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As a wife and young mother of four and a nurse, Carole Haas didn't know that her future would include many other young mothers and babies. In fact, she ended up with a houseful of them. They came looking for encouragement and wisdom, and sometimes a snippet of humor to add balance to their day.

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Figure. Carole Haas,... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. Carole Haas, RN, visits with moms and babies living at Bridgeway.

Bridgeway, Haas's ministry to mothers and babies, is a form of rescue. It's a place where unmarried, pregnant teenage girls can find shelter, guidance and training in the fundamentals of parenting, as well as unqualified acceptance. Bridgeway, for Haas, is the work God planned for her. God has used this ministry to bless her and hundreds of young women and their children.


On a typical day around the ordinary looking tract house in Lakewood, a suburb of Denver, Colorado, there's the hubbub you'd expect as six or eight teenage girls jostle for use of a bathroom, search for clean underwear or a purse, gulp down breakfast and scoot out the door. Some of these girls are nearing the end of pregnancy; others have already become mothers, and so their morning routine is even more tangled by the needs of their children.


Music blares from a stereo, an infant whines for attention, doors bang open and shut, and occasional grumbling adds to the cacophony of morning sounds. But there's also hope, camaraderie and a sense of safety in the atmosphere. These girls are moving ahead, gaining ground despite the mammoth detour their lives have taken because of unplanned pregnancies.


"I started Bridgeway," says Haas, "because I felt that every baby has a right to a safe place to be. I wanted to give mothers in need a place to have a baby in a safe environment. I'd heard about babies being abandoned in dumpsters and left by the side of the road. Very little assistance was available to pregnant teens when I started Bridgeway in 1986.1 thought somebody ought to do something and realized that somebody isn't always someone else!!"


When Haas perceived that she was that somebody for the unmarried teen mothers in her part of Colorado, she took the idea to heart. "If I'd known then what I know now, I would have said to God, 'I don't know how to do all this!!' But I took it a step at a time, and God has honored my desire. Doors I didn't even know enough to knock on, God opened up. We incorporated Bridgeway in 1986; at the end of 1987 we rented a small place; and in 1988 we bought a three-bedroom house using matching grant funds."


That house has since been home for more than 375 teen mothers and their children. The girls, who are supervised by volunteer housemothers, usually are finishing high school when they come to Bridgeway; a resident's average age is seventeen-and-a-half. Up to ten women can live at the less-than-spacious six-bedroom facility at a time, though it's often not at capacity. Carole explains that girls come to the program in a variety of ways: some arrive from the street, especially during the snowy Colorado winters. Some come because their parents have made a tough love choice, or they've been kicked out of the family home. Carole says it's not unusual that her teen moms are themselves children of teen mothers, repeating a cycle of crisis pregnancies.


In whatever way they enter the program, all the young women calling Bridgeway home have plenty of needs. Prenatal care is a number-one priority. As a nurse, Carole had a keen awareness from the start of the importance of improving the birth weight and lowering the risk factors for both the mother and newborn.


"One of our goals is to see the girls have healthier babies through quality pre-and post-natal care. Teen mothers are at high risk for having low birth-weight babies, about 5.4 pounds or less. The average birth weight for Bridgeway babies is 6.4 pounds."


Carole has tackled the issue by offering a wealth of educational opportunities for the girls, right at the Bridgeway home. "More than 200 classes are taught here each year, all by volunteers," Carole explains. Offered regularly are topics such as nutrition, childbirth, pregnancy, adoption options and child development. Other classes range from employment subjects such as job interview skills, resume writing and goal setting to home-making help (budgeting, cooking) and workshops on psychological and emotional themes (abusive relationships, single parenting, self-esteem, grief).


In addition to these optional classes, each resident is expected to complete her high school education, then to plan for a job or career that will enable her to live independently. "We have a 100 percent rate for girls working on high school completion or GEDs, even though pregnancy is one of the greatest obstacles to girls finishing school in the US," Carole observes. A corps of more than 100 volunteers from the surrounding communities teaches the classes as well as befriending girls one-to-one.


While Carole's motive for starting and continuing Bridgeway is driven by her desire to live out her faith in Jesus Christ, she doesn't require the residents to conform to her spiritual values. "Many of the girls who come to us are not Christians," she says. "We're not a religious organization. But we do want to be good role models, and we give the girls opportunity to get to know God."


