“Can you help us?”
Those four words, spoken to Chris Bell in 1979, have led to hundreds of babies and young mothers in the ensuing years finding shelter, life skills, compassion and a future.
Bell was living and working in New York’s Times Square at the time, helping homeless and runaway kids there. Though he’d encountered a lot of different people in his work, he admitted to me during an interview on Christopher Closeup that he was “taken aback because I didn’t imagine with all the homeless in the city that there would be a young mother and a baby.”
When he asked her what happened, she explained that when she found out she was pregnant, she was happy at first because she thought she and her boyfriend would start a life together. Her boyfriend’s response to the pregnancy was, “Get rid of this thing.” The young woman felt so alone and depressed that she considered killing herself. But she realized the baby inside her was innocent, so she couldn’t do that. Then after her daughter was born, her mother kicked her out of their home saying that she should be out on her own.
That’s what brought her to the shelter where Bell was working off Eighth Avenue. “Can you help us?” she asked him while holding up her baby.
“I instinctively said yes,” Bell recalled, “ but I soon found out there was very little help. It was true then and it’s unfortunately still true today. There’s very little help for a mom with a child. That’s what led to us eventually creating Good Counsel Homes.”
As explained on their website, “Good Counsel is a nationally recognized nonprofit leader and innovator in creating supportive residential care and community-based services for homeless, expectant, and new mothers and their children in the context of the Catholic social tradition. With headquarters in Hoboken, New Jersey, where Good Counsel was founded, Good Counsel today operates five homes. Four in New York State: in the Bronx, Harrison, Spring Valley and Staten Island, and one in New Jersey: in Riverside, just outside of Camden, one of America’s poorest and most violent cities.”
The homes have become a lifeline to desperate women since they were founded in 1985. Bell says, “A mother can come to our homes in New York and New Jersey and other homes like it throughout the country – and she can go back to school or she can begin a job or stay in a job that she’s in. Even though it’s illegal to fire a pregnant woman because she’s pregnant, that also often goes on. So many young mothers who are pregnant and haven’t finished high school need a good bit of encouragement and direction so they can finish school, and maybe even go on to college. So at a Good Counsel Home when a mother comes in, we assess her educational levels. She may have graduated high school, but may not be that good at reading or math. We help her along and encourage her to get into college or a vocational training program, to do something that will help her take that next good step in her life. A mom at a Good Counsel Home can stay a year. Some of them stay a little bit longer depending on what they’re doing. We have a young woman who was in college. She is pregnant. She was told she couldn’t stay where she was. She looked us up on the Internet and knocked on our door. She’s returning to school now…because we have babysitting in our homes. ”
In addition, life at Good Counsel Homes fosters a spirit of community that many of the young women may never have experienced. Residents help prepare dinner for up to ten moms staying there at one time, then they say grace and eat together.
The practice of faith is also encouraged. Chris says, “We have a chapel in each of our homes, and every day the staff and the moms gather for some kind of praise or petition because God knows we need prayer every day. But the women are invited. It’s not mandatory that they go into the chapel, but we invite them because we want them to get to know our Lord. It’s rare to find a mom who doesn’t believe in God, but usually there’s that fear that ‘I’ve done something wrong. God is gonna get me.’ So the message of a loving, forgiving God – that Jesus is here for us, that He died for us – that’s really a message that has to be proclaimed and be shown. And it’s shown when somebody calls us and says, ‘I don’t know what to do. My boyfriend is going to kick me out. My mother tells me I can’t stay home because I’m pregnant.’ And we just say, ‘We can help you. Come to our Good Counsel Homes.’”
In the years he’s done this type of work, Bell has faced many challenges – and new ones seem to crop up all the time. But Bell persists in his mission. As the inspiration behind his persistence, Bell credits the good example set for him by his family when he was younger – and even the stories about positive action he read in Christopher News Notes, which his mother received.
The young mothers he helps are also an inspiration for him to continue his work. He says, “We have a few Moms, who were in our residences, who have gone on to college, and are now working with us because they want to give back. It’s so beautiful and encouraging to see. And we know it’s only through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that any good can come of where we’re at. “
(The Good Counsel Homes Helpline, which you can call from anywhere in the United States to receive assistance, is 1-800-723-8331. Their website is GoodCounselHomes.org.)
To listen to my full interview with Chris Bell, click on the podcast link:
Christopher Closeup Podcast – Guest: Chris Bell