By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
INDEPENDENCE — One year after a fire destroyed an Independence shelter for homeless pregnant and parenting teens and their babies, Mother’s Refuge is rebuilding.
A demolition ceremony was held Oct. 8, at Mother’s Refuge, the former convent of Nativity of Mary Parish at 3721 Delridge.
“Since we are rebuilding, not breaking ground,” Robert Zornes, Executive Director, said, “we decided instead of golden shovels we’d use ‘golden sledge hammers’ to start the demolition and gutting of the building.”
He remembers the night of Oct. 8, 2012 too well. After receiving a call about a fire at the shelter, he raced toward Mother’s Refuge. “We could see the smoke in the sky,” he recalled during the ceremony, “and I knew it wasn’t coming from one of the restaurants in the neighborhood.”
The fire, which started in one of the bedrooms, destroyed the residential section of Mother’s Refuge, leaving the young mothers and babies homeless again. The cause of the fire has never been determined.
The demolition ceremony was attended by former and current Mother’s Refuge residents, Independence dignitaries, the pastor of Zornes’ church, Northland Cathedral, and his wife, Mother’s Refuge Board of Directors, local police and fire department representatives, friends, volunteers and Nativity of Mary School’s kindergarten class and their Fifth Grade Buddies, members of the 8th grade Student Senate, teachers and principal Liz Baker.
It took about a year for the insurance investigations and settlement, but now the rebuilding can start, said Cindy Cotterman, president of Mother’s Refuge Board of Directors.
Board members, past and present residents and Nativity school children took turns swinging the sledgehammers at the building.
After his turn swinging, Zornes recalled the night of the fire. “It was heart wrenching to watch the mothers and babies leave with only the clothes on their backs and gift cards from the American Red Cross,” he said. “As our van drove the girls and their babies to the home of a staff member to spend the night, one girl said to me, ‘I now have no home again.’ I keep hearing those words.”
Zornes and his staff worked fast to temporarily relocate the mothers, babies and programs to an empty cottage at Drumm Farm on Lee’s Summit Road in Independence. Brad Smith, Drumm Farm’s executive director, offered the cottage within 24 hours of the fire.
For some months now, housing for the moms and babies has been provided at the Gathering Place Conference Center in Independence.
Donations started coming in right away. Zornes received a telephone call from the Chillicothe Correctional Center’s Women’s Prison right after the fire. Several prisoners had watched TV news coverage of the fire and wanted to donate $500 from a special fund to Mother’s Refuge.
The women sell different items to add to the fund but also gave from their 35 cents an hour wages to make the donation. They told Zornes that they planned to knit baby blankets and booties to send to the young mothers and babies. That was “truly a gift of the widow’s mite,” he said.
Zornes said the second donation arrived the next afternoon. Three sisters donated their piggy banks and food items to help the babies whose home had been destroyed.
“I know what Mother’s Refuge is,” Zornes said, “what it has meant and what it means to the girls. Mother’s Refuge is about helping young people; giving them a second chance.
Mother’s Refuge focuses on helping the most vulnerable; young women age 19 and younger often have the fewest options available. Services are open to any young woman in the greater Kansas City area. Many who have called Mother’s Refuge have shared that it was the first place they fell asleep at night knowing that they were safe from sexual molesters, abuse, drugs and crime, Zornes said.
“We won’t be rebuilding a house,” he added. “We’re building a home!”
Mother’s Refuge clients must continue their education and attend practical education classes in parenting skills, nutrition, job interviewing skills, money management, resume writing and others that prepare them for independence.
Baker said that Nativity School’s relationship with Mother’s Refuge’s began back in the late 1980s when Father Phil Egan, then-pastor of the parish, served on the shelter’s Board of Directors. Then about 6 years ago, kindergarten teacher Christine Everhart, decided it was time for the kids to serve the community. Mother’s Refuge was right down the street.
Since then, the kindergartners spearhead annual collections of diapers, wipes, baby clothes and more for the moms and babies at Mother’s Refuge. Baker said that the class also makes baby blankets at Christmas time. Zornes picks up the collected items each year during the Christmas Program. Every spring, she said, the kindergartners collect paper towels and toilet paper, which are delivered to Mothers Refuge. The children also visit the babies.
“It’s been a long-hard year settling with the insurance company and making plans to rebuild and meet all city and state codes and regulations for state licensing,” Zornes said.
The demolition ceremony lasted about 30 minutes, and after a short time spent ceremoniously picking up debris in one of the rooms in the house, Nativity students headed back to class. Baker said that once back in their classroom, the kindergartners had a prayer circle, praying for the babies, their mothers and that a good home will be built.
Many of Mother’s Refuge clients are homeless and without resources, Zornes said. Insurance makes up only a portion of what will be necessary for rebuilding.
Mother’s Refuge will be hosting a fundraiser, “Taste of Compassion,” 5 – 8 p.m., Nov. 2, at the Truman Memorial Building, 416 W. Maple Ave., Independence. The evening will feature live music and food from local restaurants, a silent auction and raffle. Tickets are $25. For more information, visit www.mothersrefuge.org.