A weekly Bible study is available for those who want to participate, and many do. Carole says a large percentage of residents show increased interest in spiritual concerns after they attend the voluntary annual Christian renewal retreat in the mountains, sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese. For a few days, the girls can escape the turmoil of urban living, enjoying a leisurely weekend with fun activities and free babysitting.


Residents also encounter practical Christianity through Bridgeway's volunteers. Most are believers from local churches, and their relationships with the teen mothers usually leave a lasting mark on girls who haven't yet discovered Christ. The volunteers sponsor baby showers for residents, put on a Christmas party each year and make themselves available as friends.


Many volunteers choose to befriend a specific resident in the role of a Bridger. In this one-on-one mentoring relationship, Bridgers, who may be career women, mothers with teens at home or older women, act as big sisters for the teen residents during the length of their stay.


Jaime, a twenty-three-year-old resident, saw how Christian volunteers gave her unconditional support and friendship. "Bridgeway helped re-introduce me to God," she relates. "When I came here, I was told I didn't have to go to the Bible studies or to church. I wondered if the church people who came here to help would look down on me, but they didn't. I can't help but be thankful to them. It's the little things they do, like donating supplies and writing inspiring notes to me. I know churches are praying for us; church people come to visit, and they pray with me and invite me to pray with them. I feel cared for and loved."


While Jaime is taking classes at a local community college and working part-time, her two young children are cared for in another ministry that Carole says God more recently inspired her to start: a child care center that adjoins the living quarters.


"The child care center is a perfect example of how God is taking care of the things I'm concerned about. In my heart I've felt strongly that this is the right thing to do, to provide a place for the girls to leave their babies while they finish their education or work. These are high-risk babies born to teen mothers. Before we started the center, the mothers had to go out and find day care for their babies. It was exhausting and expensive.


"Now the girls take turns working in the center, caring for each other's children. It's less stressful for them, and they're learning positive parenting skills at the same time. They're learning how to be appropriate with babies, and we can keep the ratio at 2:1. The babies are getting lots of stimulation, and the mothers are learning how to be mothers."


The Bridgeway day care center seems to be an excellent complement to the residence program, providing mothers secure care for their children while teaching them necessary parenting skills. Carole says the teen mothers generally need the most basic instruction in parenting: how to feed their newborns, general infant care, child development, first aid and infant CPR.


While giving needed practical help to teen girls in crisis, Carole and Bridgeway are also dispensing a vital dose of hope to desperate young women. Because of their backgrounds and their crisis pregnancies, most of the girls are low on self-esteem and self-confidence. Their prospects for postpartum depression are high; the immediate bonding between newborn and mother is often at risk.


Carole's prayer is that by the time they move out (girls may stay up to eighteen months), they have good mothering and life skills, as well as realistic and positive goals. During a girl's residency, Bridgeway strives to break the cycle of physical and mental abuse common to these teenage parents. The program also gives the young mothers better choices. Those who choose to keep their children receive invaluable education and encouragement to begin making a self-sufficient life for themselves and their babies. About fourteen percent (compared to a national rate of three percent for teen mothers) choose adoption for their newborn and work through local adoption agencies to accomplish the process.


Through fifteen years of helping teen mothers adjust successfully to the courses their lives have taken, Carole has been a godmother to a plethora of babies. She's been like an aunt or good friend to hundreds of young women, burped and tickled and swaddled hundreds of infants. However, it has not always been an easy or clearly marked road.


"But it's neat to see these girls blossom," she says. "Sometimes we just water the seeds, and we may not see the result. Some girls have chosen to leave; they don't want to follow the rules. We do pretty well, although there's always more you can do."


"I pray every day and give this work to God. I tell him, 'You are the executive director.' I want Bridgeway to be what he wants. I want to be his hands, his feet, his eyes and ears. I pray that regularly. I know I'm growing in my trust in God. When I'm feeling stressed, I remind myself that this work is the Lord's. And I've seen him work over and over."


With those words, Carole stoops to talk to a toddler while cuddling a wide-eyed infant. Teen moms and expectant girls move along with their agendas for the day, gathering formula and diapers, concentrating on homework or scheduling a job interview. The garbage bin is overflowing with used diapers, a phone rings, doors slam and creak open. It's another day, one with attainable hope and promise, in a seemingly ordinary house in suburban Denver.