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Born to Serve

By Amelia Eudy
Photography by Scott Smith

St. Gerard Majella, a Redemptorist missionary, was canonized by Pope Pius X in 1904 and is the patron saint of expectant mothers.
Amy Collins and her twin sons, Chris (seated) and John, were given an opportunity toward successful futures thanks to the support Amy received when she was a teenager at St. Gerard Campus, a home for unwed mothers in St. Augustine.

Today, a maternity home and school in St. Augustine named for the saint has helped more than 26,000 women through the uncertainty of facing pregnancy young and alone.

Twenty-one years ago, Amy Collins, of St. Augustine, was a teenager, still in high school and pregnant. Twenty-five weeks into the pregnancy, she discovered she was having twins and four weeks later her premature sons, Christopher and John were born - an event, Amy says, that would never have been possible without St. Gerard Campus.

St. Gerard Campus, founded by Carol Wolff in 1981 and incorporated in 1983, was opened to provide services such as health resources and education for pregnant women in need in four counties of Northeast Florida. Today, 1,500 women visit the campus every year and more call to inquire about the unique operation with an inner-faith Christian high school, licensed daycare, residential program and outreach services; a growth from 20 years ago when Amy Collins became a resident.

&“I was very confused, of course,” Amy, now 37, says remembering moving out of her parents’ house in January 1987 to St. Gerard’s so she could have the opportunity to continue her education.

“I had a lot of people voicing their opinion (about the pregnancy),” Amy remembers. “Some were for abortion, some were for adoption.” But after consulting with her parents and Carol Wolff, Amy chose to keep her baby and pursue her GED.

“I didn’t think that I necessarily had a choice. It finally hit me that I could do this. I have to do this one way or another,” she recalls.

She gave birth to twin boys in April 1987 and spent each “emotionally-trying” day driving to the hospital in Jacksonville, staying “sun-up to sundown” and continued school. The one thing that got her through was her sons.

“Here I was with these two little babies trying to complete my education. Without the St. Gerard [Campus] I wouldn’t have been able to do it,” she confesses. “They not only gave me an education, they helped me stay focused.”

Arbor House in Gainesville and Divine Mercy House in Jacksonville are also places where women 18 and older can find solace and assistance during pregnancy.

Arbor House, founded in Gainesville in 1983 and which will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year, is “a home offering programs for expectant and single mothers as they search for successful plans for their lives and the lives of their children.”

Volunteer coordinator and administrative assistant, Andrea Pence, says this type of assistance is vital in today’s world because there is not enough support for single mothers. “Daycare is expensive,” she adds. “We need more places like this to support women who want to get ahead.”

With the help of programs such as, “New Beginnings,” “Mom’s Place” and “Cottage Industries,” women are provided temporary housing, assistance to find permanent housing, job training, guidance, support and counseling while they complete educational degrees and find work. Some of the home’s goals include helping their clients find self-worth, financial independence, learn stress management, develop life and parent skills and find personal spirituality. Education is also emphasized.

“We meet our residents where they’re at,” Andrea says. “We help them earn a high school diploma, a two-year degree or even a bachelor’s.” This fall, an Arbor House resident who was homeless, single and had a one-year-old son earned her GED. “The more stories we hear the more we realize we need places like this,” Andrea emphasizes. The home can house 13 residents plus children and more than 1,200 mothers and children have been aided since the beginning.

Within the newly-constructed walls of Divine Mercy House, a respect life mission of St. Joseph Catholic Church, single, pregnant mothers are offered an opportunity to fight abortion statistics and bring their children to birth. They are given a loving home, life skills and practical instruction when their families “cannot or will not offer assistance.”

“We provide a nurturing and loving atmosphere where (women) are motivated to improve their lives for the future,” says Dominican Sister Anne Marie Lennon, the home’s executive director.

The new home, located on the parish property of St. Joseph, opened July 1, 2007, and can house up to five women. Last November, the home was hosting its fifth and youngest mother, a 19-year-old. From initial goal-setting plans to job skills training, the women at Divine Mercy House are set on a path to success. Volunteers show the girls how to cook, and community support, like WorkSource of Jacksonville that helps the girls find internships, is helping the women toward successful futures.

