New Rose of Sharon board member Sarah Mocherniak-Webb, with six-month-old son Ben, visited The Rose with a car load of Christmas gifts and essentials for new moms that she collected at a party for women in the Newmarket business community. The Fidelity Investment regional sales manager on maternity leave said that since having Ben she couldn’t imagine coping with motherhood without a community of support. Photo by Michael Swan

Making sure young mothers aren’t left out at Christmas

  • December 17, 2021

Not every young woman hears that blessed is the fruit of her womb. More than a few young women are left isolated, afraid, overwhelmed from the moment they know they’re pregnant.

Rather than wait for the Angel Gabriel, the Rose of Sharon in Newmarket, Ont., works hard to connect young mothers — connect them to basic services, food and clothing, education and opportunity. More than anything, the Rose of Sharon connects young mothers to a future.

“We make it happen, going from a young parent afraid of the future to a young parent with a future,” said Rose of Sharon high school teacher Melene Popa.

At Christmas the connection engine at the Rose of Sharon finds another gear. Inside the rabbit warren of offices and meeting rooms, a dozen staff and volunteers are in constant motion — getting gifts in the door and gift baskets out the door to single-mother families across York Region. This year there were 95 mothers on the gift basket list, with anywhere from one to six children — all deserving a moment of warmth, good cheer and charity at Christmas.

Office administrator Shirley Dionne organizes the baskets every year except last year, when COVID lockdowns made the whole exercise impossible. She’s overjoyed to be surrounded by laundry hampers full of toys, books and gift cards again this year.

Dionne makes sure that children get gifts that their mothers ask for, and not just random leftovers. Just like in lots of families, the kids also get books whether they ask for them or not. Each of the mothers also receive a $100 grocery gift card.

Christmas dinner will be as special as it can be for families that otherwise rely on food banks and meals served up in church basements.

Each of the 95 baskets Dionne has assembled this year is covered with a hand-knitted blanket. Volunteer knitters from several churches take on blanket production through the fall.

The gift basket operation is big and Dionne has taken over the entire upstairs of Rose of Sharon’s old office building as she rushes around checking baskets against the completed wish lists.

“It’s a wonderful feeling and the girls just absolutely love it,” Dionne said.

Retired Catholic school principal Tom Colangelo is at the fulfillment end of the production line, loading up his modest SUV with baskets to deliver to families across York Region. His work with the Rose of Sharon was the perfect volunteer opportunity after he retired as principal of St. Elizabeth Seton in Newmarket. He loves to drive.

Colangelo doesn’t think many of the suburban neighbours around him really see the poverty of the young mothers he meets as he drops off monthly care packages of disposable diapers, baby formula and food.

“We would see little snippets of it when I was at school,” he said.

But knocking on the doors of young mothers living in their parents’ basements, Colangelo sees how these young women are locked out of a community of homeowners in single family houses.

That’s where Popa comes in. While a high school diploma might seem like pretty poor protection in a world where university graduates routinely wonder what other qualifications they will need to land a job, Popa knows it’s the necessary next step for her students.

“It gets you a launch-off point,” she said.

Her students are nothing if not motivated.

“They’re here voluntarily. They choose to be here,” she said.

With a baby to feed and nurture and love, the students hoping for a diploma from the York Catholic

District School Board’s York Academy have a new focus and purpose.

“They suddenly know, ‘This is not about me any more,’ ” Popa said.

Through COVID, Popa has been able to offer virtual classes and then hybrid classes that mix live students and remote students attending via the Internet. A local aerospace company provided custom-made plexiglass dividers to keep the live classroom safe. Students get a credit for one parenting course, but otherwise have to qualify in all the same subjects as any high school student — history, math, physics and English.

A partnership with the BOLT Women in Construction Scholarship helps some of the graduates into apprenticeships, but many go on to community college and university programs.

No one at Rose of Sharon is blind to the struggles young mothers face, said executive director Deanne Kukulewich.

“Many of our moms exist on very few dollars,” she said.

Rosie’s Pantry — essentially a mother-and-baby-focused food bank — helps fill some of those gaps, as does Rosie’s Closet with new clothes neatly sorted by size. Knights of Columbus clothing and food drives keep the closet and pantry well stocked.

As inflation creeps up, Kukulewich worries about what further challenges her moms are facing.

“People who have funds are struggling. So, you can imagine,” she said.

But a lot of the support the Rose of Sharon provides isn’t money and isn’t anything money can buy. When lonely, overwhelmed teen mothers walk through the green door at The Rose they meet other young mothers who wake up three or four times a night to check on their babies. They discover they have the same questions and the same struggles.

The Rose provides professional counselling. Early childhood educators staff a room full of subtly educational toys and activities. There’s cooking classes, both live and virtual, that help the moms know what to do with the food they get from the food bank. And there’s even a program for young fathers called “Super Dads with Super Kids.” But more than what the moms get out of The Rose, it’s what the young mothers bring to the centre that Kukulewich marvels at. Sometimes she just watches them navigating their new lives and responsibilities.

“I’m just so proud of them,” she said.

At Christmas, as that star pauses over Bethlehem, Kukulewich knows this is the season of hope and connection.

“We give them hope. The mothers feel welcomed when they come. They support each other through this,” she said.

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