Many of us began our formal education in Catholic schools, learning our 1-2-3s and A-B-Cs in institutions sharing the dual role of spreading the faith. Many in the community are counting on a special Catholic-influenced organization in Fort Wayne, A Baby’s Closet, or ABC.
Nine Catholic parishes are members of Associated Churches of Fort Wayne and Allen County, according to the organization’s web page, and A Baby’s Closet is one of the organizations through which Associated Churches reaches out to members of the community who could use a helping hand. Through ABC, mothers receive training and obtain needed supplies for their babies and toddlers through incentivized programming. Moms earn vouchers to be spent in the store at 621 East Wayne Street in Fort Wayne, just across the street from the Associated Churches main office. “It is so appealing,” said Kay Felts, member of the ABC board. “Everything is so respectful.”
Participation in the Father’s Day 5K held on Saturday, June 17, at Lakeside Park, was one way to help. Half of the proceeds from the event go to A Baby’s Closet with the other half going to the Associated Churches’ Military Families program. The 5K is held the Saturday of Father’s Day Weekend each year, and is a walk, run, or ruck. Those who select the rucking option carry backpacks filled with baby supplies that are then donated to the cause. The Military Families program offers emergency help for utilities, rent, and medical issues, as well as financial counseling, holiday meals and gifts, and civilian reintegration services, among other work, in a special partnership with the Northeast Indiana Base Community Council, the 122nd Fighter Wing, and the 293rd Infantry Regiment, according to the Associated Churches website.
As for A Baby’s Closet, Felts, who is a nurse practitioner and also a member of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Fort Wayne, said this kind of programming is vital, especially in light of the 6.9 percent infant mortality rate in Allen County. Along with assisting a vulnerable demographic, she said this and related programming grants “accountability for mom.”
Vouchers can be earned in four major areas from a defined group of service providers. Prenatal care like childbirth class or a visit to one’s doctor might earn the currency. Engaging activities to keep one’s new baby well like getting immunizations or taking a breast-feeding class could earn the blue slips of paper to be traded in at the store. Learning more about responsible parenting through safe-sleep classes or smoking-cessation programs could lead to earnings, as could education programs, like working toward a GED.
Betsy Henderson, Director of A Baby’s Closet, makes a point to thank visitors for shopping at the store and walks them to the door after a visit, saying “a lot of places these moms went they were looked down on. You have to treat people with kindness.”
In line with the Church’s pro-life stance, Felts said, “It is really hard for them to break out of it.” Henderson said that the average mom has two or three children. While A Baby’s Closet does not have a maximum age for children to age out of services, many of the service providers who grant the coupons do, Henderson said, which affects visits to ABC. The need for services from ABC is far from on the decline. Last year alone, 8754 individual visits by 1185 moms were made to A Baby’s Closet, creating stacks of coupons from distributed goods backed with a message of family wellness.
Vouchers can be saved for larger items like strollers or used for less-expensive items like new clothes, used clothes, shoes, or toys. For one coupon, shoppers can obtain a package of diapers. The diapers are disposable and packaged daily so that an equitable number is given to each recipient. Henderson said the counting and bagging of these expensive necessities is constant. “It is literally every day.” A book for each child is allowed at each visit, and when infant formula is available, one per visit is permitted.
The highly organized facility also has space for new and gently-used toys. One generous benefactor has lined storeroom shelves with toys to inspire the youngest members of the community. They sit neatly organized next to racks of clothing from preemie to 5T and homemade baby blankets. Originally, a narrower range of sizes was offered, but management soon recognized that many of the moms who visited the store had multiple children of similar age, responding to their needs accordingly. Henderson noted that she is especially appreciative of those toys that have a learning or developmental aim. Some of the crocheted blankets are from a program through Parkview that offers crocheted blankets to hospice patients and ABC.
The development of better health and family preparedness goes on alongside the open hours of ABC on Monday and Wednesday afternoons. At various times, English, Spanish, and Burmese one-on-one consultations about nutrition, breastfeeding, and safe sleep are also available. Henderson said that in many cases, women who take advantage of the services seek to put together how they can best live their lives for both themselves and their babies, looking for overall support. For example, the more formalized programming like the series of ten, ten-minute nutrition lessons offered through Purdue Extension give opportunity for personal conversation as well. No matter what information a mom seeks, attendance at this programming is voluntary, drop-in scheduling, and can earn vouchers.
All those goods distributed come from somewhere, and those in the organization are proactively looking for new outlets with whom they might partner. Felts said, “We’re trying to develop more church engagement.” She cited financial donations from St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Fort Wayne and donated goods from St. Jude Parish in Fort Wayne. Both would like to see more active involvement from area Catholics. Aside from direct giving, St. Jude and other faith groups hold “baby showers.” For these drives, parishioners are notified of times a barrel is placed on the church grounds. During the collection time, commonly a month, baby-centric items are collected and then given to A Baby’s Closet for distribution. Volunteer time is also appreciated.
Felts said that while we are all busy and limited in what we can give and spend, whether recipient or donor, we all hold something even more special in common. “We are all God’s children.”
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