Today at St. Gerard Campus, 31 girls (with 22 babies) are being offered classes, daycare, free ultrasounds, adoption counseling and transportation to the hospital and school. Seven women are currently residents at the home. The school has been ranked third of the 60 private high schools in the State of Florida that were rated in Florida Monthly Magazine in 2003. The campus is for teens, but the outreach is for women of any age, Carol Wolff says. St. Gerard Campus also provides baby clothes, diapers, food and counseling. There is a chapel on the campus and teens are encouraged to spend part of each day in prayer. Carol, who is Catholic, has always begun new ventures with Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and is very devoted to the rosary. She has spent 25 years of her life helping her students make their prayers come true.

When women arrive at St. Gerard Campus they are “hysterical,” Carol says. “They’re scared and don’t want to tell their parents (that they are pregnant). They would rather go to an abortion clinic then face everybody. They know they’re welcome here.”

“I don’t think there are enough places like this,” Amy Collins says by phone at St. Gerard Campus. “It’s a scary place to be a (pregnant) teen and not know where to go. You have a lot of questions when facing a decision like that.”
Carol Wolff, founder of St. Gerard Campus in St. Augustine, is proud of the achievements young mothers in her care have made.

After the birth of her twins, St. Gerard Campus helped Amy find housing and put her in touch with people who could help with the babies that needed round-the-clock care once they came home.

Two decades later, Amy, who also has a 19-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter, is extremely proud of and amazed by her first-born sons.

“I didn’t have a whole lot in my corner when we started this 20-years-ago. Somebody did a good job,” Amy says, slow to give herself credit. “They are both amazing children.”

The twins, who will turn 21-years-old in April, have become leaders in their community. Chris has worked as a St. Johns County Sheriff’s Deputy for almost two years and John, who finished Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) school in the fall, is due to begin the fire academy in February to become a firefighter.

“Everyone always jokes about us - [Chris] being a cop and me a firefighter,” John says. “I just like helping people.”

The boys say they were always close growing up and have always felt a need to help others. John credits leaders in the Explorer program - provided through the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Department - who helped him learn about a career in law enforcement. As he embarks on his career, Chris is already thinking about the future and possibly teaching at the fire academy one day.

These courteous, modest men have a lot to give others now, 20 years after their mother’s decision to give birth to them. The twins say they were aware of the help their mother received from St. Gerard Campus but it wasn’t always discussed. “We knew it wasn’t easy her being young,” Chris says.

“I knew she spent time [at St. Gerard’s] and had a lot of help [there],” John acknowledges. “She had a lot to deal with. It’s not easy having kids - having twins - when you’re 16-years-old. She’s special for doing that.”

Amy praises the twins for being “contributing members of society,” but Chris and John give the credit back to her. “She definitely helped us out …kept us in school and made sure we got our high school diplomas,” John said.

“It was courageous, definitely,” Chris says of Amy’s decision to raise her sons so young. “It was a task, but I’m glad she did it or else I wouldn’t be here.”

“They’re well aware it was a struggle to get them where they are today,” Amy says simply. “It wasn’t always easy.

“Nobody thought I could do it or if these kids could grow up to do anything for the community.” Both, Amy states, “have become great young men.”

For more information or to help one of these special homes for unwed mothers, please contact the following organizations.

St. Gerard Campus
Carol Wolff, director
St. Augustine
((904) 829-5516

Arbor House
Gwen Gadaire, executive director
(352) 371-2229

Divine Mercy House
Sister Anne Marie Lennon, executive director
(904) 268-6282

How your money helps saves lives

On Jan. 19-20, a Respect Life collection will be taken up in all parishes of the Diocese of Saint Augustine. Up to 20 percent of the collection can remain in the parish to fund Respect Life efforts. The remaining 80 percent is sent to the bishop who distributes the funds to a variety of pro-life efforts in the diocese, most especially to crisis pregnancy centers and maternity homes. To be eligible for funds, a center or maternity home must operate in full conformity with Catholic teaching.

Past grants have included: $30,000 to A Women’s Answer in Gainesville to help them open their doors as a medical model crisis pregnancy center; and $50,000 to St. Gerard Campus in St. Augustine to assist them in a building expansion and to purchase ultrasound equipment.

Funds from the Respect Life collection are also used to support pro-life media campaigns, post-abortion recovery programs and chastity rallies.

For a list of crisis pregnancy centers in North Florida, visit the diocesan website: Click on the Ministries tab and scroll down to the Respect Life Office. Or call (904) 308-7474.