A dream come true

Family Nurturing Center of Central New York launches new project
By claudia mathis / SUN staff writer

UTICA — Donna LaTour-Elefante’s and Colleen Cavallo’s dream has materialized. At the beginning of August, Evelyn’s House, located in the former Our Lady of Lourdes Convent in Utica, will open its doors. Evelyn’s House was designed to provide a safe, nurturing, transitional home and supportive educational services for up to seven girls under age 22 who are pregnant or parenting and have no suitable place to live.
“This has been a 10-year dream,” said Latour-Elefante, director of the Family Nurturing Center of CNY in Utica, an agency established in 1988 to provide family education and support services. “Our agency has always worked with young moms, and, realizing their struggles, we wanted to provide a more long-term support system for them.”  Evelyn’s House, the newest project of the Family Nurturing Center, is a positive response to the potential risks of adolescent childbearing and the immediate dangers of families becoming homeless.

Through their work at Family Nurturing Center, program planner Cavallo and Latour-Elephante became aware that girls who were in need of a place to reside were being sent to Community Maternity Services in Albany. “It was so far away,” said Cavallo. “There hasn’t been a maternity home in this area since the 1960s.” 
Both Cavallo and LaTour-Elephante have been the driving force behind the Evelyn’s House project. “We knew we didn’t have the funds, but we were both dedicated,” said LaTour-Elephante. “We found a grant opportunity with HUD. They applied for the grant two times, receiving the grant on the second try.  
Donald Van Waes was also instrumental in the planning and development of Evelyn’s House. When he heard that the Family Nurturing Center was applying for a grant, Van Waes offered his help. He, too, had a vision to open a home for young women. As a former architect, Van Waes suggested that the vacant Our Lady of Lourdes Convent would be a suitable facility for the proposed women’s residence.
Father Joseph Salerno, pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, welcomed the proposal for the home with open arms. “I’ve been excited about it from the very beginning,” said Father Salerno. “We thought it was worthy of our support as a Catholic parish. The building has always played an important part in the well-being of special women and now it will continue to do so.”
Federal and state grants were acquired to partially fund the operating costs of Evelyn’s House. A capital improvement grant for the renovations of the building was received from The Community Foundation of Herkimer and Oneida Counties. A grant for startup and first year operating costs was received from the Margarets Gaffney & Van Waes Fund of the Community Foundation of Herkimer and Oneida Counties.
LaTour-Elephante said a deluge of community support has had an immeasurable impact on the development of Evelyn’s House. Within weeks of the announcement of the formation of Evelyn’s House, gifts arrived from women’s groups, churches, service clubs and individuals — gifts such as new baby clothes, supplies, furniture, appliances and donations of cash. Final renovations and furnishings were accomplished by many hours of volunteer labor and donated materials. 
The young mothers at Evelyn’s House will learn parenting and life skills to help them raise their children and remain independent. The staff and volunteers at Evelyn’s House will guide the young women to achieve their goals for healthy living practices, nurturing parenting, positive family interactions, household skills, education and employment, avoidance of subsequent adolescent pregnancy, independence without public welfare and readiness to acquire suitable permanent housing. “We want to help them become the people they were meant to be,” said LaTour-Elephante.  
“The staff and volunteers offer a wealth of services,” said Cavallo. “Each girl will have an individual assigned to her who will meet with her weekly, guiding her through a special program which keys into the needs of adolescent parents. The number of volunteers who have offered to assist the young women is overwhelming. Most of the volunteers are from the Our Lady of Lourdes Parish. Teachers have offered to tutor the women; others have offered to teach them to sew and others have offered to teach them the art of scrap booking. Our local BOCES will assist them in completing their GED. The Knights of Columbus donated a new refrigerator, stove and dishwasher and also provided some people to build a wall on the second floor of the building. The Christ Child Society gives us many gifts.” 
In addition to receiving parenting education, Evelyn’s House residents also learn about nutrition and food preparation skills from representatives of the Cornell Cooperative Extension.
In addition to being homeless, parenting or pregnant, and under the age of 21, an individual must be ready in other ways to qualify for living at Evelyn’s House. After Kristin Rasmussen, a co-director at Evelyn’s House, interviews a potential resident, she determines if the young woman is someone who wants more than shelter — if she is ready and willing to change her behavior in a structured, supportive environment. “This project is a wonderful opportunity to assist a segment of our population that needs guidance and support,” said Rasmussen.
The presence of LaTour-Elephante’s mother Evelyn is prevalent throughout the new residence for young women. Cavallo said three years ago, when she was completing the final grant application, she suggested that the facility should be named Evelyn’s House after LaTour-Elephante’s mother. “Donna said her mother would have loved seeing this happen — she loved having babies in her house when she [Donna] was growing up,” said Cavallo.
“I feel a very strong, spiritual connection to the project,” said LaTour-Elephante. “I made it my mission to have a portrait done of my mother.”  An artist, who volunteered her talents because she believed in the project, completed the portrait. The portrait, which Latour-Elephante said was painted from a photograph taken of her mother when she was 21 years old and was starting out in life with lots of potential, now hangs on a wall in the living room of Evelyn’s House. The portrait will be dedicated at an open house in September.
The project’s financial needs will be ongoing and fund development will be a continued priority. LaTour-Elephante said the agency needs to raise $180,000 more for the residence’s first year of operation. Sponsorship is urgently needed for the part-time staff who provide overnight supervision, help with morning routines, greet mothers returning from school, guide cooking and household chores, help with homework or hold a baby while a mom is occupied with something else.
To learn more about offering a contribution, volunteering or making referrals, call Evelyn’s House at (315) 733-0236 or Family Nurturing Center Offices at (315) 738-9773.

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