News+Opinion » Will Moredock

Saving Florence Crittenton

She may be old and dowdy, but she is still needed

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For 111 years, the Florence Crittenton Home has been Charleston's refuge for pregnant and unwed women with no place else to turn. For 11 weeks it has been the work address of Greg Liotta, the new executive director.

When Liotta came to Florence Crittenton, he found a dowdy old institution that some think is in its last days. He is determined to prove them wrong, but he has a lot of work to do.

For one thing, the Crittenton Home is several hundred thousand dollars in the red. Public funding sources are drying up as state and local politicians tighten their budget belts.

Another problem, critics say, is that circumstances have changed and that the Crittenton Home has outlived its time. When the Crittenton family launched the nationwide movement 125 years ago to provide shelter to unwed mothers-to-be, it was the height of the Victorian Age. Attitudes toward women and sex were quite different from what they are today. The young women served by Florence Crittenton a century ago were white, and many came from middle-class homes. They needed to leave town for a few months to have their babies, put them up for adoption, and return home to resume their lives.

The young women who come to the Crittenton Home today are from the bottom of the social ladder, poorly educated, with few social or material resources.

"The movie Juno was a story about a middle-class kid who gets pregnant, but she has supportive, understanding parents," Liotta said. "This is how mainstream media portrays pregnancy today. But the truth is that a pregnant young woman (without a husband) is the tip of an iceberg of social and economic problems."

Those problems include South Carolina's historic poverty, poor education, low birth-weight babies, and high infant mortality rate.

The average age of a woman who arrives at Florence Crittenton is 17. She typically comes from a broken home, a household without books or newspapers or other reliable sources of information. She was likely born to a single mother. The five to six months she spends at Florence Crittenton are probably the first days of her young life in a quiet, secure, drug-free, alcohol-free environment. Liotta and his staff have that short time to train the young women in prenatal and postpartum care, good nutrition, and other skills they will need to return to the world with their babies after delivery.

Those are Florence Crittenton's short-range goals. The long-range challenge for this venerable old home is to find a place for itself in the modern world — and to pay its debts. Toward those goals Liotta presents a bold plan.

The home has a large backyard and a 50-year-old chapel adjacent to the main building on St. Margaret Street. "We were just using this space for storage," Liotta said. "We were filling up the yard and chapel with junk that we were no longer using ... This space is valuable. It should be generating money or providing some kind of resource other than storage."

Liotta put out a call for help. Over the last month some 40 volunteers have come out on Saturday mornings to paint, make repairs, and lay carpet in the old chapel. When it is finished in a couple of weeks, not only will it be a place of rest and reflection for Crittenton's clients and staff, Liotta plans to use the space for support services and classes in prenatal and postpartum yoga, children's yoga, infant massage, reiki, and other modern health and healing techniques. And, for a small charge, he will make these classes available to women and children in the larger community. It's a way to turn the old chapel into a source of income for the home and a bridge to the outside world.

Other individuals have offered to help in planting a garden in the backyard. Liotta hopes to use the space to grow herbs which can be distilled into body care products for sale. It's a plan which offers income for the home and a chance for his young clients to learn valuable skills and personal responsibility.

It's a radical transformation for this stodgy and socially isolated institution, and Liotta has done it all with donated money, materials, and labor. If he succeeds, Charleston could become a model for other Florence Crittenton homes around the country.

Want to help? The Florence Crittenton Home of Charleston will hold a fund-raising auction of original art by Ginny Hancock, flutes by Hawk Hurst, a portrait by artist Eleyna Shakur, handmade jewelry and more. The event will be hosted by Villa de la Fontaine Bed & Breakfast, 138 Wentworth St., 6 p.m., May 15. Come out for a pleasant evening of wine and hors d'oeuvres and tell yourself you are doing it for the kids.

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