fund the program’s basic operating expenses, Sister Ann said.
Most grants go toward only paying for program coordinator salaries and materials, not building maintenance, administration salaries and insurance. Of the $750,000 in annual expenses, Sister Ann estimated at least $150,000 is spent on administrative costs. Twenty-five people are employed by the agency full time.
Catherine’s House was started with the idea of addressing the problem of teen pregnancy in Pulaski County. Because teen mothers are more likely to drop out of school, live in poverty and become dependent on government assistance, the agency wanted to address all of the issues the teenage girl might be facing. These include school, health and abstinence education, parenting and life skills, jobs, childcare and transportation.
Catherine’s House includes a teen program and tutoring, childcare for 72 children from birth to 4 years old and an after-school program for 30 children, ages 5 to 11 year olds.
“We know and believe that a successful program to address the problem of teen pregnancy requires all of these things,” Sister Ann said.
Sister Ann said the program has been successful with the girls it has served. As many as 40 teen mothers have been served at one time, but the average attendance has been around 15 girls ages 13 to 19 years old.
In 1996 two girls graduated from high school. In 1997 10 graduated and in 1998 13 graduated. Each year since then, the program has seen at least four to 10 girls graduate.
“Some of our first graduates have completed bachelor’s degrees and one or two are working on master’s degrees,” Sister Ann said. “They have become breadwinners. And their children are not only surviving but they are healthy … It has been a small population that we have served, but we have had a good success rate.”
Currently, 17 teens who are pregnant for the first time or have had a child are enrolled. Two social workers support them during an after-school program Monday through Thursday. They are provided with tutors/mentors from Philander Smith College and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and offered support services and basic needs.
Parenting and life skills training are an important part of the program. A volunteer nurse or doctor has visited to give advice in child rearing and development. At a recent session, a yoga instructor was brought in to lead a class for the girls.
Sister Ann said the socialization among the young mothers cannot be overlooked.
“One of the difficult things once a girl becomes a teen mother is socialization,” Sister Ann said. “Many of them drop out of school … It’s a terrible burden for them to bear.”
Seventeen-year-old Nadia Wynn and her 18-year-old boyfriend, Jayron Johnson, attend Parkview Magnet High School while raising their four-month old son, Jayron Johnson Jr. Wynn, who attends St. Edward and Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Little Rock, is sad to see Catherine’s House close but is grateful for the support she received from the Sisters of Mercy and other staff members, especially social worker Portia Arnold.
“They taught me how to be a good mother and they taught me how to be a good student,” she said. “I thought it was going to take me a lot longer to graduate if I hadn’t got pregnant, but they helped me. My teachers helped me. I’m still getting good grades.”
Wynn is currently working at a day care while attending school. She hopes to one day be a kindergarten teacher.
The Child Development Center has been a symbol of Catherine’s House in the neighborhood, but the teen program is the central focus, Sister Ann said.
“Our focus is to address the issue of little girls becoming mothers too soon,” she said. “The tragedy is not that another child is born. The tragedy is that a child — the mother — does not have a childhood.”
Offering a quality day care program is vitally important for children of teen parents and other parents who live or work in downtown Little Rock.
McCarthy said it was in the interest of the teens, their children and the agency’s employees that Catherine’s House not continue to operate. By Dec. 31, a $50,000 deficit had accumulated.
“That was an important signal to us to look at what is going on … What is the fair and just thing to do?” McCarthy said.
The Catherine’s House board voted to revert the building back to the Sisters of Mercy Regional Community in St. Louis, which could lease the building to a similar agency or sell the property.

Malea Hargett

Malea Hargett has guided the diocesan newspaper as editor since 1994. She finds strength in her faith through attending Walking with Purpose Bible studies at Christ the King Church in Little Rock.

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