Shelter and support for pregnant homeless momsQ&A with Joella Bush: Nonprofit Journal Project

Joella Bush is the executive director of Gianna House in Eastpointe. The nonprofit provides education and life skills programming to support pregnant women and mothers at risk or lacking safe housing to transition to independence. Gianna House also touches the lives of hundreds of low-income families offering supplies, baby items, and educational opportunities through a Community Outreach Program.

Who is Gianna, and why is she part of your organization’s mission?

St. Gianna Beretta Molla was a pediatrician in Italy in the early 50s. Doctors discovered a tumor on her uterus when she was pregnant with her fourth child. Gianna allowed the surgeons to remove the tumor but not to perform the complete hysterectomy they recommended, which would have aborted her baby. Continuing her pregnancy, she told her doctors to save her baby’s life at all costs, even if it meant she would lose her own. After having a successful Cesarean delivery, Gianna died from an infection seven days later.

Our founder, the late Sister Diane Masson, wanted to carry on Gianna’s legacy and vision and help homeless young women and children. She acquired this former convent building and opened a community outreach program in 2015. Gianna House opened its residential facility in 2019.

What brought you to Gianna House? Can you share a rewarding aspect of your work?

I became involved with Gianna House in 2019 when I served here as an intern through the Oakland University social work program. I have always had an infinity for working with moms and babies because I also was a teen mom. Following my internship, I joined the Gianna House board of directors. In 2021, I stepped into the role of executive director.

When you see a young lady transition out of our program—you see that smile, and you see that she's happy and healthy because she’s received the behavioral health, the medical help, the physical care, and the emotional support she has never had—it's so rewarding.

Can you tell me about your community outreach program?

Our Community Outreach Program provides education and support to moms of all ages and families within the Tri-County area and beyond. Through our Baby Bucks Program, they can access baby and mom essentials such as diapers, formula, wipes, playpens, car seats, baby bottles, toiletry items, and breast pumps at no financial cost.

It’s a phenomenal program because it assists women and families who are just shy of making ends meet. Maybe they’re running short on pay that week, or their child support is behind. Being able to come to Gianna House to get their Pampers and formula, which are very expensive, can make a big difference in filling that financial gap. Suppose you’re a few hundred dollars short on your rent or mortgage at the end of the month. That can quickly impact whether you can continue living independently in the community or if you will find yourself in a shelter such as Gianna House.

How does the Baby Bucks Program work?

The Baby Bucks Program is an online educational program offering about 200 workshops on various topics: early pregnancy, co-parenting, mental health, religion, tips for the working mom, etc. Our participants decide what workshops they want to take—each has a pre-test, a lesson, a homework assignment, and a post-test. Upon completion, participants earn Baby Bucks they can redeem at our Gianna House boutique for needed items. We aim to provide the community with what they need, and we also want them to have some skin in the game. We don't want to be a handout; we want to be a hand up. But to be clear, we will never turn anyone's needs away.

Do you ever have any inquiries from fathers who are raising children?

During my time here, we've had three fathers that have requested assistance. One was a grandfather who stepped in to raise his grandchild who was in foster care. He had no baby items or the financial assistance needed to take this on. He learned about our program and began participating, taking classes, and coming every week to redeem his Baby Bucks for diapers and formula. We've also had two dads with custody of their children, who want and need assistance, participate in our program.

Can you tell me about the residential program at Gianna House?

Our residential program is for young women between 18 and 25 who are homeless, pregnant, or have a child under one-year-old. We’ve converted eight bedrooms of this former convent into mommy-and-baby suites where we can provide residential services to four young women and four babies.

People often ask why we aren’t serving more people, but our young ladies come from dark, cramped spaces - they've been living on the streets, in vacant buildings, couch surfing, squatting, and may have been victims of human trafficking. They've experienced trauma-filled backgrounds, so we want them to have a spacious area where they can live with their child for the duration of their pregnancy and up to one year after giving birth. We provide free room and board, food, and transportation, connecting them to medical benefits and prenatal care. Once we've addressed those basic needs, we can work on other areas where they may struggle.

We help our young women complete their high school diplomas or get their GED if needed. We work on financial literacy, building coping skills, job training, and placement. We teach each mom (and co-parenting dads) infant first aid and CPR. Our young ladies have the support of a case manager, a house supervisor, a pregnancy coach, a doula or midwife, one-on-one mentors, and opportunities for many parenting and enrichment classes.

What does it look like for young women transitioning out of Gianna House?

During our time together, we are immediately working to prepare them for independence and self-sufficiency. We help our moms sign up for low-income housing and begin the house and apartment-hunting process early to create budgets toward those financial goals. Before they leave, we work with them on finding actual housing. We’re always encouraging our young women to save money while here. Gianna House has assisted transitioning residents with things like security deposits. We’re looking for supporters willing to match the amount a young woman saves toward her moving costs.

About four to six weeks before their program ends, our young ladies can move into our transitional unit on our grounds. It’s a full-size one-bedroom apartment where they can experience a little independence while still having the support of Gianna staff close by. In this transitional space, they still follow our program guidelines, including simple chores and communal cooking, and always ensure the baby is cared for. This space is one of the first things I show our guests when they start our program because we want them to have something to look forward to, which they do.

After residents leave, our program manager and case manager follow up with them 30, 60, and 90 days later, as well as one year. We consider this our post-care responsibility. We want to know how mom and baby are doing and if either needs anything. Often our residential clients connect with our community outreach program to continue receiving regular support.

How can folks get involved with the mission of Gianna House?

We are always looking for volunteers with unique skills and talents, whether they are social media experts or enjoy rocking babies, accounting, gardening, or baking. They may want to come in and teach the young ladies about meditation. Someone can help us update our mom-and-baby suites. Whatever talents and skills the community member wants to share with our young women, we’d love that. Also, if someone has tickets to a Tigers game or another fun event they want to donate, please call or contact us on our website.

Last December, eight pipes burst in our building, resulting in significant flooding, destruction, and the loss of 85% of our donations. We need many items for our moms and babies. There is a wish list for our residential program on our website.

What are you excited about when you look to Gianna House’s future?

We still need to renovate the North Wing of our building, where we can provide residential services for three more moms and babies in that space. We're looking for funders to assist us with the renovation, most significantly a new HVAC system.

I look forward to seeing how people will join forces around this mission and how, through the grace of God, we'll be able to get grant funding. Every day we meet someone in need —someone facing eviction or escaping a domestic violence situation. If we had that site up and running, we could provide more help.

If the Lord is willing, I also look forward to a second Gianna House in three to five years. The need is great, and there aren't many homes that are unique to offer young women who are pregnant and homeless the support they need to stabilize and thrive.

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change, and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.
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