By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published January 26, 2017
EAST POINT—Once a Catholic personal care home for the elderly, the former St. Thomas Manor in East Point is now a place of new beginnings for women in crisis.
The 10,000-square-foot building on Washington Avenue stood vacant for 10 years before its owner, the Archdiocese of Atlanta, donated it to Sheltering Grace Ministry in 2015.
Sheltering Grace, based in Marietta, provides a residence, life skills and workforce training to expectant mothers who are homeless.
This month, three women moved into the building as they work toward better futures. Dr. Ralph E. Bell, executive director of Sheltering Grace, said two more women will be living there by the end of January.
“We started with three just so the staff could work out the kinks,” he said.
Because the building had been closed for a decade, work was needed to update heating and air conditioning units, add new carpet and to refresh the interior and exterior with paint.
“It took us a minute to get it where it needed to be,” said Dr. Bell. “It’s (God’s) time and not ours.”
Bell expressed gratitude for the building donation, which will enable the program to serve more women and infants. The typical client seeking services is 18 to 40 years old, pregnant with few or no resources, family support or prospects for self-reliance.
Several staff members of the new maternity home are working, in the spirit of missionaries, either pro-bono or receiving simple stipends.
“We have just been so blessed,” said Bell. “This is how God works. That cut the staff budget by 50 percent.”
After the building was gifted, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory visited the facility to dedicate its Mary Mother of God Chapel last April.
In addition to the chapel, there is office space, a commons area, a classroom, a beauty salon, a commercial kitchen with adjacent dining room and more than a dozen bedrooms for the mothers.
Class topics include finances, life skills and anger management.
“We’re petitioning the community right now for eight computers,” said Bell.
He is not picky about the type of computer or age, just that it works.
Sheltering Grace’s main office is in Marietta and has a resource center for anyone in the community who needs strollers, diapers or other baby supplies.
The ministry will maintain its Marietta residence, which houses three women.
Pregnancy interrupts technical course
Takneesha Copeland, a native of Connecticut, calls Sheltering Grace home.
Copeland was attending Atlanta Technical College to be certified to work in the heating and air conditioning industry when she became pregnant.
“That’s my career goal. I had eight months left,” said Copeland.
When she learned of her pregnancy, she stayed with a family member until it became too stressful.
“I was tired of being the black sheep of the family,” explained Copeland, 32.
The ministry’s academy program, which includes a partnership with Kennesaw State University, offers GED classes, life skill programs, as well as professional certificate courses through local technical colleges or universities.
“Like for Takneesha, we would see that she would get into heating and air,” explained Bell.
Copeland is expecting a daughter May 30. She will live at the facility for several months after the baby’s birth. This provides a secure place to live while working on educational and career goals.
Each mother’s room is furnished with a crib. The rooms are named for women of the Bible. Warming stations in the hallway allow moms to prepare bottles in the middle of the night.
Charlene James, 29, is also expecting a daughter this spring. When she contacted a homeless shelter, she learned about Sheltering Grace.
“I needed more help than 30 days,” said James. “I can definitely work on my goals and enjoy my pregnancy.”
A lifelong fan of crime and legal television dramas, James hopes to go to law school one day.
“Nothing’s easy. But I believe it’s doable,” she said.
James said if she could go back, she would tell her younger self to stay in school.
“I come from an abusive family, not much family support,” said James. “I actually rebelled against good people who tried to help me.”
Living out of a car
Bell said many of the women served by Sheltering Grace have suffered childhood traumas. Parenting classes and Bible study help change generational patterns.
“Since I’ve been here I’ve learned self-control,” said Copeland.
She admitted she was rebellious and angry in her youth, running the streets of New York. Yet, Copeland is determined to stand by her own daughter, no matter what.
“I’m never going to turn my back on my kids,” she said.
Jessica Potts is expecting her baby in late June. Potts said above all Sheltering Grace is a safe place.
“I was working for $8 an hour and living out of my car,” she said.
Potts has been studying early childhood education online and plans to continue that endeavor.
Bell said the program has a no cell phone policy and a visitation day set for structured time with family or friends. This helps women distance themselves from toxic relationships or unhealthy habits.
“They have to be separate from the environment they are coming from,” said Bell.
Ribbons of Hope, an Atlanta foundation that invests in the lives of women, will be making a walking trail on the five-acre property in East Point. The moms and babies can get fresh air and not have to walk near busy roadways.
James feels it’s a burden lifted since arriving at Sheltering Grace. She urges other women to get help.
“If they’re in an abusive situation, they can come and get peace,” she said.
James has asked Sheltering Grace’s cook, Sheri Morgan, to be present for her delivery.
“I got so teary-eyed,” said Morgan, who lives alongside the women at the home.
Morgan said the volunteers and staff are very maternal and “show a lot of love and care” to clients.
“Our theme for this year is saving babies one mom at a time,” said Bell.
Sheltering Grace graduate gives back
Individuals may support Sheltering Grace through annual or monthly giving.
“We have a three-year campaign going: ‘Be 1 of 5,000,’” he said. “They become members of what we’re calling the Tiny Feet Society.”
“I think people should give because babies are the new beginnings of the world,” said Copeland.
Bell said while the Marietta home has an operating budget of $225,000, the East Point facility requires a larger budget.
“It’s pretty close to $700,000. It’s a commercial facility,” he explained.
Bell is an accountant by profession but now uses a different mode of operation.
“I operate by faith,” he said. “Too many things have fallen into place for it not to be God’s will.”
Working as an independent insurance agent in 2004, Bell began thinking more about the plan for his life.
“I had this overwhelming feeling I was not doing what I was supposed to be doing,” he recalled.
A breast cancer survivor, he began counseling patients and caregivers. Bell has a doctorate in biblical counseling.
A conversation with Caryn Lyng, Sheltering Grace’s founder, ultimately led him to take over the reins.
Lyng asked him to pray for someone to take the ministry to the next level. He agreed to pray but realized at his wife’s urging that he was suited for the job.
“Nothing comes to me without coming through his hands first. God has truly taken it to the next level,” said Bell.
Sheltering Grace obtained a 14-seat passenger bus and then “along comes this place,” said Bell.
“It’s just a matter of staying obedient and waiting,” he said. “God will confirm.”
Bell’s wife, Gerri, lovingly decorated each mom’s room.
“She is responsible for all of this. She is my rock,” said Bell.
Briana Baynham of Marietta is a graduate of Sheltering Grace. Baynham became pregnant with son, Dante, in 2009 and learned of the program from a cousin.
She arrived at Sheltering Grace a few days before her son was born.
“I just made the decision to do it. It was kind of God’s timing,” she said. “All these people were willing to support me.”
A midwife helped with the delivery and Baynham received guidance.
“I had everything I needed for him,” she said. Baynham remained at Sheltering Grace for nearly eight months.
In 2013, she earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Kennesaw State University. She now holds an MBA from the Florida Institute of Technology. Baynham is a financial analyst for Comcast and is raising her energetic son with family support.
She is organizing a Toastmasters group for the women of Sheltering Grace, to help them learn public speaking and to see their own potential.
“Since I’ve been part of Sheltering Grace, I’ve sort of learned what my purpose is,” said Baynham. “I really do enjoy going back.”