Double Lime Squeezes
by Jeanne Barrett (January 2012)
The new year brings us not one, but two special lime squeezes! These two amazing women have worked together for 20 years to break the cycle of poverty and abuse for countless families!
Meet Martha Ryan, founder and executive director of the Homeless Prenatal Program, and long-time volunteer, Liz Vaughn. These two women’s lives have intersected through the common bond of helping homeless pregnant women and making permanent changes for the women.
Martha Ryan founded San Francisco Homeless Prenatal 22 years ago. “I had heard about homeless women in San Francisco living in shelters, not getting prenatal care. At the time, I was getting my master’s in Public Health, after living and working in Africa - but I found the developing world right here in San Francisco,” says Martha.
Martha had been a Peace Corps volunteer, teaching English in Ethiopia. She had such an incredible experience in Africa that she came home to San Francisco, became a nurse, and went back to Somalia, Uganda, and Sudan, to work in public health. “We trained women in camps to be health care providers for their families, and taught the women basic health care, so they could, in turn, care for the sick people in their communities,” shares Martha. “We helped with malaria and tuberculosis prevention. In 1985, we dealt with four epidemics in six months. The key was controlling the epidemics not so much through Western medicine, but by training the women themselves on prevention, who could then teach the people in their own tribes.”
When Martha returned from Africa, she found herself working as a nurse at San Francisco General Hospital. She started helping women from the Hamilton Family Center, a homeless shelter. About that time, Martha decided to take a grant writing class, in order to better assist the homeless, pregnant women. She knew from her time in Africa that she needed to have a plan to help the women, and then teach them to help themselves. She saw that the women in San Francisco had many issues related to poverty – and that prenatal care was not enough.
Martha received a grant and started the Homeless Prenatal Program. Twenty-two years ago, she had 72 pregnant moms, a budget of $52,000, and friends assisting her. Last year, she had 3,600 families, a budget of 5.3 million dollars, a staff of 68 people, and over 200 volunteers. More than half of her staff is comprised of former clients. “I think the most important thing I’ve done in my life is to listen,” shares Martha. “The former clients that have become staff have taught me so much about what the women need. A good leader hires to his or her weakness.”
This is where mother of five, Liz Vaughn, comes in. Liz heard about HPP and decided she wanted to volunteer. “A family friend wrote to my husband, Greg and I, about 20 years ago, and suggested that we might be interested in helping with the Homeless Prenatal Program,” shares Liz. “I am drawn to helping women and children, and HPP empowers women to help themselves and their families.” Throughout the twenty years, Liz has had many lasting relationships with women in the program. One in particular has lasted 12 years. “I became a mentor to a certain family. Our relationship has grown stronger since my own children are older and away at school. Both of our families are very connected. I am also involved with fundraising at HPP, but my greatest connection to the women at HPP has been through my role in helping with their prenatal classes,” says Liz. Assisting with the prenatal classes has allowed Liz to share her experiences as a mother and make incredible connections with the women, which brings Liz great joy. Liz has mothers who call her from the hospital when their babies are born, and she will show up with gifts and good wishes. For these mothers, it is wonderful for them to have a “cheerleader” in their corner… someone who has a special connection with them and someone who has encouraged them during this period in their lives. “As soon as a woman enters the doors of HPP, they will never be judged for anything, but who they are at that moment. HPP empowers them to succeed, to be good mothers, to find housing and careers, independence, and the opportunity to thrive in motherhood,” explains Liz. “I see that once judgments are banished, progress and confidence thrive. It has been incredible to meet these women and see how the change occurs in their lives.”
Today, a tour of the relatively new facility of HPP in San Francisco is more like visiting a spa/café, than a homeless help center! Beautiful photographs of pregnant women in their last trimester, line the walls. The shots are taken by photographer Keri Vaca. Keri from Small Miracles Photography gives each mother a photograph of herself pregnant, as a gift. Martha, herself a married mother with two children, makes sure that each person who comes to HPP is treated with dignity. The pregnant women are assigned a social worker, who guides them throughout their pregnancy, and beyond. Many women in the HPP program are trained to become community health workers, through a 12- month program. They attend college, and 96% end up with full-time jobs. HPP offers all kinds of support and wellness classes for the pregnant mothers and their families – including prenatal classes, acupuncture, yoga, and infant and prenatal massage. The volunteers at HPP even throw baby showers for the women, complete with homemade knit blankets and photo albums of the special day!
HPP provides a housing program, a home-goods program, and many other programs that address domestic violence, substance abuse and child welfare. They even have a tax preparation office for the working poor.
“Pregnancy offers us a window of opportunity to help someone willing to change. I have never met a pregnant mother who didn’t want to give the best to her child. The common denominator for these women is usually poverty and abuse,” says Martha. “Our mission is to have a partnership to end the cycle of childhood poverty.”
Thank you, Martha Ryan and Liz Vaughn, for caring enough to make life a beautiful experience, filled with dignity and self-respect, for homeless families!
For more information about the Homeless Prenatal Program, please click on: