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Center offers hope for young mothers in need

Residents of the Hope Center work on Christmas crafts that will be given to people who have supported the home, which is in the countryside near Riga, Latvia.
A UMNS photo by Håkan Wiik.


By Tim Tanton*
Dec. 12, 2007 | RIGA, Latvia (UMNS)

Rigonda Verdenfelde, 29, is the house mother at Hope Center.

The love of her mother helped Rigonda Verdenfelde endure a rough childhood. Today she is modeling that love for teen mothers with troubled backgrounds.

Verdenfelde, 29, is the house mother of The United Methodist Church’s Hope Center, an outreach ministry in the remote countryside northeast of Latvia’s capital city, Riga. Not much older than the girls who come to the center, she understands the dysfunctional family experiences that they share. She also knows most of the girls have not experienced a mother’s love.

"I very much want to give them a sense of what true love is about and a need to love their babies," she says in Latvian.

As she stands near the Hope Center’s kitchen, the sound of babies crying punctuates the air. Verdenfelde’s translator, the Rev. Gita Mednis, steps away to escort a toddler out of a cupboard under the sink. At a table nearby, some of the young mothers are crafting Christmas cards for people who have helped them.

"Some of these girls would not be alive today" were it not for the Hope Center, says Mednis, district superintendent of Latvia’s 13 United Methodist congregations and pastor of First United Methodist Church in Riga. A few of the girls were living on the street, going up to strangers and asking to go home with them, she says.

Signe came to the center after police found her living with her baby in a tent in Riga. At the time, she was pregnant with her second child. Today, her toddler, Lienite, ambles around the room, smiling widely at a group of visitors and approaching one and then another with outstretched arms. Baby sister Estere slumbers nearby.

For Signe, the center is a second home.

"I’ve learned a lot," she says through a translator. "I know how to take care of my child. I know how to cook."

Building self-esteem

Nestled off a dirt road near Straupe, about an hour and a half from Riga, the center provides a quiet setting where the young women can focus on caring for their babies. The church bought the unassuming brick structure, originally conceived as a cheese factory, finished it, and turned it into a group home with six private rooms plus communal areas. Mednis wants to limit the number of mothers to six or seven in order to maintain a family atmosphere.

Katja, one of the mothers at the Hope Center, is planning on moving out with her baby in December, when she turns 18.
A UMNS photo by Tafadzwa Mudambanuki.

Since February 2006, Hope Center has provided 13 girls with a temporary home and equipped them with basic child care and life skills.

"That’s our whole goal, to equip the girls to live on the outside," Verdenfelde says. She often has her own children and husband on hand to help.

Equally important, the center tries to build the young mothers’ self-esteem.

"Most of these girls suffer from terrible self-esteem because they have been told they are the lowest of the low," Mednis says.

In most cases, the children’s fathers are no longer part of their lives, though Lienite is an exception. Her father and paternal grandfather visit her and provide support not only for her but also for her half-sister, Estere.

Leaving the center

The young women leave Hope Center when they turn 18, the cutoff age for assistance from Riga’s social services agency. The agency provides the center with 7 lats per girl per day—the equivalent of almost U.S.$15. Kristine was the first at the center to reach 18. She left in late November with her daughter, Karina. She will be followed by Katja, who will leave with daughter Emilija in December.

Kristine attends school nearby three times a week and spends the rest of her time with her daughter. Katja travels to Riga once a week for classes in a special program. Otherwise she focuses on caring for her daughter and seeking an apartment. Their future plans consist of living with their boyfriends, finishing school and getting jobs.

Asked about careers, the girls shrug. Kristine says she thought about becoming a chef or cook, but now is not sure. Katja says that she, too, once wanted to be a cook.

A third mother, Julija, says she had considered police work. At 22, Julija is the oldest of the women served by the Hope Center. She is now living with two other young women in a second Hope Center home that the church opened in the town of Liepa. That home serves young mothers over age 18.

"Before I got to the Hope Center, I was on the street with a child in my hands," Julija says through a translator. "…I am not on the street any more."

Trusting in God

For Mednis, the Hope Center ministry has been a journey of faith. The journey began while she was pursuing the renovation of an old wooden building next to First United Methodist Church in Riga’s old town area, with plans to turn the structure into a center for young, pregnant women in need who want to keep their babies.

Young mothers (from left) Signe, Katja and Kristine have found refuge at the Hope Center.

Amid those plans, she says, the church heard God calling it to tackle another problem: providing sanctuary and help for young mothers who already had delivered their babies and had nowhere to go.

"We were not ready," Mednis says with a smile, "but when God says, ‘This is what you need to do,’ we started doing it."

They joined efforts with Verdenfelde, who was already helping two young mothers in trouble and wanted to do more. "It’s been my dream for the last six years," she says.

Money remains a challenge. More staff is needed, and financial support is critical for renovating the building next to First Church Riga for additional Hope Center work. A Methodist orphanage in the early 20th century, the old building has been empty for many years. Mednis is concerned that if improvements aren’t made soon, the government will take it over, restore it and make the church cover the cost. The estimated price tag for total renovation: about U.S.$1 million.

The Hope Center has had angels. A few years ago, the Methodist Church in Great Britain provided a five-year grant of £36,000 (equal to a little more than U.S.$74,000 today), which has helped cover some staffing costs. Support is also coming through a nonprofit program called Samaritan Hands, operated by Fairview United Methodist Church in Maryville, Tenn. Hope Center is interested in becoming an Advance Special of The United Methodist Church, which would enable it to be promoted through the denomination’s second-mile giving program.

At times, Mednis has wondered how the ministry was going to come together, but God has always provided, and she believes God will find a way. "We’ve been running after God," she says.

On this particular day, that running has entailed bringing a group of visitors to the center. Standing near two cribs, Mednis holds a baby boy in her arms. He is the "miracle baby," she says, explaining that he was born with his intestines growing outside his body. Surgery corrected the problem.

"He was not supposed to live," Mednis says, "but God made sure that he is not only living but is a healthy, beautiful baby."

Miracles are part of the journey.

*Tanton is director of United Methodist Communications’ Media Group, which includes United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Audio: The Rev. Gita Mednis

"The reason we started this …"

"Our goal … is to build self-esteem."

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